Don’t know what I want, but I know how to get it,” Johnny Rotten snarled decades ago in the first verse of “Anarchy in the U.K.” No better sentence serves to describe Brooklyn’s Free Store, the anarchist give-and-take that popped up on Walworth Street in Bed-Stuy this summer. A one-stop shop for household debris that would otherwise clog our sidewalks, this tarp-covered alleyway is sure to offer something for every discerning freegan and cheapskate.
The Free Store, denoted by a large bed-sheet sign and a Winnie the Pooh doll affixed to the space’s outer chain-link fence, has invaded a space next to the largest symbol of capitalism in the area: Home Depot. It’s an interesting contrast. Both of these institutions are trying to help consumers build a maintainable life; however, one will charge you an arm and a leg for raw materials while the other will literally give you an already completed piece of furniture—albeit one that might have a few scrapes or a missing leg.
The brainchild of some free spirit named Thaddeus, the Free Store first sprung up July 1, 2010, but the “grand opening” wasn’t until September. The notso-subtle anti-capitalist vibe carries over to the space’s management: there is none, save several volunteers who hang around to make sure no one torches the place or turns it into a Kentucky Fried Chicken. Occasionally, workshops are held on the site with names like “Bike Basics” and “Wine Fermentation.” I have also heard tales of tribal face-painting, but no such activities were occurring the days I visited.
The news stories I had seen before visiting the Free Store foolishly led me to believe it was a much larger space. I envisioned some kind of vast hidden backyard littered with piles of outmoded appliances and car parts. Sadly, the Free Store is just a bedroom-sized slice of this alleyway covered by a tarp. I’m sure sometimes something’s happening on the patch of grass in the rear—like the aforementioned workshops—but there is no magical graveyard for surplus showroom furniture.
Also absent: a triumphant black anarchist flag flapping proudly in the breeze. For some reason, this was a major disappointment. How was I supposed to truly feel the spirit of the movement flowing though me without the proper cloth representation? Why, without such a bold state-smashing symbol, this was just another stray pile of junk most New Yorkers were wont to ignore. At least that’s how I felt. I guess I’m just big on tradition.
Under the tarp, I saw what was more or less the Circle K version of a thrift shop: a few racks of clothes, a small mountain of shoes, shelves of books and various electronic odds and ends from the period after Carter but before George W. My eyes also soon met with an already opened jar of mayonnaise sitting all by its lonesome on a wooden perch. The contents appeared to still be vaguely mayo-based, although I’d wager a guess refrigeration hadn’t been in the picture for at least 48 hours.
You gotta hand it to these people, I thought. They recycle everything.
Does mayo have other non-food applications? Personal lubricant? I know that’s what they do in some southern jails.
They call it the slick leg. Rub mayo all over your cell mate’s thighs and go to town.
The most bountiful of the Free Store’s areas was, of course, the literary section. There I walked away with a paperback copy of Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park and a hardcover copy of that Dominick Dunne retelling of the O.J. Simpson trial. The latter has seen better days; warped, smelly, I won’t be surprised to learn it has been infected with bedbugs. Those ornery little critters should probably be on the mind of any given Free Store shopper, but then again, everyone in the greater New York area should be well aware by now that even the air we’re breathing may carry them.
As hoary and clichéd as it seems, Brooklyn’s Free Store is a reflection of our times. The economy has forced people from all walks of life to hunt down the absolute best deals. What beats zero dollars? No politics in that. As such, the Walworth space has seen plenty of business from outside the hippie and crust punk sets. During one visit, the only other customer was a middleaged woman you could have easily dropped behind the counter of a Midtown bank.
The woman in question looked like maybe she was on the hunt for a microwave, which is the one appliance with which I’m currently overstocked. Picturing the white behemoth that’s been sitting by my front door for ages, unsold and unwanted by any of my friends, I quickly made my way out from under the tarp to try and figure out how to carry that giant Kenmore eight blocks without wrenching my back.