We all love a good deal and will often go to great lengths in order to get one. But only for a few minutes. Woodbine*, an experimental hub in Ridgewood, Queens, New York, thrifting was entirely free and there wasn’t a catch. Perhaps unsurprisingly, a flood of people showed up to the space 30 minutes before its “Free Store” event was supposed to begin.
People are encouraged not to throw away any items that they don’t need anymore, but to bring them to a free store. They can then take the items they need or want, without any questions. It’s meant to be an experimental space for building an economy based in solidarity, not sales or barter, and to harness the immense amounts of waste and excess generated in capitalist economies. Pop-ups encourage people to gather in one place on a given day. The momentary disruption of norms creates a buzzy atmosphere that can lead to the building of community.
The process of putting together the free store was very simple. It was easy for most of us to get involved. Woodbine’s soccer teams. We went from running around, scoring goals, and high-fiving one another on the field to running around with piles of donated clothes and toys that our neighbors donated. Flyers were distributed in English, Spanish and Mandarin to the neighborhood. Woodbine’s social media accountsSpread the word. We borrowed tables from and clothes racks from Mil MundosA bookstore that celebrates Black, Latinx, Indigenous heritage in Bushwick. They host clothing swaps and distributions with donated items. They also donate any remaining items to other community-based organizations after the free store ends. The atmosphere at the free store was chaotic and crowded. It was difficult to keep track of donations and organize them. But, overall, the event didn’t require that much time or labor.
I overheard someone saying, “They are subverting the store,” which is exactly what we were trying to do. Under the logic of capitalism, you only deserve to “make a living” if you sell yourself and your labor power to a capitalist. Participation at a free shop is as simple as being alive.
People who benefit from the current system — landlords, police, politicians and bosses — rely on mass media and our schooling systems to deceive and dull the population into believing capitalism is the most efficient way, or the only viable way of producing and distributing resources. As British philosopher Mark Fisher famously wrote, “It is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism.” But what currently exists is one way of organizing a society of many, and it isn’t serving most of us. People who are able to imagine and create alternatives that are not governed by hierarchies could be undermining the authority of the current system. We can glimpse a world in which everything is free and built upon voluntary exchange of labor, knowledge, and resources.
The concept of a free store is not new. Up Against the Wall Motherfuckers, “a street gang with analysis,” organized free stores in New York City during the late 1960s. They were popularized by the radical theater group The Diggers in San Francisco and New York City. They are known for their dramatic flair and humorous humor. They believed that everything was theater, and people were actors who could create what they wanted. “When materials are free,” they wrote in 1968, “imagination becomes currency for spirit.” Young Black revolutionaries involved with the Diggers opened a Black People’s Free Store in the Fillmore ghetto of San Francisco in 1967. Roy Ballard was one of the organizers. explainedInterview with the publication about how the free store was opening up the minds of his community Venture:
Our thing in the store is not the black and white issue — we’re far from that. We welcome everyone to the store. The only way we’re going to bring about change is people communicating. Once a person closes his mind, that’s it. Things become one-sided. Brother, I’m going to keep my mind open! This store is bringing forth a lot of wisdom. It’s helping a lot of young ones on the street who are coming in here. And it’s opening their minds to where it’s really at. That’s our whole thing here in this store. Opening minds — to share, to make understanding, to feel for each other. What I’m thinking is what would happen if black people could disaffiliate from money altogether.
More recently, anarchists started organizing “Really Really Free Markets” (RRFMs) throughout the 2000s, which tend to be pop-up events, across the United States. These markets never disappeared completely but media coverage seems to have shown an increase in RRFMs during the past few years. They are being organized by collectives in all cities, large and small. Louisville, Kentucky; Corvallis, Oregon; Avon, North Carolina; Ypsilanti, Michigan; Tempe, Arizona; New Paltz, New York; Athens, Georgia; Jersey City, New Jersey;And in many other locations.
Some of the most important developments in 2015 through 2019 media coverage of “free stores”Was Amazon’s so-called free storesThese are dystopian stores that rely solely on automation and surveillance to bill customers, without the need for a physical checkout.
Anti-capitalist free stores spaces are expected to rebound in 2022 alongside the mutual assistance networks that emerged from the COVID-19 pandemic.
