by Erica Sackin
Anarchist utopia has been realized. It’s on Walworth Street, in Bed-Stuy, just behind the Home Depot, nestled between a clapboard house and overgrown parking lot. You’ll recognize it by the pile of bikes chained outside and the trickle of community members wandering in and out on the otherwise empty block. And, of course, by the black flag with an anarchist “A” flying proudly out front. This utopia is known as the Brooklyn Free Store.
The space came into existence on July 1, and held its official grand opening on September 11. Like a Freecycle incarnate, it’s a place where anyone, at any time, can leave something they don’t want or take something they do. There is no one in charge, and there are no rules.
“It’s a free store, so if you had someone in charge telling people what to do, that’s not very free,” said Thadeaus, one of the organizers of the store, who makes his living reselling salvaged dumpster finds. “Whereas, here when it says â€˜free store,’ it means free store, through and through.”
“Everyone from little kids to grandparents from rich to poor people really enjoy it being here, and it’s a great place to meet people,” said Laurel, another volunteer with the store, who had led a community self defense workshop earlier that day. “It’s a great place to learn new things, and yeah, just experience an idea for a different sort of societal structure.”
The store space had been just another vacant lot, one of the many in the neighborhood, until Laurel, Thadeaus and a number of their friends got together to clear it out and reclaim it. They pulled up weeds, cleared trash and disposed of rotting dead animals-including a dead chicken and turtle. “They smelled really bad,” Thadeaus said. They put up a tent and a sign, and, Thadeaus said, people just started bringing things.
“I’m shocked by the success,” Laurel said. “It’s taken on a life of its own. There’s been so much press about it, and the community is really, really using it. Like, it’s not just our friends, there’s a ton of demographic range and age range and reasons that people are using it, and I’m really just shocked how quickly the word got around. I mean, it’s only been here for a couple months, and I kind of feel like this is the first thing we’ve done to actually promote the space, and it’s huge.”
“I don’t know who the landlord is,” she said. “We just put it up and waited for someone to yell at us for it.”
During the grand opening, the store was in full swing. They now have a large blue tarp (though it has some holes in it), a plywood floor and lights. The store was hosting a series of skillshares-like classes, only without the hierarchy-that covered everything from “Bike Basics” to “Wine Fermentation.” Inside, community members young and old pawed through old books, clothes, baby supplies, canned food, lumber and various other once-discarded goods.
A woman was face-painting tribal designs on young children and adults. A rack sported zines such as “Anarchist Basics” and “Stealing Your Education at Columbia.” A vegetarian meal was being served in back, made mostly of food found in dumpsters. And somehow, everywhere, there were bowls full of bagels.
“My father told be about this place, because I was moving into my very own place,” said Autumn, a young Bed-Stuy resident there with her one-year-old son. “I have a ton of books, a shirt, I got placemats for my new table, and I like the idea. I have stuff at home that I don’t need, and I can bring it here, and someone else can have that same joy and glint in their eye when they find something new like I did.”
“Today I picked up a blanket, a sweater, a towel and just one sock,” said Adrian, a young Brooklynite who’d actually been on his way to Home Depot but decided to stop in the Free Store first. “There’s a huge dumpster-diving culture in New York that survives off of other peoples’ trash, and this is a good way to organize it and to clean it up a bit and present goods to people in a respectable way.”
Was he worried about bedbugs in any of his finds?
“No,” he said, with some hesitation. “I got a towel and a blanket, and I hope there’s not bedbugs in it? I might wash them first maybe. Maybe I won’t take the blanket.”
“You know, bed-bugs is right now an unfortunate fact of life in New York City that you have to worry about when you go shopping,” Thadeaus said. “Abercrombie and Fitch, Victoria’s Secret. Even if you work in an office building you have to worry about it. Condé Naste I think had them, and the Empire State Building.”
“If I were to find some clothes for free somewhere,” he said, “I would wash them. Put them in the dryer.”
Laurel walked past us carrying a PlayStation II.
“That’s actually not the first one we’ve gotten,” Thadeaus said, “and there was a Nintendo GameBox too. There was also a kitchen stove-like an apartment-sized kitchen stove-that just showed up the first week. It sat around a couple of days, and then it was gone. I don’t know how it got here or how it left, but it didn’t stay more than a couple of days.”
Are there any drawbacks to having a space where no one is in charge?
“For some people, this is like a living, breathing example of an anti-capitalist way of being,” Thadeaus said. “I was involved in a lot of the anti-globalization protests of the late nineties and earlier this decade, and that was a lot of protesting, breaking windows, saying what we’re against. And this is a demonstration of what we’re for. This is the new world that we wanna create. This is how it looks.”
So far, Thadeaus and Laurel agreed, the biggest drawback has been the weather-especially with winter approaching.
“We have a couple of ideas,” Thadeaus said. “You know, we claimed this lot, we occupied it, we took it over, and we’ve been thinking about like maybe we’ll do that with a building. I think it’d be a little bit harder to get away with, uh, but you know, we’ve got our lawyers.
“I’m just joking!” he said.
Laurel came up and asked for masking tape. She wanted to label a friend’s microphone she borrowed for the live music later that night, so she can return it later. “It’s the only mic here,” Thadeaus said, “I don’t think it will get mixed up.”
“I know,” said Laurel, “but I’m worried someone will walk off with it, thinking it’s for free.”