Free Shops - easy positive action. A Newcastle story

4.05.2005

I did a Free Shop this weekend, and it was brilliant. Free Shops make a positive stand against landfill, consumerism, social isolation and climate change. Let's have a summer of free shops everywhere - at your local community festival, on your high street and heck, why not, lets have one against the G8 in Auchterarder too!

This weekend I set up a Free Shop at the Newcastle Community Green Festival. By Sunday it was running itself. This report tells you how to do one, and some of the good things you might get out of it.

The resources needed were one small gazebo ( borrowed ), two tables ( borrowed ), a marker pen, a bit of gaffer tape, and a vantrip on saturday morning to deliver the first 10 bags of stuff. All that was left at the end was one bin liner half-full of ripped and muddy binliners and plastic bags - but as many people requested the bags to carry their items away, even that wasn't too bad.

Amongst the items given away were a guitar, three cameras, 7 beech seedlings, 2 conker trees, 6 'teddy bear' sunflowers, a dozen boardgames, at least 20 pairs of shoes, at least 7 binbags full of clothes ( including swimming costumes, pinstripe suits and bras ), at least 30 books, at least 30 cds, at least 20 videos ( both children's and adult ), at least 20 computer games and programmes, crockery, frying pans, a dozen mugs, placemats and ornaments, a dozen bags, playing cards, at least a dozen keyrings, at least a dozen cuddly toys, a bag of minature soldiers, 2 water cannons and a water pistol, bags of marbles and bouncy balls, lockets and neat containers, tea from darjeeling, incense from new delhi, fabric from thailand, hippy clothes and so on. All these things were junk to the people in possession of them, and they were all in immediate danger of ending up in landfill.

This was the first time that I've known a Free Shop to be not just about giving stuff that we've collected away, but for other people to actually bring stuff along and keep replenishing the stock. Taking place on two consecutive days was crucial for this, and it really worked as a participatory exchange system. For example, on Saturday one lass said she was leaving the country in 4 weeks time and needed to get rid of all her stuff, which duly turned up on Sunday. I'd pretty much run out of my collected stuff by Sunday, so the only reason it kept going was cos people kept delivering stuff. I'd wander off for a coffee, only to find another 3 binbags on my return which I could then spread out and shout 'get your free stuff here' and draw another crowd. One individual brought along a whole batch of longlife lightbulbs with slightly damaged packaging, maybe 50 of them?, and we split them into individual lots to spread around.

Children picked up things to give to their parents ( I had to be careful the rude books didn't go to them ), and most pleasing to me, non-hippy local mothers would come along with their kids and fill a plastic bag with the things that appealed to their children. The so-perfect-it-almost-makes-you-retch moment was when a woman appeared with a box of baby clothes. She said 'i've got a load more things in the car. they're everything you need for a girl from 0 to 2 years old' ( a bit specialised, i wondered, for the free shop? ). So she asked for a hand to unload them, and whether I thought they'd be of use to anyone. Then a second woman who'd been going thru stock on the other table said 'well i'm expecting in 5 weeks, and it's going to be a girl'. So I put the two of them together, they had a chat, and off they went to the car - where I think all the stuff got delivered to the 2nd woman's home.

Other high-lights:

Having chatted to me on Saturday, a festival volunteer and his daughter brought along their 4 foot high play-kitchen on Sunday, complete with plastic food and utensils. This was possibly the star offer of the weekend and it attracted a lot of attention, but it finally went to the grandparents of a young girl. Although I'd written 'delivery offered on this item' on it they said 'ah no, we just live over there' and so they carried it off towards the stadium end of the park.

Someone, I forget who, left money on the table so I had great fun shouting out 'even the money is free' and it was ages before anyone took it - in the end we had two blokes rummaging thru the clothes racing to find it, with me going 'warm, warmer, arr your hand almost touched it!'

Several stallholders and performers got really into the free shop too and said it was one of the best things they've seen at a festival in ages. On Sunday for example, when a clown was floating bubbles on the lake, he got pushed in by a gang of lads and, he says, got very close to losing his temper. He was soaked, so he came along to the Free Shop and picked himself up a dry set of clothes and was very grateful for it. ( He also donated a bag of trinkets and assorted items ). A couple of our performers who early on Saturday picked up some clothes, then decided to come back every hour or so to donate one pack of batteries and one set of recharger things each time.

Lots of people were challenged by the idea of things being free and had to get over their guilt or disbelief, but once they did they were all very chuffed. One chinese guy in particular had to keep asking the price of the small items he was taking, because his english wasn't great and he didn't want to make a mistake. One young girl in a wheelchair who came both days, was so keen that I started to get annoyed with her hanging round the stall and trying to get the best stuff as soon as it arrived. Most people however were unnecessarily polite to each other, a little bewildered and scared of getting told off, and the only scramble for items took place when I got some bouncy balls out of the bag and there happened to be 20-odd kids from a steel band around the stall!

Two of us took turns to man the stall. But by the time we were starting to get tired of it on Sunday, two teenage lads who I hadn't met before independently took over and had great fun shouting how everything was free and must go. I'd expected at least a couple of binliners of unwanted clothes at the end, but somehow they managed to get rid of every last bit. I found only one skirt left as litter in the park.

I greatly enjoyed the conversations with people, which covered such topics as how to care for sunflowers, why landfill was bad and got dumped next to where people live, consumer culture, the histories and provenance of items, charity shops, what to do with money instead, and so on. Comments included 'it's made my day', 'all shops should be like this', 'it's not really free is it' and 'if only i'd known i'd've brought...'

I promised people the free shop would become a regular feature at this festival, and will advertise it more widely next year.

Free Shops can also work on high streets, at gigs and on your neighbourhood street corner. A bit of pre-advertising helps but is not essential.