Atlanta has a network that provides free community fridges. It was formed during the pandemic. supported the openingOf The Grocery SpotIn March 2022, a pay as you go grocery store will be opened in. Groceries are free for anyone who can’t pay, and community members with means for paying or donating are encouraged to do so. It’s also a community space that hostsTheir lawn is the perfect place for holiday events, film screenings, and bonfires. They’ve seen an influx of shoppersDuring the summer months, in the midst rising inflation. To kickstart the pandemic, a Minneapolis nonprofit relied on food donations to fuel its operations. opening of two free grocery stores.
Mutual Aid Disaster Relief Richmond (MAD Richmond) has rented a space to host a free store in Northside. This is a lower-income area and food desert in Richmond, Virginia. The collective ran initially during the pandemic. a free supply drive out of a warehouse where volunteers ran a hotline and delivered requested items to people’s homes. Tamanna Sohal, an organizer for MAD RVA, said that they received feedback that participants wanted more control over the items they received. The supply drive model was less able to cater to individualized needs because the group had a limited inventory and people weren’t able to select the brands they wanted. MAD RVA organizers believe that there will be more inventory available at the free space, and that people will have the ability to choose what they need.
“A big part of what we want to do with the free store is prioritize people’s choices in what they’re getting and their autonomy,” she said. “We’re also prioritizing accessibility in terms of location, how our shelves are set up and what we’re offering.”
Sohal also emphasized the collective’s desire to facilitate connections and relationships in the neighborhood. “People can come in with their kids and sit down or sit outside and rest and chat. We’ve been talking about having a really big, comfy seating area, and sitting options outside,” she said. “We know the power of talking to your neighbors, and we’re hoping that having a physical free store will allow conversations between neighbors so that people are letting people around them know that this resource exists. Maybe neighbors will pick up groceries for each other.”
Chicago has many collectives opened a volunteer-run free storeDuring the pandemic, they were at Rogers Park church. moved into their own space. Neighbors joined forces to build an outdoor, do-it yourself store. Clinton Hill, GowanusIn UjamaaNew York City. In January 2022, mutual assistance organizers opened a free store in Chattanooga, Tennessee. A married couple used their retirement savingsTo open a free storeA community fridge in Dublin Virginia. This is a small town of just over 2,500 residents in 2021.
“There’s a really high rate of poverty in Pulaski County, and in a lot of Southwest Virginia and its really common for a lot of places that do offer help to do a lot of means testing and put other barriers in-between people and help,” Hazel Wines, an organizer involved in the free store told VPM News. “And we wanted to remove as those barriers and just be a place where people could help each other. It’s not just food, it’s not just clothes…. Everyone deserves to live a life of dignity and we want to help provide that.”
All these efforts eventually follow in the footsteps a few Indigenous societies like the Navajos, that reproduced communal life for centuries. The colonizers tried to destroy Indigenous communalism in Turtle Island by using warfare and enacting laws such as the Dawes ActThe, which enforced private property rights and dissolution 90 million acres of Indigenous communal landholdings.
Standing Rock’s culture and economy was shaped by indigenous communalism in 2016. They offered huge tents containing blankets and sleeping bags, and they also provided them with a lot of other free items. Meals were prepared and shared for free. (One attendee who stayed several weeks at Standing Rock expressed shock following the incident. being asked to pay for foodHe was able to go back to the store after he left the camp.
Despite centuries of colonialist violence and cohesion, it is still a glue that binds societies together. We may bring a dish to a dinner party if we are invited. If it’s raining outside, we give our friends an umbrella. Every day, we work with colleagues at work. As the late anthropologist David Graeber (and the late political theorist Andrej Graubacic). wrote, “[C]ommunism is not an abstract, distant ideal, impossible to maintain, but a lived practical reality we all engage in daily, to different degrees, and that even factories could not operate without it — even if much of it operates on the sly, between the cracks, or shifts, or informally, or in what’s not said, or entirely subversively.” Free stores embody these nascent communistic impulses, pulling them out of the informal cracks and into the public sphere.
Free stores are often small and isolated units that lack the resources and resilience needed to create power on a large scale to challenge capitalism. What if free stores were spread across a city to include 10, 20, and 30 hubs? And what if they supported each other while coordinating with other grassroots organizers and builders who were willing to share their talents and resources in the projects? A network of free store hubs could be a building block for moving beyond the capitalist system and towards a co-producing economy.
*The author has been involved with Woodbine since June 2021.