Myles Smutney has a vision that she holds near and dear to her heart.
“I started The Free Store Project in October 2020 – the early days of the pandemic when we were still washing our groceries,” Smutney says in an interview. Originally from Chicago, Smutney’s inspiration for the Free Store Project came from a project run by a mutual aid organization over there, combined with the feeling of despair she felt watching small businesses close in her New York.
A Bushwick resident for many years, though she now lives in Manhattan, Smutney has a lot to say about the early days of the pandemic. “I remember businesses closing down in SoHo, even prior to the pandemic, and everyone was leaving. There was free stuff everywhere.” This moved Smutney to start building her first pop-up, in October 2020. Within a week, there were two more and,within two months, she had six of these going. Run as a 501(c)3, her group fills these pop-ups with clothing, school supplies, books, baby products, among other things, which are offered free to passerby. Those interested can find the closest one on a map on the nonprofit’s website.
The newest one – christened the Little Dam Free Store, opened just prior to Valentine’s Day outside of Little Beaver, over on St. Nicholas Avenue. The debut in Bushwick comes via Lyndsay Roush, a bartender at Little Beaver, who had reached out to Smutney about the idea.
Also pivotal to putting this together is Anavel Rivera, who has lived in the neighborhood for almost a decade and who came across a post on the subject on Roush’s Instagram page.
“I had been looking for something under the guise of volunteer work for – four years? At least. Nothing close to my heart or close to home had appeared in that time, and it was frustrating,” Rivera says. “But one day, it all just kind of happened. I saw her post, responded to her, then signed up online through The Free Store Project linktree on their Instagram, and here we are!”
Since then, the number of volunteers showing up to manage the Little Dam Free Store has grown.
“What’s really cool about the store, and it blew my mind too, is that people who want to help will always reach out,” Smutney says. Rivera says her volunteer work has been “pretty continual.”
In addition to the booths around the city, the nonprofit runs a webstore too, where people can buy some of the things other people have donated.
According to their site, the Free Store Project has given away some 1,224 packs of school supplies to New York City students, distributed $2517 in unused transit credit and, behind all that, has voluntarily employed at least 174 people around the city.
“If I’m not on location helping with donations and cleaning up the store or stocking the shelves, I’m answering emails, creating flyers, setting up new volunteers, or thinking up new ideas for the free store project,” Rivera says. “I love every second of it.”
All images taken by Kylie Becker for Bushwick Daily.
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