Howling windstorms did shut things down recently. Near hurricane force winds downed trees and power lines putting the volunteer carpentry crew out of a job. But now, the project is back on track. Before I come around the final corner, through the trees I can see new wood and the bright red metal roof.
After depositing my recycling in the appropriate receiving shed for glass, metal, plastic and paper, I decide to check on Free Store progress. I’m not the only one. Charlotte stops me with a cheerful smile to tell me how pleased she is to see the building coming along.
Charlotte has a proprietary interest. Until the old Free Store was closed due to thoughtless kids who vandalized the place, Charlotte had a firm hand and eye on store management. In her early eighties, Charlotte found new meaning in life when she became the chief volunteer at the store. Four times a week, Charlotte appeared to sort incoming drop-offs, put usable items on display, stack ‘library’ shelves, supervise volunteer helpers, and generally maintain a semblance of order. Now she’s at loose ends until the doors reopen.
Though the old free-store felt cramped, dark and… smelly under its tin-roofed extension of the recycling shed, it usually hummed with the coming and going of price-wise islanders. In fact, the temporary absence of the Free Store has left a gaping hole in the social and economic fabric of the island. And not just for Charlotte. Many of us have been suffering Free Store withdrawal. For one thing, what to do with all those shirts and dishes and chairs and books and computer keyboards that don’t meet current needs? Even more importantly, where does one find a free shirt, skirt, sweater, blouse, smock, clock, pot, pan, skeins of wool, embroidery thread, plastic duck, lucky puck or set of Funk and Wagnall encyclopedias when you need them?? And where else can a person spend half an hour among friends and neighbours, engage in community gossip, try on clothes, compare notes about Free Store ‘finds’, and tap dance on a rainy day?
Tap dance? Why, of course! On occasion, twenty people have been known to crowd into the Free Store on a stormy day. On one such moisture-laden morning, a pair of red tap shoes caught someone’s eye. Before long a tap routine was rocking the place. If my memory serves me right, several of us embraced our tap fantasies while hail drummed accompaniment on the roof.
It may have been that very day I found a fabulous, almost new fleece jacket and a box of picture frames. It could also have been the day that I dropped off an overstuffed wingback chair and a designer jacket from my business-woman-in-the-city days. It might even have been the day I returned several skirts I’d taken the week before, which, after a good wash, a shake and a try-on, didn’t say ‘fashionista’ as I had hoped.
Fortunately, the Free Store has an excellent return policy. If a selection doesn’t fit, blend with the household colour scheme, doesn’t stand, tilt, bend or spindle the way you had in mind, it’s returnable, no questions asked. The Free Store is also renowned for their “Shop-Lifting” policy, with a sign to make sure you appreciate the opportunity, “Shop Lifting Encouraged”.
Charlotte and I reminisce for a few more minutes before I make my way through the rutted mud to the new Free Store. Today there’s a crew of six on the job, tacking tarpaper over the plywood sheathing and securing the last few pieces of metal roof cladding. Ken and Derek are up on ladders with tarpaper draped over their heads. I call out but it’s obvious no one needs a distraction. I take particular note of how things are shaping up. I have a proprietary interest too. I sketched an artist’s concept of the store from the architect’s plans. My drawing is being used on posters and progress reports.
We’re all volunteers including the architect. Crew bosses and their crews of foundation formers, wall framers, tarpaper tackers, roofers, painters and artistic decorators -- volunteers every one. From the ground up this is a community endeavor. Where possible even the materials have been acquired locally. Local sawyers milled trees from the site and a big flatbed truck wheeled in one day laden with hefty fir beams and posts.
The new store will be larger and brighter. A number of skylights and small windows provide a shower of light. On this day the openings are framed in, some windows and all of the doors have been installed. It’s interesting to see my sketch becoming a three-dimensional object. But there’s still work to be done and probably a month before its ‘business as usual’ in Charlotte’s department.
I’m looking forward to it. For one thing I need some new serving plates, and I need a couple of simple, loose dresses for summer. And there’s that bag of clothes and household odds and ends I’ve been putting aside to drop-off. I’ve been missing the islander folk and gossip too.
Sometimes I feel that everyone visits the Free Store. Well, that’s not exactly true. I’ve seen people recoil at the very thought. My mother’s not too keen. “Some of those clothes are unwashed,” she says in an appalled whisper. But on the whole, it’s a broad cross-section of the island population who embrace the something-for-nothing concept, from the wealthy to the truly needy. Returning summer visitors often hoard items over the winter, just so they can make a Free Store trip when they’re back on the island. It’s one of the island’s tourist attractions!
There’s the serendipity of it too. A city retail shop often has only one kind of item in an array of sizes and colours. At the Free Store, the stock is singular and unique. The daily turnover is such that the store never has the same selection from minute to minute. Habitués know that Free Store success is a matter of simply being in the right place at the right time. The difference between “Guess what I found,” and, “You should have seen the ceramic bowl, Dire Straits LP, little black dress.... I was this close to picking up!”
Some folks wait like vultures as new treasures come through the door. The occasional free-for-all has resulted, though a general policy of ‘first sighted and landed’ determines ownership.
For newcomers, the concept that everything in the Free Store is free is hard to grasp. Me, I took to the idea like a clotheshorse to a clothes rack. Why not exchange things I no longer need for things I do need? Why not take all my older books for someone else to read? Why not dispense with a closet full of clothes that no longer fit?
The Free Store reduces the clutter in my life. Whenever I feel overwhelmed by ‘stuff’, I can do a quick sort and send the least used, the tired, the in-the-way, the too small, the too big, the too bright, the just too-too... to the Free Store. While I’m there I can look for a spindle, a trindle, a tisket, a tasket, and, maybe a basket too.