It's All Up For Grabs

Jul 6, 2011

Goodwill and the Salvation Army are reliable spots for inexpensive items. But one New Haven store is working with a new model: everything is just plain free.

Twenty four year old Hans Schoenburg is talking to a potential customer, and she has a pressing inquiry.

"Now I have one question. What do you do about making sure there's no bugs in the sweaters people give you?"

This is the New Haven Free Store. It's right downtown -- a cavernous, artsy feeling space stacked with clothes, books and bicycles. Everything is donated, and everything is free for the taking.

Schoenburg started the store with three other 20-somethings. He says they're trying to offer a permanent, money-less alternative to a consumer driven retail culture...

"While simultaneously revealing how wasteful our current economy is and how absurd it is that you can run a free store and you never have problems finding enough stuff to give away for free," he says.

Even before they opened in June, people were interested. 

"People on the street, people waiting at the bus station started knocking on the windows and we're really friendly so we opened the doors, and started talking to people, and then we started letting people in to work as volunteers."

Diane Stewart was one of those window knockers. She says the Free Store provides a place for often ignored people to both give their time and hone their skills.

"it gives some of the residents out here a chance to be able to do something. To lift their self esteem up, you know? I've noticed some of the homeless people are so proud, with themselves and what they do here."
Volunteers young and old -- many unemployed -- sort clothes and other items, take inventory, use computers and greet shoppers.  And there's a line of customers out the door each morning. Volunteers record their addresses and each item they take. The store uses that information to track where shoppers come from, and how much of an impact they're making on consumption.

But the New Haven Free Store's brick and mortar existence is a bit uncertain. A city program found them the space for low rent for the first few months, but that rent will go up in August. So they're thinking about offering classes, workshops, even concerts to bring in money. But for the moment, they're just looking for more stuff -- to give away for free.