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Buy Nothing. Give Freely. Screw Retail.

Updated: Apr 9

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.


Anti-retail.


Except for local shop owners, of course.


Kismet.


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 BroadwayWorld.com

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