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Buy Nothing. Give Freely. Screw Retail.

Updated: Apr 8, 2022

By Naomi Serviss / New York City

In the early ‘60s

Superman and Little Lulu comics

cost 10 cents

at Farber’s drug store

in Elkins Park, a Philadelphia suburb.

Farber’s soda fountain,

chocolate candy smorgasbord

and comic book assortment

were a kid magnet.

Grown-ups appreciated

the friendly pharmacists and

the assortment of last-minute gifts,

notions and sundries.

The Philadelphia Inquirer

and the New York Times

were stacked near the entrance.

Honest folks placed coins on top

and slid their papers out

from under the change.

Walter Hill, 10 years old like me,

was a have-not, latchkey kid.

also like me,

and a bigtime sarcastic wisenheimer.

He lived across the street

in an unkempt apartment above Farber’s.

In sixth grade, his nemesis,

Miss Hester Sue Martin,

often invited him to

“Get out, get out and I don’t mean maybe!”

In a shrill, sing-songy way.

He challenged her,

and she wasn’t having it.

His contrarian nature spoke to me.

Walter was a rebel without a cause

way before James Dean.

We hung out together

because we were both free-range kids,

unsupervised and neglected.

Between my untamed magical thinking

and Walter’s disdain

for authority-reeking adults,

we were meant for each other

in an innocent, sixth-grade way.

He stole change from the stack of newspapers.

Once he dared me to try it.

I did.

The swiping thrill

cascaded into instant regret.

My face reddened and my stomach dive-bombed.

Guilt and remorse symptoms.

I liked the idea

of getting stuff for free,

but couldn’t reconcile thievery.

Instead, I scoured comic book ads

and cereal boxes

for “Free Stuff.”

It was a good scam.

The “Free Stuff” was typically

a pamphlet of government addresses.

Sometimes it was a shiny new penny.

Matchbooks had “Draw This Donkey and Win!”

on the inside cover.

I discovered that for an artist,

I’m a very good writer.

I loved getting stuff in the mail.

Still do.

That affection led to entering contests.

I won a box of Mallo Cups

after accruing 500 cardboard points

from buying single bars.

Then I tried to sell them.

To friends.

I blame greed and having no allowance.

Having neither an ethical parent,

secure housing

nor community support,

I learned falsely that money was a dream away.

The next bingo game.

A few Lucky 777s.

Or a horse race.

Liberating salt and pepper shakers

from Chinese restaurants

or knives from Ponderosa Steakhouses,

was condoned and rationalized.

As a mom raising two kids on Long Island,

I developed a burning passion

for thrift stores

in la-di-dah nabes.

Junior League shops

in tony Long Island suburbs

were stellar.

Garage sales in Cold Spring Harbor

were to die for.

These past few years

have reinforced my disdain

for retail shopping.

Felled by hip and foot surgeries in 2019,

I was better prepared

to quarantine than most.

I had earned my Ph.D.

in online purchases.

And well-practiced in hanging out

in my one-bedroom apartment.

But still, the sticker shock of clothes

and essentials was outraging.

There HAD to be a tangible way

to just say no to consumerism!

Yet, I have a need

to be surrounded by pretty things,

art, tchotchkes and souvenirs

from Paris, Florence, Rome,

Indiana, New Orleans and Quebec.

It gives me joy to see my son Ben’s

paper mâché sculptures

and my daughter Emmy’s

collages done up in sealing wax.

Usually in turquoise or magenta hues.

My favorite colors.

Green’s hers.

Other highlights

are thrift store treasures

snagged for under two dollars.

An ashtray from the Carlyle Hotel.

A new, leather-bound,

cheerfully painted notebook.

I’m a crow,

attracted to shiny, sparkly things

that are FREE or barterable.

Admittedly, I went the other route

for a while and decluttered.

You know, that Marie Kondo blip.

Stashed away my pink Topo Gigio eraser,

my court jester puppet from

Au Nain Bleu,

a famous Parisian toy store.

