Volume 21, Number 43 | The Newspaper of Lower Manhattan | March 6 - 12, 2009


Downtown Express photos by J.B. Nicholas

Athena Robles, top, one of the two who created the Free Store public art project on Nassau St. said “some people were taking a lot. They were not shy…. Once the frenzy starts, you can’t stop it.” Visitors were asked to sign out what they took and donated.

When money really is no object

By Julie Shapiro

Nothing should have surprised me when I walked into the new Free Store on Nassau St.

I knew the concept — a donations-based shop where everything is free — and I knew I’d find the usual thrift store castoffs, with an occasional gem.

But as I gazed at the assortment of jewelry, T-shirts and wine glass cozies at the store’s opening Feb. 19, I felt something unexpected: greed. There were no price tags, no reasons to hesitate. I could have anything I wanted, and suddenly I wanted all of it. Oil pastels. Silver eye shadow. Neon Pez dispensers. Dog-eared books.

My impulse was to grab as much as I could carry and bolt.

Then I paused.

I reminded myself: This was a public art project, not a tag sale. And I was supposed to be a reporter — objectively observing, or, at the very least, not busily shopping. I felt ashamed, as though I’d violated the basis of the Free Store: giving what you can and taking what you need, no money involved.

Mentally shaking myself, I returned to doing what I’d come there to do — talk to people — and over the course of several visits to the store, I found that many people had the same impulses as I did.

“You’d think you’d just go crazy, but people don’t,” said Athena Robles, one of the two artists who created the Free Store, on its first night. “There is a frenzied moment, and then an afterthought: Do I really want more stuff?”

Robles opened the store with fellow artist Anna Stein, using donations from their friends and grants from the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council and The September 11th Fund. The store is open Thursday through Sunday afternoons at 99 Nassau St. from now until March 22.

At the store’s opening, the first few guests looked around shyly, some hesitating even to touch the merchandise that blanketed the wood-paneled walls of the small shop. Glasses of wine — free, of course — sat undisturbed.

“I see 8 million things I want,” said Susan Delson, a local resident. She pointed to a hot pink sex tips book, an Andy Warhol T-shirt, an old cocoa tin and a tortilla cover featuring a pair of newlywed cats. Delson ultimately walked away without any of those items, taking just three posters that offered instructions for unusual art projects, like coffee filter sculptures.

“I’ll restrain myself here,” she said, as an old issue of the now-defunct Nest magazine caught her eye on the way out.

As it turned out, not everyone was so polite, and Robles’ prediction of restraint didn’t quite come true. The Free Store attracted a steady trickle of customers and donations in the first few days it was open, most people giving and taking an equivalent amount, but then suddenly a media storm hit. When Robles and Stein arrived last Friday to open the store, they found the street lined with news cameras and more than 40 customers waiting to get inside.

Robles and Stein unlocked a store full of merchandise, but an hour and a half later hardly anything was left. The two stood behind the counter once the crowd abated, looking shell-shocked.

“Some people were taking a lot,” Robles said as she arranged several brightly striped ties that remained. “They were not shy…. Once the frenzy starts, you can’t stop it.”

Robles and Stein closed the store briefly to take stock, then reopened it with a new mantra: Take one or two things you think you really need. The rules had not technically changed — anyone could still take whatever they wanted — but the new message seemed to sink in.

Lisa Hagerman and her daughter Kyra, 10, walked into the store with a stack of books to donate Saturday afternoon, mainly “Goosebumps” and Judy Bloom novels. In return, Kyra took a beaded blue bracelet and package of cocktail umbrellas, while Lisa picked up “Naked Lunch: The Restored Text” by William S. Boroughs. The two were on their way back home to Gateway Plaza to find more donations, when Kyra noticed a package of clear plastic straws with a wavy blue pattern on them.

“They’re very cool,” her mother agreed, “but we don’t need them.”

Most of the store’s visitors had never heard of a Free Store, but it’s not a new idea. Robles and Stein did a similar project last year in Queens, and they were inspired by the barter economy that artists developed in the ’70s to exchange necessities.

“That economy mirrors what’s going on right now,” Robles said from the store, which is just blocks from Wall St. “No one has any money. Everyone is bartering to get by.”

Many of the shoppers saw the same need.

“It’s a shame it’s just temporary,” said Sharon Rutman, a middle-aged woman from Queens. “We’re all broke, living paycheck to paycheck like everybody else.”

Rutman donated sweaters and sandals and walked away with three books, proclaiming the Free Store “better than the library.”

Alexis Gutierrez, 26, donated books and picked up a mini green vase and a handmade card. She said she wished the Free Store were permanent.

“You can still enjoy the experience of shopping even though you can’t [afford it],” she said.

Some focused purely on the practical.

“Too bad they don’t got pots and pans,” said Patricia Jackson, 46, as she looked around last week. “I need pots and pans.”

Later Saturday afternoon, the Free Store received one of its largest donations yet.

Julie Sengle, who is planning a March 14 dinner event at the store, arrived with several suitcases from her Greenpoint apartment, overflowing with clothing, vintage bags, bike helmets and hatboxes.

“I’m shocked,” she said, smiling as she caught her breath after hauling everything inside. “I really didn’t think I could get rid of so much. It’s perfect for a New York apartment. It felt really good.”

Before my most recent visit to the Free Store, I scoured my own tiny apartment for things I could get rid of, ultimately settling on a stack of books I would likely never reread. I brought them to the Free Store and then looked around, trying to decide on something to take in return.

But as I picked up each item, I imagined how someone else might get better use out of it. I occasionally buy things I don’t need, but in that case, the loss is mine alone. Here, if I took something I didn’t need, I was taking it away from someone else.

When I ultimately walked out of the store with nothing in my hands, I felt a certain freedom from the push and pull of money that is part of every decision I make in New York. The feeling was light, it was generous — and best of all, it was free.







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