Free stores let customers give and/or take

Sunday, June 6: Shoplifting is highly encouraged at the Free Store.

Credit: Krista Eide

Krista Eide

At Rhizome Café’s monthly Free Store, customers can drop off old items, take home new ones, or just hang out

Yesterday I visited the Cortes Island Free Store, a small building with an interior that looks deceptively like a thrift store—neat racks of clothing, shelves of shoes, books, toys and housewares (pictured left). The only difference, besides the lack of price tags, is the sign on the front counter that reads: Shoplifting is Encouraged.

The Free Store, opened in 1992, is operated by the Cortes Island Recycling Centre and staffed with volunteers. It’s popular enough with the island’s 1,000 residents that it’s open four days a week, year-round.

Each time I visit Cortes I make sure to “shop” the Free Store. Sometimes I drop off old books or clothing, and other times I walk in empty handed and leave with a bag of treasures. And that’s okay. You bring what you don’t need anymore, and take what you can use, no questions asked.

Rhizome Café’s Free Store

317 East Broadway, Vancouver

Once a month, Rhizome Cafe holds a Free Store event. Check the calendar for the next event!

When I tell people in Vancouver that I found my practically new silk blouse or my suitcase at a free store, I sometimes get puzzled looks. Which always gets me thinking, with the increasing interest in building local economies, why aren’t there any similar operations (or, since retail space is at a premium, events) in Vancouver?

Then I found out about Rhizome Café’s regular Free Store, an event which has been held one Sunday a month since last fall. Rhizome has long been known for their community building efforts, including their daily pay-as-you-feel lentil stew and their equally accessible venue space.

Café co-owner Lisa Moore says the Free Store came about after years of trying to figure out what Rhizome could do to both build community, and help people share stuff.

“Most of us have enough, it’s just a matter of figuring out how to distribute it,” she says.

The event is run open-house style: Participants can show up anytime during the evening, drop off goods, find new stuff, chat with their neighbours, or stick around for a coffee and a bite to eat.

Each month has a different theme. Past themes have included clothing, book and records, art supplies, and for the next event, Sunday, April 11, from 5–8 p.m., the theme is kitchen stuff, which can include everything from whisks to gadgets, to photocopies of your favourite recipes.

Moore says attendees are enthusiastic, but, even after seven Free Store evenings, the concept is still challenging for those who feel that taking home more than they drop off isn’t a “fair trade.”

“It’s definitely been an interesting social experiment,” says Moore, who hopes more and more people get comfortable with simply taking stuff.

Would you support urban free stores? Do you know of any other similar events or operations in Vancouver?