A traveling flea market connects unwanted wares with new owners while bringing city communities together

Collective helps neighborhoods with free goods

Maryland Journal


A toy zebra, a pack of glow-in-the-dark stars, a fire engine and a silk rose studded with plastic dewdrops poke out of the basket that Noah Graham lifts above his head.

"Now look at this great stuff," the 7-year-old tells anyone who will listen. "This is for my mother right here."

Noah and a throng of neighbors pick through tables of clothes, housewares and toys on the dandelion-speckled lawn of a city recreation center on a recent Saturday - a spring flea market with a twist.

"It's free, not flea," says Lucy Hanley of the goods gathered and given away by the Baltimore Free Store, a nomadic emporium that brings unwanted items to neighborhoods in need.

The concept is simple, explains Hanley, 18, one of the four collective members who keep the Free Store running: if there is something you need, take it. If you have something you don't need, give it away. Unlike thrift stores that sell donated goods, everything at the Free Store is up for grabs.

That includes the hair-dressing mannequin, the yogurt-maker, the tricycles, the Mexican hats, the electric dog fence, the commodes, the breast pump, the ruffled men's shirts, the Ab Masters, the skateboards and the wedding photos found in the group's graffiti-covered corrugated metal warehouse in Highlandtown.

On alternating Saturdays, volunteers bring goods to rotating locations around the city - parks, parking lots and recreation centers - and let people take what they want.

"Oh, Lord," says Edna Washington, when asked what she found at the Free Store's 20 tables at the James D. Gross Recreation Center in Pimlico. As soon as Washington, an employee at the center, arrived to help set up at 10 a.m., she started putting aside clothes for her 15 great-grandchildren.

"It just kept growing and growing," Washington says of the haul that she has stashed in a mini-refrigerator box.

As Washington chats with co-workers in the warm sunshine, her husband, Elijah, a night security guard, pulls up and beelines to the table of men's clothes.

"He didn't even say, `Hi,'" Washington says, laughing as she watches her husband gather blue jeans and bedsheets.

High fuel costs are making it harder to find money for other purchases for Washington. "I'm just working to pay more bills," Washington says. "If I spend $20 on myself, I miss it."

Collective members have ambitious goals for the Free Store - they hope it will ease the financial worries of folks like Washington, inspire people to question consumerism and reduce garbage.

"You could totally live off of stuff that people throw away," says collective member Matt Warfield, 26. "It wouldn't be a real luxurious life, but you could do it."

Free Store's start

Warfield traces the beginning of the Baltimore Free Store to anti-globalization rallies in Towson. The crowd picked through tables stacked with booty plucked from the suburb's overflowing retail garbage bins.

Warfield's Towson University classmates stocked their basement with supplies fished from the bin behind Office Depot. "It was all the school supplies we needed," Warfield says.

In December 2004, Warfield decided to formalize the Free Store and bring it to communities in need. Since then, the collective has hosted 18 giveaways scattered across the city.

"People who come in ask, `Do you need to see my card?' `Do I have to stand in line?' They're so used to being pushed around by the system," Warfield says.

At the recent Pimlico set-up, Gena Howard and her 8-year-old niece, April Williams, could barely carry the extra-large shopping bags of clothes and shoes that Howard picked up for the two daughters and four nieces who live with her.

"I've been moving since I came," says Howard, rearranging a maroon coat, striped rain jacket and new sneakers in her shopping bag.

"It's a great idea, especially for this neighborhood," says the Pimlico resident. "To tell you the truth, a lot of people here don't have, and this will really help."

The lines between shoppers, donors and volunteers are blurred at the Free Store. At the warehouse, Mary Brune and Sue Johnson drop off a suitcase, vacuum cleaner and some women's suits, then stay to help sort the piles of goods. Johnson says that she culls many of her donations from garbage bins.

"It just gives you the creeps when you see a Dumpster full of computers," Johnson says. "We live by the status of how much you can throw away."

"They say if you haven't used it in a year, you're not going to use it," Brune says. "This is a way to reduce, recycle and reuse."

Even the group's fliers - which proclaim "Take what you want; give what you can" - are recycled, printed on the back of outdated advertisements for other groups.

Warfield's commitment to ecology and social activism earned the Free Store a $48,450 fellowship from the Baltimore office of the Open Society Institute, an organization founded by liberal activist and philanthropist George Soros.

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