The life span of a tricycle is short. Like so many items in a toddler’s inventory, it’s briefly cherished as a rite of passage, then unceremoniously tossed aside for the Next Big Step: training wheels, a bike, one day a car.
This is the natural course of your average American consumer product, so natural that we often don’t stop to think: What happens to those discards?
Most will end up in the trash, of course, while others will languish forgotten in the corner of a dark garage or a musty attic. But on the last Saturday of every month, some are laid out on the front lawn of a brick townhouse in Northeast Washington, scrapped tricycles splayed beside yellowing books.
This is a “Free Store,” a yard sale without price tags, where everything old is considered anew.
The host of this store in Brookland is an organization called the Peace House, a nonprofit focused on enacting social change locally. In this case, that means encouraging neighbors to give their stuff away and take the stuff that others leave behind.
The group is not alone in trying to create free item exchanges — formally known as “gift economies” — in the Washington area.
There are neighborhood “Buy Nothing” Facebook groups, online marketplaces where users offer up unwanted goods, in NoMa, Silver Spring, Annapolis and nationwide. A newlywed recently set up a group in the Columbia Pike corridor after becoming overwhelmed by the amount of stuff she had to get rid of while moving in with her groom. Free items have also been known to crop up in bulk on the streets of Arlington and Shaw, and legend has it that a “free tree” in Alexandria once accommodated castoffs beneath its boughs.
When discards are given a second chance, a lot can happen. A lot of stuff.
‘One person’s trash is another person’s treasure,” says Feriha Kaya, a Peace House co-manager, chuckling at her own cliche. But rarely is treasure as readily available — and as price-less, literally — as the items up for grabs at the Free Store.
The initiative began as a sporadic event two years ago and has been occurring with more regularity in recent months. The organization has received so many donations that it’s starting up “No Trade Saturdays,” when people will be able to take items but not give their own stuff away. The demand has been huge for the regular end-of-the-month pop-up events, with as many as 250 people stopping by over the course of four hours.
Here’s the scene: paperbacks and board games in big rubber bins; colorful jackets on a rack with wheels; a small basketball on the grass beside a dollhouse, a wooden stool and more books.
Hayley Goddard, 15, holds up a pair of shiny blue harem pants and exclaims, “They’re just like Jasmine’s [from “Aladdin”]!” She wrinkles her brow. “I’m really tempted.”
Her friend Kelsey Franklin, also 15, responds, “Oh, my.”
Even when there’s no money on the line, decisions can be tough. The 20 or so people visiting the Free Store at any given time can’t take home just anything that piques their interest. That would defeat the purpose. Part of the idea behind a gift economy, after all, is paring your possessions to the bare necessities. Several people described the lifestyle they were going for as “minimalist,” or at least as minimal as you can get in the nation of Wal-Mart and Costco.
The horror of realizing how much stuff you own often comes when you’re moving or undergoing a major life change. This is the case for Venus Hinyard, 25, who arrives at the Free Store with a suitcase in tow. A transgender woman in the midst of her transition, Hinyard no longer has any use for the dress shirts, slacks and suits packed into her bulging black bag.
“Oh, Venus’s stuff is going to be fabulous,” Kaya says as she fiddles with the zipper while Hinyard riffles through the clothes rack and examines a satin shirt. “Buying new clothes can be so expensive,” she says. “But here, oh my God, the possibilities of finding clothes that fit and express my gender . . .”
Standing near the rack is Kelsey’s father, Kenny Franklin, 55, who is leafing through a Popular Mechanics handyman guide. Besides being the self-appointed driver of his daughter and her friends, Franklin is a fixer-upper. “It’s old, but it’ll work,” he says of the manual. It’s the “W” volume, and he’s been meaning to learn about wires.
Maybe it will teach him to fix the typewriter that Kelsey is taking home, he shrugs. Piled atop a stack of other finds, the blue contraption has keys that don’t strike the paper.
The Environmental Protection Agency reports that Americans produce more than 250 million tons of waste every year, most of it relegated to landfills. Today, the typewriter, the mechanics’ manual and the harem pants are saved from that fate, to be fixed, read and worn again.
T he Columbia Pike Corridor Buy Nothing Facebook group, formed just last month, is already 170 members strong and teeming with activity. The page is overseen by the national Buy Nothing organization, which has strict regulations for membership. The No. 1 rule: Everything has to be local, so you can join only if you can prove that you reside within the designated Zip code.
There are rules for posting gifts, too. No advertising the monetary value of anything you’re giving away. And asking for anything in return is definitely verboten. This “no strings attached” policy keeps things simple, says Flora Wallace, the bride with too many possessions who founded the Columbia Pike Corridor group.
The posts are pretty minimalist — just like the lifestyle the members are supposedly striving for. There’s a photo of the item and a short caption: “beautiful iridescent ice cream dishes,” for example, or “two teapots — one tall Ikea, the other stout.” Sometimes there’s no description at all: The image of a candy-cane-swirl ceramic plate is left to speak for itself.
Still, just as with the Free Store, you have to wonder: Why give your stuff away when you could probably sell it without any more effort?
It’s all about goodwill, apparently. Says Cory Chow, moderator of the NoMa/Bloomingdale/Shaw Buy Nothing group: “It’s like they’re passing along good karma, you know?”
Sometimes there’s a post about an item someone needs. It’s usually followed by a string of helpful responses. Not long ago, for instance, one NoMa group member posted a plea for wine corks. “Save your Wine Corks for me! I need as many corks as I can get for a art project.” Three people responded saying that they had some, while a fourth noted: “Quite a worthy cause that I’m willing to contribute to :) I’ll start saving!”
Part of the satisfaction in responding to these queries comes from feeling that you’re part of an “empathetic” system, says Markus Giesler, a marketing professor at York University in Toronto who has studied gift-giving for the past decade. While the benefits of getting free stuff are obvious, the rewards of being on the giving end can be just as great.
“Being a gift-giver to strangers sends a message about what kind of society I envision and what kind of relationship I seek to express through my object transaction,” Giesler says. (See? There’s a reason your mother always told you it’s better to give than to receive.)
According to the professor, local gift economies don’t just push back against consumerism. They’re also a way to connect with your neighbors and contribute to the community.
“When I go to the store for a pair of sneakers,” Giesler says, “that is not a social exchange.”
Maybe that’s why visitors to the Free Store don’t seem to be there for the stuff alone. On an overcast Saturday afternoon, Peace House co-manager Taylor Hall sits on the front steps yelling, “Hello there!” to everyone who approaches. A motley group of young people is gathered around an old coffee table on the porch, talking books and music. Neighborhood kids who have come for the promise of new toys find playmates instead — but not without the help of an inflatable guitar set.
“People become friends,” Kaya says. “They plan to stop by for just five minutes, and they end up talking for hours.”
Light drops of rain begin to fall on the Free Store, but people don’t seem to mind. Kaya says a woman leaving the country once dropped off what seemed to be her entire wardrobe. Another time, someone showed up with a tiny frog figurine that doubled as a percussion instrument, complete with a miniature drumstick. Everyone thought, who would want that? But a kid picked it up immediately.
Two giggling boys are riding the tricycles — one pink, one purple. When their mother gets up to leave, Kaya calls to her, “You’re taking the bikes, right?”
“Uh-uh, they have bikes at home,” the woman responds.
The kids drop the trikes on the grass where they found them, beside the bin of crinkled paperbacks. They’re discards once more.
But this time, it’s not so sad. In a month, after all, the tricycles will get their second second chance.