When Bobby Brown's neighbors needed a computer to play CDs to learn English, he went on a one-man scavenger hunt and found a mouse, monitor and other gadgets. He soon had a free, functional computer for his neighbors, who had recently emigrated from Ecuador.
Brown found all this inside the rusty 3,000-square feet warehouse where he volunteers: the Baltimore Free Store.
With mountains of donated, used clothing and aisles packed with dust-coated appliances, the warehouse on North Haven Street in Highlandtown looks like a wasteland of American consumerism.
But volunteers who operate the Baltimore Free Store view the piles of donated goods as a treasure trove. Anyone who may need an ironing board, a coffee maker or a karate uniform can take the used items for free, to save a few bucks and to reuse goods that might otherwise end up in landfills.
"People think it's junk because they just get sick of looking at it," said Bonnie Nordvedt, the administrator of the Free Store. "It's not junk. It can be used by other people."
The idea of the store is simple: collect, sort, then distribute for free.
Once a month, the Free Store volunteers take the donated items from the warehouse to different areas of the community, where people can take whatever they want.
"Everything can be reused and recycled," said Kathleen Williams, a Free Store volunteer. "Americans are wasteful, and we're finding a way that we don't have to be wasteful."
Yesterday, Williams and a handful of volunteers sorted through donations, which included a metal coat rack, a beer-making set with a Wal-Mart price tag still on the box, and a telescope wrapped in paper.
Twice a month, the warehouse collects donations from people who down a gravel path to drop off boxes and trash bags stuffed with things they no longer want. Dani Smith drove from Stoneleigh in Baltimore County yesterday afternoon to drop off two file cabinets and bags full of clothes and shoes.
"There is something compelling about this place because sometimes when you drop things off at thrift store, they resell it or they sort of junk it," she said.
"So you never know if it got to the people who needed it."
Another donor who pulled up to the warehouse brought boxes of baby clothes her two daughters had outgrown.
"I've taken stuff to the Salvation Army and seen them dump stuff in the Dumpster they didn't need," said Tammi Stauffer, a Mount Washington resident. "It just seemed like a waste."
The Baltimore Free Store was founded in 2004 by Matt Warfield, who used to go Dumpster diving to find school supplies when he was a Towson University student.
Warfield left the organization in June 2007. While Warfield was still in charge, the Free Store was granted a $48,450 fellowship from the Baltimore office of the Open Society Institute, an organization founded by philanthropist George Soros. The money from the fellowship has run out, and the Free Store has cut back on collection and distribution hours.
"The idea of the Free Store is definitely a good idea," Warfield said. "It's taking stuff and giving it away. When I was involved, I was doing too much with it, and it led to a burn-out. I'm extremely happy it's still going, and I'm glad people are still involved."
The Free Store has no paid staff and relies solely on volunteers, who sort through tons of clothes and furniture every week. The volunteers have day jobs, including Nordvedt, who works at her church and a dentist's office.
Nordvedt, 22, graduated in May from the College of Notre Dame of Maryland and took over the Free Store's administrative duties in September. The program has expenses, including $350 monthly rent for the warehouse and fees for truck rental, and she said it's been tough to get grants to cover them.
"If we got a grant to help low-income families, it requires a lot of documentation," she said. "We're not a charity. We're not just for helping low-income people, we're for everybody."
Keeping the Free Store open is a challenge, but Nordvedt credits a core group of 15 devoted volunteers.
David Slebzak, a Highlandtown resident, is one of them. Yesterday, he and his two sons loaded two shopping carts with garbage bags full of children's clothing to take back to the neighborhood. "We get clothes, and what we don't use, we give to other people," he said.
Slebzak also volunteers at the Free Store with his sons, matching thousands of pairs of shoes and binding them with rubber bands and shoelaces.
"You don't just come to get," Slebzak said. "You come to help, too."
Bobby Brown, who also volunteers, chimed in: "It's the circle of giving."