Save Money and Build Community with the Gift Economy

From Free Stores to Really Really Free Markets, the gift economy brings abundance to everyone.
a person in a red jacket and black pants browsing the shelves of a Free Store in Green Point.
Source: The Free Store Project

Imagine if there were a store where all the items on the shelves were free—where you could grab a toaster, a textbook, or even a business suit, all without paying a dime. Sounds unlikely, right?

It’s not a dream. It’s a very real reimagining of our economy, one that centers giving, sharing, and community—a gift economy. Online BuyNothing groups or FreeCycle forums, and in-person Really Really Free Markets and Free Stores are all places where people can offer donations of gently used items, and others can pick up new-to-them items. While the in-person venues may look different—such as an open-air market to improvised shelves on a wall at a street corner or an unused warehouse—the foundational value they all share is care for the community.

Everything in the Store is Free

The idea of a Free Store came to Myles Smutney as a solution to the growing waste left behind by residents fleeing New York City during the 2020 global pandemic. She watched as perfectly good items (like TVs, cabinets, and clothes) were tossed to the curb and lively streets went quiet as businesses shut down—a saddening combination in a once sleepless city.

“I thought, there’s got to be a way to redistribute these goods,” Smutney says.

To brighten up the neighborhood, Smutney wanted to turn closed storefronts into little Free Store hubs, but official requests to storeowners and the city were ignored. So Smutney found her own outdoor space she thought could work well for a Free Store in Williamsburg.

The community immediately responded positively. Not only was the project removing waste from street curbs, perfectly good items were now accessible to folks that wanted and needed them. Soon mutual aid groups were asking Smutney to build Free Stores in their neighborhood.

“I would instruct and guide and teach, because the whole goal of this, for me, has always been and will always be to … strengthen communities through acts of service and teamwork and collaboration,” says Smutney.

The Free Store Project blossomed into a network of kiosks in a short time. In the first year, The Free Store Project distributed thousands of winter clothing articles, sleeping bags, and blankets to unhoused neighbors and community members. It brought 1,224 school supply packs (consisting of crayons, pencils, folders, etc.) to students across NYC. At its highest point, the Free Store Project had a network of 17 locations and 186 volunteers. Now, Smutney operates two Free Stores in the network and there are several unattended kiosks open 24/7.

Smutney’s success with The Free Store Project is rooted in community care—in the gloomy days of the pandemic, people helping people sparked joy.

A “Free Market” That’s Truly Free

Really Really Free Markets (RRFMs) are like Free Stores, except they look more like a yard sale crossed with a farmers market—there are items laid out on blankets, foods on tables, as well as drum circles, and free services like screen printing and haircuts. RRFMs tend to be single-day events in a public park or community center, whereas Free Stores are more permanent fixtures in the neighborhood.

In Portland, Oregon, organizers (who prefer to remain anonymous to not take credit for the community-wide effort) have run a RRFM in Gateway Discovery Park every April-October since 2021. They initially learned about the concept of RRFMs from a TikTok video, and within a month, created signs and guidelines to host the first RRFM in east Portland.

“There are people that just walk up and discover it, and when we explain it to them, they kind of
don’t believe it,” they say. “I probably hear at least five to ten people every market say, ‘I’m so happy
this exists!’”

Goods like clothes, small furniture, toys, and books are generously given and taken among participants. If there’s a conflict over an item, one of the guidelines is to sort it out with Rock, Paper, Scissors, a method that keeps conflict low, and maintains a sense of humor, according to the organizers.

The organizers also say that RRFMs represent a form of community care that directly challenges the capitalist thesis of scarcity and competition. The Portland RRFM takes a stand against consumerism by illustrating the belief that we live in abundance and can freely share goods and services with each other to build community. RRFMs exist all over the country, from Wilmington, North Carolina, to Tulsa, Oklahoma—find them with an Internet search or by consulting with members of like-minded groups like your neighborhood BuyNothing group or Food Not Bombs chapter.

Guidelines for participating in the RRFM in Portland, Oregon. Photo by the Really Really Free Market.

Joy in Community

These realizations of the gift economy—from Free Stores to free markets and BuyNothing groups—are more than a challenge to hyper-consumerism. They offer healing.

Smutney recalls the story of a woman who used goods from the Free Store to repair her relationship with her daughter. She would pick clothes and toys from the store and bring them to her daughter as gifts.

“It was a way for them to rebuild their relationship because she was providing, and she always felt guilty for not being able to give her daughter the things she wanted growing up, but was able to provide for her granddaughter,” says Smutney.

At the Portland RRFM, the organizers emphasize that the person-to-person connection is what’s so important about the market—the items are merely a vector for sharing community joy.

“As long as the community allows it and wants it, [we’ll keep doing it],” the organizers say. “When you have a lot of stuff at your house, the first thing that comes to mind is: I’ll take it to Goodwill. And you just drop it off. But people get a lot more satisfaction from actually seeing the person that’s going to enjoy it.”

Finding joy in community sharing and caring doesn’t mean you have to start your own market or Free Store (although we’d love to hear if you do, see the box below for tips). Simple first steps can include joining your neighborhood’s local BuyNothing Facebook group or FreeCycle group. Whatever option fits you best, give the gift economy a try.

Bring the Gift Economy Home

Feeling inspired? Start your own Free Store or RRFM! The organizers of Portland’s version advise to “just start it; don’t overthink it. If people see what you’re doing, they’re going to help.”

  • Find a location. Find a neutral location where everyone will feel comfortable, such as a community center, school yard, or public park. Make sure to confirm any guidelines for using such a space for your event, by checking with relevant officials.
  • Attract volunteers. Smutney says that if you build a Free Store, people will come. Most of Smutney’s volunteers were originally skeptical of the idea until they saw it in action—and then they asked to start one themselves. Local groups that support a giving economy, such as religious congregations, or BuyNothing and FreeCycle groups, are great recruitment networks.
  • Advertise in the community. Hang banners at major intersections and in community hangouts like libraries and fitness centers, and canvass in the surrounding neighborhood. Consider sharing materials in more than one language to help non-English speakers.
  • Gather items to give. Ask folks to bring their own donations. Take advantage of the changing seasons when people are cleaning out their closets. Offer to pick up items or have one drop-off location to make it easy for people to donate. You might even accept drop-offs on the same day as the market.
  • Attract attention. If your market is going to be outdoors, ask volunteers to set up activities and entertainment that may pique the interest of passersby. Music, dancing, juggling, activities for children—you’d be surprised at the talents that people in your community can showcase.
  • Have a plan for leftover items. At venues where items can’t stay overnight, ask participants to take home items that are not given away by the end of the day. Sometimes, volunteers may offer to bring them home until the next market. Another option is to donate excess to a local thrift store.
From Green American Magazine Issue