When I was finished,

the room felt naked.

I missed my clutter.

I also wanted to get rid

of dozens of tops

I hadn’t worn in two years.

Salvation Army had stopped making pickups,

so I was stuck

with a large garbage bag

full of top-notch tops.

We have very little elbow room

in our 750-square foot apartment.

Schlepping was out of the question

post-foot surgery.

An overstuffed garbage bag

packed with clothes

was trouble with “a capital T.”

Then a friend posted something

about her “Buy Nothing Group”

and I was mouth-agape-hooked

on the nomenclature.

No other three words

have stirred me more

these past two pandemic years.

What a concept!

The Buy Nothing Project

is the brainchild of

friends Rebecca Rockefeller and Liesl Clark,

who created an experimental,

hyperlocal gift economy

on Bainbridge Island, Wash.

in July 2013.

With a motto like

“Buy Nothing. Give Freely. Share Creatively”

It’s got to be good.

Turns out,

it’s a worldwide social movement.


Except for local shop owners, of course.


There are groups in 44 countries.

How come no one else I know

has heard of it?

I even schooled José Perez,

the world’s best doorman.

The bottom line is this group

creates its own economy

that’s parallel and complementary

to international cash economies.

It’s subversive! Abbie Hoffman would be proud.

Boomers may recall Hoffman’s cheeky tome

Steal This Book.

People join

to unload couches and broken dusterbusters

and get neato replacement stuff.

Like the guy offering

12 jars of gefilte fish,

or new mothers

looking for breast pumps.

The avocado toast?

A gross curiosity,

but someone’s gorgeous silver necklace

was popular.

Don’t ask about the menstrual cup.

The Vera Bradley crossbody bag

will come in handy

when we’re Boston- or Hattiesburg-bound.

You might receive yerba maté tea

from a new mother two doors down

who’s kicking caffeine cold turkey.

Then in private messaging,

learn that she’s not sleeping,

her infant son isn’t sleeping and

maybe the caffeine and black tea

consumed all day

isn’t such a hot idea.

But she loves coffee!

One suggestion offered

by a friendly neighbor:

drink coffee and black tea

in the morning and none after.

Two days later,

she and her son were sleeping better.

Buy Nothing isn’t just

about getting or giving material treasures.

It’s about familiar virtual names

becoming friends.

Meeting for café au lait

and a croissant next Wednesday.

Intergenerational schmoozing

and sharing experiences.

Hannah Deutsch, 34,

is a member

of my Buy Nothing group.

Her reasons for joining mirror others.

“I like being environmentally friendly

and a conscious consumer.

With the pandemic

and being home all the time,

I saw so much stuff

being thrown out.

I had finally joined Instagram

and found my way

to a lot of ‘trashy’ accounts:

The Trash Walker, Dear Mess,

Stooping, Curb Alert,

NYC Free on the Street.

They mentioned Buy Nothing a lot.

It sounded like a cool community

I joined and loved it!

Finding homes for things,

helping neighbors by lending,

getting to meet others in the area,

it was so fun

and filled a community void

that was empty

since I was home all the time.

There are over 1,500 people in our group.

I’m even more of a limited consumer now.

I’m glad to help others.”

Among my own prized scores:

Seafoam green and violet pedestal plant stand.

Twenty MAD magazines

from the late ‘80s.

A guitar stand

Assorted-sized gift bags.

Things gifted:

Women’s violet cashmere sweater

Bag of tops and wool sweaters

Unopened box of Farmer’s Dog food

A case of Hill’s cans

Dozens of dog toys.

Tomorrow I’m meeting Julia Kim,

who gifted me a gorgeous

green and purple pillow.

I’m a sucker for beautiful funky pillows.

Next project:

Find my Superman and Little Lulu comics

from Farber’s.

Walter Hill would be proud.


Naomi Serviss is a New York-based award-winning journalist whose work has been published in The New York Times, Newsday, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Highroads (AAA magazine), in-flight publications, spa and travel magazines and websites, including



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