In a former Kinko’s on Church Street, four young entrepreneurs have set up a shop like any other, offering clothes, shoes, bikes, and books. One difference: Everything is free. Another twist: They aim to turn a profit.
Since it opened on June 6 downtown at 55 Church St., the New Haven Free Store has been giving away all its donated wares. It’s a counterculture concept aimed at subverting the money-based economy and replacing it with a more direct, community-based flow of goods and services.
The notion has its roots in the hippie 1960s, when the first free stores popped up in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury neighborhood.
But while the free stores of yesteryear tossed out capitalism all together, the people behind New Haven’s free store are taking a more nuanced approach. They intend to make money, just not off their customers.
You could call it “Free Store 2.0,” said Ben Aubin, one of the founders.
He and his co-founders sat down on a recent afternoon for an interview about their venture, in the back of the Free Store. The space, which had been vacant for several years, still bears a passing resemblance to the Fed Ex/Kinko’s it once was, with bland wall-to-wall carpeting, a suspended ceiling with florescent lights. But it now has bohemian thrift-store overlay. Visitors are greeted by a colorful spray-painted office desk, behind which stand neat racks of clothes that fill the front of the store. In the center is a green “tree” made of scrap lumber and adorned with shirts and sweaters in leafy hues.
The store is stocked with clothes, books, shoes and assorted other donated items. Customers are free to take whatever they need or want for themselves and their families. Volunteers staff the store, sorting out new donations and assisting customers.
That’s the basic model of all free stores. It’s one that doesn’t necessarily make for an operation that’s sustainable over the long term. Chris Shirley, one of the New Haven Free Store’s founders, said free stores in the ‘60s used to give away money.
Aubin and Shirley, along with recent college grads Hans Shoenburg and Marion Hunt, are taking a slightly different approach. They have several ideas to bring in income and make the New Haven Free Store last.
The Free Store currently occupies its space rent-free for three months as part of the city’s Project Storefronts, which places artists and experiments into vacant city storefronts on a temporary basis. At the end of three months, the Free Store will have to start paying rent to stay in the space.
The first money-making idea is selling advertising. On the store’s website, anyone can put in a request for an object they’re looking for, like a pair of size 10 men’s dress shoes. As soon as such an item comes in, volunteers at the free store will hop on a bike to deliver the shoes to the person who requested them, all for free. The shoes will ride in an attached bike trailer, which will have advertisements on the side, earning income for the store.
Aubin compared it to a “media model” in which content is given away for free, paid for by a third party: advertisers.
The Free Store is also poised to begin offering classes on subjects from silk-screening to entrepreneurialism to “upcycling.” Those classes will be offered on a sliding scale of fees, which will also bring in money. The store is currently looking for teachers in any and every subject, with whom the store will split tuition proceeds.
Eventually, the Free Store could take on waste-removal contracts, salvaging useable material for giveaways at the Free Store, and getting paid to dispose of the rest, Aubin said. The full plan sees the store earning enough to pay its workers, Aubin said.
Starting Aug. 1, the store will have to start paying about $3,000 a month in rent and utilities, Aubin estimated. That’s less than a regular store might pay, because the shop has a charitable purpose. But it’s still a hefty monthly bill for a free store. “We’re always scrambling to try to create the income necessary for it.”
Another part of the 2.0 model is a close tabulation and tracking of the impact of the store’s efforts, a change from the freewheeling ethos of the free stores of the ‘60s.
Although the store’s offerings are free, customers still have to check out, where a volunteer records their addresses and what they’re taking. The store uses that information to track where it is reaching people, where goods are going to. By combining that information with data on where the goods are coming from, the store can chart the flow of stuff and see what kind of impact it has in terms of carbon footprint reduction, waste diversion, and money savings for local residents.
In the three and a half weeks since the store opened, it has recorded about 1,500 checkouts, with an average of eight items taken per checkout, said Aubin and Shirley.
Surfing, Flow, Freedom
Aubin, who’s 26, said he’s confident the for-profit free store model will work, after he recently conducted a successful test-run in Portland, Oregon. He came to New Haven this year specifically to launch a full-scale permanent free store, and connected with Hunt, Shirley, and Schoenburg, three recent college grads in their early 20s.
They found the store idea to be a nexus of their overlapping interests: internet ventures, art, bikes, entrepreneurship, recycling, social change, and alternative economies.
“It unifies a lot of different visions we have here,” Shirley said. The Free Store has become the new home of his New Haven Bike Collective, which fixes up abandoned bikes and teaches people to repair bikes.
A corner of the free store is devoted to the bike collective, jam-packed with assorted bike parts and bicycles in various stages of assembly. The collective is open on Sundays and Tuesdays with an offer to teach people how to build or fix up a bike. Participants earn their own bike by donating their new skills to fixing a bike for someone else.
Schoenburg has been working on a web-based project that works along the same lines. Called GiftFlow, the website connects people with goods and services they need and want, without money changing hands. Users can log on to offer a gift—like an hour of tutoring in French, or a frying pan. They can also accept a gift someone else has posted or put in a request for a gift. Users then find each other and give and receive gifts as they desire.
GiftFlow takes a page from CouchSurfing.org, a worldwide site that connects travelers seeking a place to crash with people who have room on their couches. That’s the site that helped Aubin find the other three Free Store founders—who live together—when he first arrived in New Haven.
These ventures—GiftFlow, CouchSurfing, the Bike Collective—are all ways to work around a money-based economy and attempts to subvert throw-away consumer culture. The theme resonates with the Free Store and the lifestyle of the founders, most of whom have cobbled together part-time work to subsidize their other interests.
“My only real expenses are rent and yoga,” said Marion, who takes publicity photos for the neurosurgery department at Mt. Sinai Medical Center in New York.
Shirley does part-time freelance video work and gets paid to be a test subject for medical research.
Hans works part-time as a proctor for SATs. “We Dumpster-dive regularly,” he said.
“I don’t. I buy things,” said Aubin, who has the most conventional employment situation. He works 30 hours a week as a sales rep for a biofuels company, visiting local restaurants to procure their used vegetable oil to convert to biodiesel.
“That’s a sweet job,” Schoenburg observed.
“The Hippie Times”
Ideally, the Free Store will be a place to help others to get sweet jobs of their own. Volunteers at the store learn a variety of skills they can put on their resumes, said Aubin.
The store currently has eight volunteers on the floor at a time, but it wasn’t initially part of the plan to have any, Aubin said. “People showed up day one” and wanted to pitch in, he said. The store now takes in 100 volunteer applications a day, he said.
One of those volunteers is Diane Stewart. She said she’s been coming since the beginning. “It keeps me out of the house and working,” said Stewart, who’s unemployed.
Yale student Martina Crouch is another volunteer at the store. She said the free store is “a better and more direct way of doing things.” She said she admires the “honesty of transactions that take place there.”
The store is popular not just with volunteers, but customers as well. Aubin said it usually has a line out the door in the mornings.
Along with growing popularity, the Free Store has also had to confront the fact that some customers have been taking stuff and then selling it elsewhere. Shirley said he doesn’t have a problem with that. “I personally have issues with it,” Aubin said. He said the store is largely self-policing when it comes to that situation: other customers and volunteers confronted the people who were selling Free Store stuff.
To deal with growing popularity, the staff has put a rope in place to prevent a stampede, Aubin said. Now 15 customers are let in every 15 minutes. A greeter at the door explains the store concept to new customers and lets them in to look around.
On Tuesday afternoon, one of those customers, Nichole Hanke, was checking out a pink skirt in the Free Store.
“It’s cool,” she said of the store. “It reminds me of the hippie times, like Haight-Ashbury.”