Nonprofit Baltimore Free Store opening first storefront

Franklin Square store to serve as base for give and take

(Baltimore Sun photo by Kenneth…)
May 15, 2010|By Erica L. Green, The Baltimore Sun

Customers entering the newest store on West Baltimore Street will be greeted with signs warning "No cash refund" and "Items sold as is" before they peruse racks of clothing and shelves of electronics.

But such warnings are no matter when all merchandise is free.

The Baltimore Free Store, a nonprofit organization that collects and distributes items without charge, will open its first storefront Saturday in the Franklin Square neighborhood.

The storefront, which functions like a Goodwill shop but with an unbeatable discount, is the first of its kind in the city. But the concept of collecting donated items and giving them away in city neighborhoods is six years old, the brainchild of two friends who said they grew tired of protesting capitalism and were in search of a project with lasting impact.

"This has been the goal since Day 1," said co-founder Matt Warfield, 30, whose day job is operations manager for a hostel organization, standing amid racks of clothes and bins of stuffed animals and toys on a recent afternoon. "We've always wanted to be part of a community."

Warfield launched the volunteer-driven effort in 2004. It was inspired by his own rummaging in refuse bins for school supplies while a student at Towson University. The dual mission of the venture is to promote recycling and to give back. The store's organizers say that message is often misconstrued.

"It's not just a bunch of rich people giving stuff away to poor people," said the store's administrator, Bonne Nordvedt. "It's about people of all statures giving and taking."

The organization has operated out of an 8,000-square-foot warehouse in Highlandtown for the past six years. Donations were collected there, then trucked to neighborhoods for residents to claim.

By switching to a permanent location, "we can now start building relationships," Warfield said.

The store at 1413 W. Baltimore St. — which was once a church and before that a furniture and appliance shop — will be open on one day every weekend: the first Sunday of each month, and Saturdays after that. It will take donations when open.

"It was good to see them come into this neighborhood," said Patricia Washington, who lives above the store and has managed the building for 13 years. As she sat folding clothes at the store this week, she said the store's presence would breathe new life into what has become a deadened stretch of the West Baltimore Street block.

"It's a lot of people around here that don't have a lot, especially the kids," Washington said. She said she was inspired to volunteer at the store.

Washington joins about 10 core volunteers and 500 intermittent ones. There are no paid employees, and the organization's roughly $25,000 budget —funded primarily through donations — covers operations and advertising, Warfield said.

Volunteer Tanya Solomon has been clothing manager at the warehouse for about six years. A self-described shopaholic, she said she can't imagine how much money she's saved by being a customer. She's also a donor.

Solomon comes from Columbia to the Free Store every day to organize hundreds of boxes of clothes.

"You get people who come in and you can see the gratitude on their faces. That's what keeps me going," she said. "At the Baltimore Free Store, they can get the things they need — and some of the things they want."

Residents of the West Baltimore block wandered in and out the store this week as volunteers bustled about, building and stocking shelves, fixing lights and breaking open boxes.

"This is so beautiful," said Tammy Wilson, who lives across the street, as she looked around. "It's really hard out here, and it's so beautiful that people are giving back to our community."

As Wilson ran her hand over screens of computer monitors available for customers, she spoke of how she moved to the Southwest Baltimore neighborhood last year after being homeless. She couldn't wait to tell homeless friends about the store, she said.

When asked if she planned to maybe snag herself a computer during the store's grand opening, Wilson smiled and replied: "No. Somebody needs that more that I do."

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