A free store—yes, really—is coming to Bushwick this fall.
The project is a brainchild of Bushwick Mutual Aid, the organization that distributes donated food and goods around Maria Hernandez Park. Their team of volunteers currently sets up a free booth on Suydam and Knickerbocker every Tuesday afternoon, but with the colder months coming, the group is crowdfunding for a brick and mortar space nearby.
While a free store sounds oxymoronic, the concept is actually very simple. The store is set up like any secondhand store or pantry with a welcoming atmosphere, regular hours and sections for items like clothing, baby supplies, furniture, household appliances and groceries.
What sets the store apart from others, is that spending money is optional. The people who work there are volunteers, and donations of cash and items keep its lights on. Trinidad Rafael, lifelong Bushwick resident and powerhouse behind the free store, said it is a self-sustaining community effort.
“I was a regular in the Bushwick Mutual Aid food line when the pandemic started,” Rafael said. “That’s how I got involved in helping this project scale up.”
The store will run daily in accordance with COVID-19 health guidelines like any other business, and there will be free masks and hand sanitizer for customers who otherwise may not be able to access them.
Alicia Fox, who started Bushwick Mutual Aid in March 2020 in response to the pandemic, said the free store is more than just about helping neighbors in need. It’s an environmentally conscious approach to fulfilling community needs without partaking in capitalism.
“The whole free store concept—it’s different than charity,” Fox said. “It’s not ‘haves’ giving to the ‘have-nots.’ We’re sharing with neighbors and preventing things from ending up in the landfill. It is inspired by those community fridges around the neighborhood and those ‘buy-nothing’ Facebook groups.”
Rafael said that the free store is designed to remove the stigma of accepting donations in order to widen its impact and ensure its longevity.
Clients don’t need to flash their food stamps card on the way into the free store, which is the case with some pantries. Because the free store looks like any other store, people with all levels of financial stability will feel comfortable going in. Fox said many people who do have more financial flexibility will shop and donate money on the way out.
“We make a big deal out of the fact that it’s for everyone—you don’t have to prove your needs to us,” Fox said. “You’re not a huge a-hole if you come in and grab a blouse that you think is cute.”
The overhead for a free store is relatively low, with all financial donations going to rent, general upkeep and bills. However, Rafael and Fox estimate the startup costs of renting a storefront will come to about $10,000. As far as fundraising goes, they are almost halfway there.
To get started, Bushwick Mutual Aid hosted a big fundraiser with WALLBREAKER, a local, monthly Queer fund and awareness-raising party for advocacy & activist groups and relief efforts.
One advantage of the free store, Fox says, is that it doesn’t have the ingrained anti-LGBTQ+ ideology and practices some organizations do. “The free store is for everyone.”
For now, operations will continue at Maria Hernandez Park every Tuesday from three in the afternoon. The Bushwick Mutual Aid team expects to open a shop by early fall.
Top photo by Miranda Levingston.
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