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Freeing Up The Future

Despite Uncertainty, Free Store's New Leadership Is Optimistic About Future

Michelle Gienow
Free For All: Attendees Of An Event Held

By Michelle Gienow | Posted 11/28/2007

It's a brilliant Sunday afternoon in late October, but the crowd gathered outside the Baltimore Free Store warehouse couldn't care less about the weather. Some 200 or so people have turned out at the store's North Haven Street location, and more are arriving every minute.

The crowd is diverse. Black, white, and Latino, solo or with whole families in tow. Grandmas in Halloween sweatshirts stand cheek by jowl with pierced art students sporting Technicolor hairdos, and little kids scramble under and around tables piled with giveaway goods. Whether they pulled up in shiny late-model SUVs, battered clunkers, or on the No. 23 bus, everyone here shares the same mission: They came for the free stuff.

Now in its third year as a formal entity, the Baltimore Free Store operates on a straightforward premise: collect donations of stuff and distribute it, gratis, in "Free Markets" held across the city. It's a brilliantly simple plan (recognized as such in 2005 by the Baltimore Open Society Institute, which rewarded it with a $55,439 grant) that has many benefits. In addition to helping those in need, the Free Store redirects stuff that might otherwise have been dumped in landfills, and serves as a one-stop shopping resource for nonprofit organizations, which glean supplies and equipment from the markets.

This is the Free Store's first Free Market event hosted at its warehouse-the markets are usually held off-site at halls or community centers-and it follows on the heels of the nonprofit's reorganization. The group has handed the reins to 21-year-old College of Notre Dame business major Bonnie Nordvedt, under whose watch the Free Store hopes to clear out the backlog in its crowded warehouse and reposition the store in a "retail" storefront with set operating hours. The ultimate goal, says founder Matt Warfield, is to establish a permanent location from which to distribute free goods.

Outside the patched-together brick and corrugated-iron facade of this former brake-parts warehouse, long tables are piled with every conceivable object, from coffee mugs to cassette tapes to toilet seats. On the ground plastic tubs spill shoes, books, and clothing. Some people are picking through the piles, but a good portion of the crowd has gathered by the warehouse door where volunteers scurry in and out with boxes and bundles of even more stuff.

People in the crowd shout requests, some of which are heartbreaking (a winter coat for a 2-year-old boy, dishes or cookware for a family that just got evicted, crutches), and the volunteers oblige when they are able. Other requests are, on the face, less likely to be granted: a computer (a popular one, oft repeated, once the first person piped up), a bicycle, a sewing machine. Often, though, the stuffed-to-the-rafters warehouse does indeed hold all these items, frequently in multiples.

The problem is finding them; the scene inside is nearly as chaotic as out. There are evident attempts at organization, but they're overwhelmed by the sheer volume of stuff-mountains and piles and shored-up walls of bagged and boxed donations. Amid these piles is Warfield, overseeing a dozen volunteers as they scramble to deliver anything and everything to the eager masses.

"We have distributed free items to over 15,000 individuals with an average yearly income of $5,000," Warfield says of the project that used to be based out of a rented garage in Charles Village. In June, Warfield-founder, director, web master (www.freestorebaltimore.org), and chief stuff sorter-moved on to a new career as manager of Baltimore's International Youth Hostel. Warfield says he will remain involved in the Free Store, but he has passed on the duties of running the operation to Nordvedt, who is now coordinating volunteers, writing a business plan, and figuring out how to move the organization forward.

Nordvedt, a Carroll County resident, first stumbled onto the Free Store via Google.

"A couple years ago I was looking for a place to volunteer," she says. "And I was really interested in the idea of moving stuff from people who have it to give to those who are in need. So I Googled %u2018free' and %u2018Baltimore,' and the Free Store popped up."

She helped out at a few Free Markets but did not get more involved until she received an e-mail in early August announcing that the Free Store was shutting down, at least temporarily.

"They were asking for a volunteer to come in and take care of administrative stuff," Nordvedt says. "I had just gotten married and didn't know if this was the best time for me to get involved, but I didn't want to see it shut down. There is just such a need for something like this."

