The first thing you notice when you walk into the Free Store is that it doesn’t have a cash register. There are no price tags on anything in the building. In fact the Free Store looks more like a typical college bungalow than any kind of store. If you see something you want in the Free Store, you can just take it. You don’t have to check with anyone, you don’t have to sign anything. You need something? Take it… and enjoy.
The Free Store’s motto is: “Give what you want, take what you need.” Simple but powerful.
“We’ve had the war on poverty for decades. There’s only so much you can do with money,” says Robert Forquer, the co-founder and president of the Free Store. “It takes people who are willing to connect with others and help create social capital.”
The items that the Free Store has in stock provide for the very real needs of the people in the community, but at its heart, the Free Store is about facilitating connections. And the leadership of the Free Store has consciously kept it small, because they want it to remain about those relationships.
“What we wanted to do was to create a space where people who normally wouldn’t connect, could connect and share life together,” says Forquer.
They don’t have any storage at the Free Store, so everything they have in stock is out on the shelves.
“We want to be a river, not a reservoir. If it comes in, we put it on the rack and it goes right back out,” says Forquer of their inventory. And if they get large donations, they simply share the wealth with other local charities like Crisis Assistance Ministry, which has storage space for surplus goods.
The Free Store is run through Vision Possible Ministries, a 501(c)3 charity, and you can get a donation receipt when you drop off your contributions. The store is open Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. and is operated by a unique team of volunteers.
At the Free Store, the line between volunteer and customer is almost non-existent. The volunteers are there to facilitate drop-offs and help when needed, but there is not an “us” or “them” mentality that you experience in other charitable organizations.
“Everybody is a taker and everyone is a donor. There are a lot of agencies in town that provide needs for people, and they are great at what they do,” says Forquer. “But there are very few that provide an opportunity for that human interaction and connection.”
When you pull up to the Free Store, just off of Caldwell Street in the rear of Area 15 (1138 N. Caldwell St.), you’ll notice men outside building a tiny house on a small trailer. These men are all volunteers and at one time or another all of them were homeless. But now they share a purpose, and the power of purpose is undeniable. This tiny house is part of the Free Store’s two-fold vision for the future, to provide affordable housing to those in need and to create the opportunity for mobile satellite Free Stores in 2016.
The Free Store does more than provide needed items — it challenges us to rethink the way we see charity.
As Forquer puts it: “Don’t just stroke a check or drop something off, but really look at how you can connect with somebody. It’s messier… but it’s so much more rewarding.”
If you are interested in donating or volunteering at the Free Store, check out their website or give them a call at 704-360-5175.