This Isn't in Every Town & City, But It Really Should Be

Updated: Sep 12

tl;dr: instead of donating or throwing stuff away, possibly consider a Really Really Free Market event.

For the second time, my wife and I ventured to Lyon Park in Durham, NC on the first Sunday of the month to participate in something called the Really, Really Free Market. We brought things that we no longer used and did not want to throw out, donate to Goodwill or another local nonprofit, or sell online. The first time we went was in August when my wife discovered this event. I enthusiastically wanted to try it and decided to test it out with some things gathering cobwebs in our garage. Loaded into our truck were items like a laundry hamper cart, wireless mouses, 2 never used keyboards, books, glucose monitors, a fondue set, swimming goggles, and many other things.

When we arrived, we were pleasantly surprised that there were about 12 other groups of people unloading their unused items. People of various backgrounds, from potentially temporarily displaced to well-dressed suburbanites were milling through the various tables looking to see if there was anything that they might possibly use. We seemed to do pretty well giving away the things that we really did not want to shlep back to our house. An elderly woman really liked the laundry hamper cart, and I happily took it to her car to help her load it. We had a little bit of persuading to do, but another woman cautiously took our fondue set that really needed to go to a home that would actually use it. People had fun looking through stacks of DVDs, and thankfully the blue ray DVD player went pretty quickly as well. I would guess that two-thirds of our items found another household where they could be used instead of finding their way into a landfill or donation center. What was particularly rewarding was seeing the look of pleasant surprise when someone found something that they either needed, would like to have, or realized that they could find a purpose for. Last month we committed to doing this regularly, so we were a little bit more prepared for this month's event.

Far too many people think that sustainability involves sacrifice and effort. Events like the Really Really Free Market prove otherwise. What did my wife and I sacrifice? Nothing. We actually benefitted. We have more space in our home, we don't have to worry about how to dispose of things like keyboards and we have less to move to the next home. Additionally, we met some really nice and friendly people telling us how much they appreciated us being there. How much effort did it take? It took no more effort than going to the dump or dropping it off at Goodwill. No, there really was no cost to us at all. In fact, we actually benefitted tremendously. It felt good to see our things be valued by someone else and use them. It was rewarding to participate in an activity that aligns with our goals of being considerate citizens. Additionally, everyone who asked us what we did this past weekend responded with thoughts of what a cool concept it was and how they wished something like that existed in their town. Which begs the question, why isn't this more common and popular?

According to Wikipedia, the first known instance of a Really Really Free Market was in Christchurch, NZ. Way back in 2003, it appears that it arrived in the US simultaneously in Miami, FL and Raleigh, NC. I had a chance to have an awesome chat with a kind gentleman who brought free watermelon to this past event in Durham about the more robust market in Carrboro, NC. He said that when the Carrboro market first started, the first group organizers had to pay the town $100 a month to hold the event. Talk about commitment! Spending money to give your stuff away. Yet, they did that for over a year until some kind donor anonymously started paying for their event fee. Activities like this should not require payment for facilities. Communities should recognize the value and incredible benefits that this provides to residents. Sadly, they don't.

I wonder sometimes about the priorities of municipalities. As I have pored over hundreds of municipal budgets, it is shocking to see how much money is spent on policing communities. Towns are in this bizarre arms race and spend money equipping a SWAT team just because a neighbouring town has one and they will probably rarely ever use it. Programs that inspire connectivity, compassion, and civic cooperation don't seem to inspire competition, and that is a tragedy. It is a reflection of our society and values that policing is more important than helping. Looking at state and local expenditures, housing and community development spending dropped more than any other service from 2010-2015 and is just starting to regain prioritization. For much of this timeline, communities committed to increasing spending on housing and community development at either the highest or second highest level

In a perfect world, there are so many reasons why all municipalities should be all-in supporting programs like this. Firstly, many of these goods that find a new home avoid going to landfills. We are generating even more waste than ever before. Secondly, the bonding that occurred between people was heartwarming. I didn't hear one conflict, or complaint (besides the mosquitoes) or judgemental comment. People shared things like seats, bug spray, and watermelon. I had several conversations about sustainability and also got to hear stories from others about why this is important to them. This event only had only two rules. 1. Everything has to really be free, and you have to take back what isn't given away. That's it! No entrance fee, no paperwork, no booth rental, nada. It is remarkably free of bureaucracy or annoying fees. No one is really "in charge" and it's about as tranquil an experience as you can find when two or more people get together.

This brings us to our third and last point. The cost of support is minimal at worst. Free markets don't require local governments to invest anything but permission to use available space. Many of these markets have no requirements to satisfy. They will take the scrubbiest and least desirable location because impressing people is very low on the priority list for these kinds of events. No staff needs to be assigned, no police presence, no nothing! This is essentially a dream scenario for municipalities: doing good work with little to no expense.

This works, it's cheap, and it makes everyone who participates feel better about what they are doing for this community and our planet. This movement has grown without broad support for local government and yet provides so much value. Imagine what could happen if towns were as inspired to have a free market event as they were to have a shiny new stadium.