She jumped in with both feet. "I've been dealing with the e-mails, coordinating volunteers and donations, working on grant applications, and finding a permanent location, fundraising," she says. "Matt is still heavily involved, but more in the vision side. He wants to be there on event days but not so much administering everything."

The Free Store had expanded radically under Warfield's supervision. In barely three years it went from being housed in a storage shed at Warfield's apartment to taking up an 8,000-square-foot warehouse. In the fall of 2006 the Free Store placed itself under the aegis of Fusion Partnerships Inc., a local nonprofit that nurtures and fiscally sponsors grass-roots efforts, a move that for the first time enabled the Free Store to offer tax deductions to its donors. Donations poured in-donations that needed to be opened, sorted, organized, and transported to Free Market events. At the same time, the original Free Store operating collective had dwindled to one person: Warfield, who did his best to run things with a handful of volunteers.

In spring of 2007 Warfield decided it was time for a change.

"People assume it's because the Open Society grant ran out," he says. "But it wasn't that the money was gone, so I ran away-my whole idea was always to build an organization that could sustain itself, and I had always intended for my involvement to end eventually. And I was just getting into a bad place, constantly working with the most extreme level of need in our society, always feeling like I want to do something about it, and not able to do all that much."

When he started his new job in June, Warfield still helped out at Free Markets, but he left the operation of the Free Store to longtime volunteers. But there weren't enough hands to sort and organize donated goods, much less set up and run the Free Markets. Things slowly ground to a halt as the Haven Street warehouse filled up. The Free Store first stopped accepting further donations in mid-August, and then canceled scheduled giveaways due to lack of manpower-and money.

"The Free Store operates on very little money, but an organization of this size needs some level of financial backing," Warfield says. "Even the most committed of volunteers can't be there all the time. There needs to be someone who's responsible."

Nordvedt, who took on that responsibility, agrees that the Free Store needs funds.

"We have a huge need financially," she says. "Lots of people are calling to donate clothes, but not to give money, and that's critical right now to us going forward."

Warfield laughs at the mention of clothes. "Right now I am trying to find organizations that will take large quantities of clothes at a time," he says. "Organizations that will provide them to Third World countries for free or low cost, organizations in the city that provide them for their clients, places that recycle the material, et cetera. I haven't been so successful. Seriously, we probably have a few thousand bags of clothes-the white kitchen-size bags."

All of those bags have to exit the building no later than summer. The Haven Street warehouse that has served as the Free Store's base of operations for the past couple of years was sold recently, and the Free Store's lease expires in June. Nordvedt is scouting locations and has been talking with a local nonprofit that has extra space in its building and in-house volunteers who could work alongside the Free Store folks.

"We are very excited about this possibility, but it keeps getting pushed back," she says, declining to name the organization due to ongoing negotiations. "So we're also talking with the city about the possibility of using some city-owned space."

The Free Store broke with its usual habit and held the late October Free Market at the warehouse to divest itself of its inventory glut. "We had a pile that was 10 feet high, 20 feet wide, and 40 feet long of donated items we had received and not gone through," Warfield says. "On the 28th we knocked out about half that pile."

The event acted as a kick-start of sorts as well, and after a few months' hiatus, the Free Store is open for business again, accepting donations and holding Free Markets, while it looks for new space. Warfield says he will help out when there are Free Markets scheduled, but he says he'll mainly offer moral support to Nordvedt as she takes over. Despite the uncertainty about the Free Store's future, Warfield says he's optimistic about the project.

"I do see a pretty bright future for everything, especially with Bonnie's energy and commitment," he says.

The Free Store warehouse is open to receive donations from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Dec. 1 and 8. Donations may also be dropped off at the Free Market planned for Dec. 16 from noon to 3 p.m. at the 2640 Space on St. Paul Street. Housewares and especially toys are welcome.

"We are totally wiped out of toys," Warfield says. "We are hoping to have a toy drive before the holidays."

But please: no clothes. ★

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