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.
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.
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.
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.
I blame greed and having no allowance.
Having neither an ethical parent,
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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
Meeting for café au lait
and a croissant next Wednesday.
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.
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.
Find my Superman and Little Lulu comics
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 BroadwayWorld.com