'Hood Happenings #3

Written by Liz Eagle

‘Hood Happenings
Entry 3: Good in the Hood: Free Store Charlotte
By: Liz Eagle

free-storeTo be cliché by starting with a cliché, I’d like to quote, well, a ton of folks by saying, “The best things in life are free.”  It’s true: friends, family, a sunny day, finding a premature gray hair before anyone else.  And I’ve got truisms for days (“Money can’t buy happiness”, “Money doesn’t grow on trees”, “A penny saved is a penny earned”).  But all those are just, well, sayings, until you put some walk to your talk.

Nowhere is this truer than at Free Store Charlotte, a “store” of sorts where everything is in fact free.  Imagine Value Village, meets grandma’s basement, meets clothing swap.  People drop off donations daily like a thrift store but as opposed to the items being sold, they are given freely to anyone who can find use for it.

The thought provoking motto of the Free Store is, actually, “Give what you want, take what you need.”  Some of you may know me from my “Cheap Momma” column and know I love all things cheap, especially free.  If it costs nothing, sign me up.  VIC card, library card, automatic bill-pay, don’t care.  I love a little something for nothing.

But the Free Store goes beyond that.  It takes this concept of “something for nothing” and evokes a new thought pattern: Do I really need all these “somethings”? 

For years, I’ve been donating all our old toys, clothes, household items, and even food here.  I have spent many days and hours gathered around a table of friends of various economic statuses (which is sickening to even make a distinction), growing relationally and trying to wrap my head around what it is in life that I really NEED.

A “recovering pastor”, Paul Fisher, along with his brother-in-law and lawyer, Robert Forquer, co-founded the Free Store about 3 years ago, utilizing space at small-business/creative incubator Area 15.  The space was perfect for this endeavor thanks in large part to its connecting with a financially struggling neighborhood (Optimist Park), community activism, and inspiring tenants. 

As Paul’s brain child, the Free Store was nurtured into safe space for people of all backgrounds to come and go, give and take as they please.  Paul told me often “We don’t even really care about the ‘stuff’ here; it only exists so that people will show up.”  When the Free Store moved from it’s warehouse space and into a house on the Area 15 property, the relational bit seemed a little more accessible. Paul placed significant value on relationships and very little value on stuff.  Often wearing a pair of white K-Swiss tennis shoes and a pair of jeans found at the store, Paul practiced what he preached.  Donning what he coined as “Free Store Fashions”, Paul sat with people, drank coffee with people, and ate meals with people that from the outside you would assume he had nothing in common with.  I remember my first few times at the Free Store, thinking of Paul as a modern-day Jesus-figure, giving his possessions and wisdom to those in need, myself included.  At one point, a sign hung outside that read “Only 4 items per person per day”.  After a few months of this, Paul and the late Sheila Reynolds decided this was not necessary, that they had no place deciding who should have what and that people needed to be encouraged to make informed, wise decisions concerning their possessons, that Jesus Christ himself stated “Freely you have received, freely give.”

The Free Store not only provided “stuff” and relationships for people, but jobs, food and housing.  The Sheila and her late husband Dave were once homeless and found employment working to manage the Free Store alongside Paul.  Another ex-homeless individual, George, found not only a home in the new Free Store location but also a venue to display and sell his brilliant art work.  Many others from the streets and otherwise stop by daily for an uncondemning Bible Study, accompanied by coffee and pastries that somehow always find their way there.

It was a breath of fresh air for me.  I had spent so much time, as so many of us have, chasing one fashion to the next, hoping to God to fit in with whatever crowd we were apart of, not realizing how consumerist I’d become, of how quickly we begin and are taught to value stuff over people.  The Free Store made me ready to think, ready to consume of things of greater value in life, like the art of giving, of sharing a meal with someone in a different life stage, of letting go of fear of those who are different.

I have plenty of Free Store Fashions: a awesome pair of black boots, a flannel shirt, some rad 80’s blouses, a pair of Tom’s, some purses, a set of dishes… And with all the books on the shelves, it’s easy to just simply treat it as a library, returning books after you’re done as opposed to storing them on a shelf, only to occasionally be dusted.  And my kids get down in some garb scored there, too: bathing suits, overalls, coats.  And when they out grow them (assuming they haven’t been destroyed) I drop them right back off for the next bidder.

A lot of groups come by to “help” the Free Store from time to time: church youth groups, businesses doing outreach, schools teaching community responsibility, and so on.  And lots of times, they’ll come by in hoards, all wearing matching t-shirts, ready to serve the “needy”.  What I have come to believe, though, is that though they may think they are “helping those less fortunate”, given time, they begin to rethink the definition of fortune.  That fortune has really little to do with monetary value and much to do with relational integrity and significance. 

Because the Free Store charges nothing for any item on the racks and shelves, you’ll see Janie and Jack next to No Boundaries, Ann Taylor next to Hanes, all on an equal level.  The hope is that this idea will spill over into interpersonal connections, that no one is labeled “needy” or “less fortunate”, that all are placed next to one aother, giving and taking with no hesitation.  I have seen many middle class people come through embarrassed to take anything, thinking they may be seen as greedy or that someone else may have greater need.  “Shame” is a word barely realized within the walls of this community space.  It is a space of acceptance, of love, and of uncanny friendships. I can say, though, it does make me reevaluate my need to have, acquire and possess.  Because of the motto, I often am more aware of my “purchases”, vowing to only take what I “need”.  Even writing this, I am re-thinking my last bag full and whether or not the gold shirt was a necessity and what my motivation for acquiring it was.  

With every commercial, television show, drive down the interstate, we are constantly encouraged and often subconsciously brainwashed into believing or need to consume is “natural” or “deserved”.   What if we took one month, one week, one day, to rethink our need to consume?  To think more about giving of ourselves than taking from society?  What if we let go of our fears and built relationships with people, instead of with our things?

Stepping out of my box and into the community of the Free Store was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.  It has changed me from the inside out, challenging everything I’ve thought about money, friendship, and goals.  I would encourage anyone who is fed up with the emptiness of the constant pursuit of an unattainable “something” to simply stop, to take yourself out of your comfort zone and into a space that will help you redefine what it means to be human and a citizen of our world, city, and individual communities.

Instead of giving yourself an elevated position on the hierarchy of income, level yourself with those you may otherwise deem as “less fortunate”.  Stop by for a cup of coffee.  Pick up a new book to read.  Drop off some unused wares and pick up something useful, even if what’s useful is a new friend.  I guarantee you’ll see richness in community and find some genuine good in this ‘hood.

Volunteer opportunities available. Donations can be dropped off at 1138 N. Caldwell Street, at the corner of 15th and Caldwell. The Free Store can be contacted at 704.287.7550 or They can be found on Facebook and Twitter as Free Store Charlotte. Free Store Charlotte is a 501-C3 and all monetary donations are tax deductible. Paul has recently moved out of state and the Free Store is transitioning management.


Liz Eagle   Liz Eagle

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