The anarchists only close shop if it rains or snows. Otherwise, every Friday, you can find them here at Von King Park in Bed-Stuy, under tent and banner reading Brooklyn Free Store, handing out goods and sometimes services completely gratis. The tent sometimes blows away in a strong wind, and has to be duct-taped to bricks. Other times a brisk gust will catch the texts sitting on the infoshop desk: zines, commix and reprinted manifestos with ambitious titles like the The Abolition Of Work, big ideas on cheap paper with ink that runs. But most people don’t dilly-dally with propaganda of the revolution. There’s too much free stuff.
The Store is operated by In Our Hearts, a NYC-based anarchist collective that runs a lot of different Mutual Aid projects around the city (and have been especially active with Occupy Sandy). The Free Store has operated in this iteration at Von King Park since the summer, and apparently enjoyed a bit of success. As is the idealist’s wont, all are welcome to donate and all donations are available to anyone. For free (I know, right?). The first Friday I visited, a bus from a Westchester tenants association had earlier dropped off a busload of clothes. Nice stuff, too. Bekah Schiller, one of the main volunteers, said a tangle of Vendi scarves got snapped up fast.
Absolutely everything is on the menu, and the menu obviously changes from week to week, if not hour to hour. On one visit there was a box of well-loved toys, a couple bike wrenches, a potato peeler and some homemade art on leftover lumber ends. The next time there were stuffed animals, some Chopin and Talking Heads records, and a nice saw-knife, still sharp. There are always clothes and shoes, patched punk rock hoodies and puffy winter jackets. On one occasion, a van pulled up and a lady dropped off a bike.
The last time I went, Bekah and Thadeaus Umpster, a fellow volunteer, were giggling in a corner, trying to keep what was in their hands out of the sight of any small children nearby. A cad who just moved had donated his (probably much-used) Art Of Sucking DVD.
“I wonder why Bekah keeps bringing these,” Umpster joked.
All of which is to say that the Free Market ain’t your mom’s Salvation Army. In fact, the volunteers bristle slightly at the comparison to thrift outfits that take in used items, only to sell them back to people; this is, after all, an anarchist collective, and all the volunteers are just looking to do right by their fellow man. With the exception of the infodesk, proselytizing an agenda is on the low-end of priorities.
“Most of our donations come from around here. They come from the neighborhood. I think people are excited to keep things in the community, as opposed to giving them to Goodwill or Big Yellow Boxes,” Schiller said.
And the community has responded. It would be easy to approach the idea with certain prejudices, to imagine, upon exiting the Bedford-Nostrand stop and walking to the park, witnessing nothing but a gentrified outlet mall, some new sign that times are a’changing in Bed-Stuy, with a bunch of early-twenties transplants checking out the free schwag and paying lip service to the volunteers. But when you arrive you find that the scene is quite the opposite. Folks walking their dogs search alongside whole families who’ve just gotten off the B38. College kids and schoolchildren rummage through old toys. There are abuelitas who’d heard about the store from its Craigslist ads, and have come from as far away as Bushwick or even the Bronx. People bundle clothes into laundry baskets. Children’s books have the fastest turnover. And while no one is scooping up leaflets to prepare for the revolution, folks who walk up often say a friendly “Happy New Year” to the volunteers and have the comfortable air of regulars.
Two such regulars, Nadirah, a 23-year old journalism student in the city, and her grandmother, Pia, a longtime Clinton Hill resident, were browsing one recent Friday.
“When they first started, they didn’t have much, but their consistency in being here made people comfortable. They began getting more stuff,” Nadirah said, as Pia rushed around, helping passerby find a decent jacket, or shoes for their babies. A self-described “recovering hoarder” and possibly the sweetest lady alive, Pia volunteers a lot around the borough, and today donated the box of toys that kids were picking clean while their parents called to them in Spanish, trying to fit them for clothes. She excitedly told me about where she helps out, before holding up a Land’s End vest to her granddaughter. There were some blue stains on it.
“Don’t worry about that, just soak it in cold water and scrub,” she said. A couple of nearby women nodded sagely at the advice.
Nadirah’s been coming with her grandmother to stoop sales and giveaways since she was 16 or 17. “At first I didn’t like it, but then I realized that I was getting more clothes and spending less money. You can get really nice things here. It doesn’t have to come in a box.”
People often ask the workers how much they’re paid to be out here in the cold, subjecting themselves to the elements. One woman came up to me with a copy of Granta and asked how much it cost.
“My people won’t come down here,” Tony, another volunteer who lives “off Pulaski,” said. “They’re too proud.”
Still, the main response to the Store has been supportive. The vibe is friendly, just people helping people. Departing from recent (and historical) authority/anarcho-relations, the cops have never bothered the Store or its workers. Schiller believes they don’t get hassled because of the neighborhood they’re in. Whether it’s the Bloomberg administration’s softening on such practices or just beneficial negligence, no one can deny that the outcome seems to be positive.
“Brooklyn is the perfect spot,” Jacques, another volunteer, said, “because you have a bunch of old neighborhood people on lesser incomes along with a lot of newer people who have stuff they don’t need.”
He went on: “I don’t want overstate its importance, but it’s a nice bridge that probably wouldn’t be possible in the Upper East Side.”