Giving Away the Store
The Baltimore Free Store Delivers Donated Goods Directly to Those in Need, Free
She surveys tables piled high with clothing, teetering heaps of toys, baby gear, linens, and housewares. On the floor, boxes and bags spill forth books, shoes, and stuffed animals.
“Is all this stuff really free?” she asks. When told yes, she beams. “Look out, honey, I am going to shop!”
The woman, who gives her name only as Miss Irene, learned about this event, known as the Baltimore Free Store, from a volunteer handing out fliers at a bus stop on 33rd Street. Clearly anxious to join the dozens picking through the merchandise, she politely declines to answer further questions.
The Baltimore Free Store, founded November 2004, is the brainchild of local activists Faith Horwath, 32, who prefers her adopted moniker Faith Void to what she calls her “government name,” and Matt Warfield, 26. Before the two even met, they shared a disenchantment with traditional activism and a desire to make a tangible difference in the world.
Warfield had helped stage giveaways before, which he describes as a few sporadic, spur-of-the-moment events organized by a “young, punk Towson crowd,” and he was interested in doing more. Late last year, Void expressed a desire to organize a similar event, and a mutual friend hooked her up with Warfield.
The two decided to attempt a pre-Christmas “setup” (Free Store-ese for a giveaway event).
“We threw it together unbelievably quickly,” Void says. “We didn’t have time to get many donations, so most of the stuff was salvaged from Dumpsters behind thrift stores. Most people have no idea that thrift stores throw a lot of their donations directly into the trash.”
Though the Free Store is open to anyone, regardless of income, Void and Warfield decided to hold the first event in Baltimore so it would be closer to needy, underserved neighborhoods. (“Not a whole lot of poverty in Towson,” notes Warfield, who says his previous giveaway attracted mostly other activists.) Despite the rushed planning process, Void reports, the first Free Store setup was a success.
“We had 10 volunteers and over 125 people came,” she says. “We were so into it that we decided to make it a permanent effort, really organize it, and make it happen on a regular basis.” And so the Baltimore Free Store was born.
To date, the Free Store has held four setups, and has manned tables at various community events to spread the word and distribute free stuff. The Free Store’s current home is a rented storage space in Charles Village and, Warfield wryly notes, “my entire garage and house.” Though expenses are basic—monthly rent for the storage space, renting a truck to haul donations to setup sites—they are covered largely out of pocket by the anything-but-wealthy trio of Warfield, Void, and Andrew Byrne, 24, a recent Free Store recruit.
“Andrew really energized us when he joined up,” Void says. “Now we’re moving forward with all kinds of ideas.” The crew’s primary goal, beyond collecting donations and organizing future setups, is to gain official 501(c)(3) nonprofit status sometime next year.
To that end the group—which consists of a five-member board of directors and about a dozen regular volunteers—has recruited local attorney Ward Morrow, who is volunteering his expertise in legal matters and filling out the Free Store’s nonprofit application, a dauntingly complicated undertaking.
“There are all kinds of hurdles, but then [charity status] will open all kinds of doors for us,” Warfield says. “For instance, I know a guy that would donate a van if he could write it off his taxes. That would be huge. We wouldn’t have to rent a U-Haul every time we have a setup, and then we could afford to have them more often.”
When the irony of the fact that these freethinking, down-with-the-man activists are jumping through government-mandated hoops to obtain official tax status is pointed out, Byrne laughs.
“It’s totally worth it,” he says. “We are trying to shake our culture’s tight association of money versus things, that when you need something you have to go to a store, to Wal-Mart, to buy it. We want to provide a new model.”
Warfield says that, once the kinks are worked out, they have expansionist dreams: “We want to build a model for other communities to set up a free store.” Void chimes in, “Yeah, we’re these low-income people with no experience who are doing this on a shoestring. We want others to see it and say, ‘We can do this, too.’”
In that spirit, the group dreams of a permanent location with regular business hours, “functioning as a way for people to dependably get their needs met,” Void says. Indeed, serving those whose needs go largely unfilled—such as city residents with access to few retail outlets, particularly in blighted areas—is a major motivating factor behind the Free Store.
These days, the Baltimore Free Store is experiencing growing pains, primarily financial. Although the group is a finalist for an Open Society Institute grant, any grant money that may come through is still months away. A local carpenter has donated his skills to design and build shelves in the storage space, but the group cannot afford to pay for the lumber. They would also like to buy dozens of stackable bins for organizing and transporting donations—“Mmmm, storage tubs, never thought I’d be fantasizing about plastic” Void quips—but they can only afford a few at a time. Each member hopes that nonprofit status will encourage donations of needed cash and—the ultimate dream—a permanent home.
Until then, the wooden doors swing open on the storage shed every Saturday afternoon as volunteers collect boxes and bags of castoff belongings. One particular volunteer often comes by with items she has trash-picked from the alleys of Charles Village.
“She gets great stuff, too!” Void marvels. “Better us than the landfill,” Byrne adds.
Back at the All People’s Congress, where the Free Store held a setup July 23, sisters Andrea and Lisa Greise are leaving the Free Store with armloads of clothing. The two women had been on their way to the Greenmount Avenue Goodwill when they spied the Free Store signs.
“We had all these old clothes we were going to donate to the thrift store, then we saw the Free Store and gave them everything instead,” Andrea Greise says. Once inside, they stayed to shop.
“Nothing like getting some free clothes!” Lisa Greise says.
That get a little, give a little philosophy is exactly what Warfield loves about his Free Store experiences.
“The greatest thing has been that at every Free Store event people have come to get free stuff, but then ended up staying to help,” or to come back later with donations. And that, Warfield says, is exactly the kind of hands-on community building he has always hoped to do.
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812 Park Ave.
Baltimore, MD 21201