I had a gala to attend. I am not a gala person. I do not have the wardrobe for it. I barely have the wardrobe for a long weekend. Then I found out there was a theme, “Into the Blue.” Now I needed a blue dress for a gala.
The page, singularly devoted to the exchange of free goods and services, has amazed me since I joined in the summer of 2016. I’ve seen a stranger help move a dresser, another mow the lawn of a very pregnant woman and a third visit a neighbor’s yard to give advice on building a habitat for insects and animals. There’s even a woman who likes to iron and will smooth out any clothes you bring by her house.
So I started my post: “Hello! I’m looking to borrow a blue cocktail/gala dress.” I included my size, 14, but didn’t mention that I needed a dress in part because I’d just lost a considerable amount of weight and not much in my closet fit me.
In just a few days, there were 20 comments — some with photos of a potential dress, some with descriptions. I drove around town one Saturday afternoon picking up four to try on.
I already had been the grateful recipient of a leather couch, a vintage overcoat and soba noodles. I’ve also given items including a public transportation pass, homegrown kale and a toddler snowsuit.
The Buy Nothing Project was launched by two friends in Washington state in 2013 as a hyperlocal gift-economy experiment, and it has since expanded to 30 countries with hundreds of sites worldwide. Its website says it will “give you a hands-on chance to take part in a social movement spreading across the globe, enabling people and communities to commit episodic acts of daily good together.”
The groups are different from neighborhood email groups or sites such as Craigslist or Freecycle. The rules for Buy Nothing groups state no selling, bartering, trading or even listing the monetary value of items. It is only a place to give away or ask for free stuff.
It’s even discouraged to suggest where items can be purchased. For that reason, there aren’t any “looking for recommendations” posts or advertisements of any kind. Lending is allowed.
When I drove around that Saturday to pick up dresses, here’s what I got:
Two dresses from the mother of a friend — one was a Victorian-style lace mother-of-the-groom gown, and the other had an Asian style. She also loaned me a beaded blue clutch.
Next I picked up a swingy orange-and-blue-flowered number from a woman I had never met. She also lent me two pairs of shoes. Last, I got a bright blue dress with sequins and rhinestones from an acquaintance who said it belonged to her mother.
Several people in the group became invested in my dress quest and asked me to post photos after the event.
I didn’t want to let them down, so I went all in. I tried on every dress and posted photos of me in them (with shoes). I crowdsourced which to choose, though I was partial to the Asian-inspired jacket dress. I was unanimously voted down — it was decided to be “too funky.” (They were probably just being kind; I am no fashionista.) Sixty-seven comments, “likes” and “loves” later, I would wear the dress with the bedazzled top. The sparkly shoes I’d borrowed from someone else were a perfect match, as was the borrowed beaded purse.
It struck me how much the group was about kindness more than just passing along toys or books. We often call our one-square-mile borough of 11,000 “the village.” Friend groups are tightknit, and we have a mix of people who have lived here for generations, as well as those of us who moved here to have a backyard without being too far from Philadelphia.
However, when I moved to Lansdowne in 2006, I found it difficult to meet people. I would frequent the farmers market and the local coffee shop, but it was six years before I really made friends. With the Buy Nothing site, I made even more friends and met more people. The founders of the site said they did, too.
Our Buy Nothing Lansdowne founders, Ramsey Beyer and Amanda Higgins, unquestionably made our community feel much smaller and kinder when they launched it three years ago. It turns out, sometimes people just need an opportunity to be kind.
“The group completely changed my view of the town,” Beyer said. “I went from knowing no one and thinking it was a sleepy, closed-off town that lacked community to knowing everyone.”
A very pregnant member, Sarah DeSilva Giddings, feels the same way. She put out an ask when the grass in her front yard started to grow tall and her mower was broken.
A couple of people inquired about helping, but it was Jayne Young — a woman she didn’t know — who ended up taking her push mower over to Giddings’s house.
“It was just obvious that she was at that point that she just needed to get it done, so I went over and helped,” Young said.
Once she was done mowing, Young figured the lawn looked so nice that she didn’t want to leave the flower bed unattended. She weeded dandelions before she left.
Higgins said that in addition to doing good for others, Buy Nothing sites help people with something else — learning to ask for help. That was a big step for me, and I’ve gotten a big payoff.
After my success with the dress, a neighbor put out a request to borrow a cocktail dress when she was in need. She received offers from three people and borrowed a tags-still-on sequined dress from a stranger.
And I’m still reaping the rewards of putting my size-14 self out there. Remember that orange and blue summer dress I briefly borrowed that was voted down for my gala? I borrowed it for a cousin’s wedding on the Chesapeake Bay — with matching shoes.
As someone who is averse to shopping (dressing rooms are my nemesis), it was so nice to have my village helping me. I think my neighbors might have felt proud of the community effort, too. The photo of me at the wedding got 44 likes, 10 loves and two wows.