Free Market store in Grayson County, Virginia. (Photo by Sara June)

“Bring what you no longer need, take what you can use,” reads a flier advertising the Free Market in Independence, Virginia.  Kathy Cole met me at a country store near a crest of winding road in Grayson County.  The Free Market is Kathy’s innovation; a store where people can donate or take home gently used things for free.  

When I walked through the door, I was welcomed by volunteers and shopping neighbors.  I noticed several coffee carafes in the housewares department and remembered I need one for my coffee maker.  But now, here at the Free Market, there are a couple that I can take home and try with my coffee maker.  After browsing through a couple more aisles, I sat down with Kathy to hear more about this little store where everything is… free.  Really, things are free there.  

The Free Market was an idea that came to Kathy when she was considering ways to keep useful things out of the Grayson County landfill.  She remembered when she lived in married student housing in grad school and there were shelves in a laundry room where students could leave things they didn’t use anymore or take something that they needed.

“I thought, that’s how the world should work,” said Kathy, who began to dream of owning a warehouse. “A place where people bring things they no longer want or need and other people can take them home for free.”  

When neighbors in Grayson began to look for ways to keep things out of landfills, Kathy remembered her college days.  She wondered if a system of upcycling or sharing could have a positive impact on the landfill.  That’s when Kathy began to formulate an idea for a free store.  She reached out to community leaders and county officials and they liked it.  

Considering start-up and operation costs, Kathy needed to locate a home for the store.  Because this was going to be a space where nobody was making money and everything was free, she needed to find a building that would give her the best possible lease terms.  

Kathy found a small commercial building that had once housed a heating/cooling business and, when it closed, it left its equipment and inventory on the premises.  The owners were looking for ways to clean out and revitalize it.  When Kathy approached them with an idea for her store, and when she offered to relocate the existing contents and assume maintenance for the building, both parties found they could help each other.  They agreed to a year-to-year lease.  She also helped the property owners take advantage of a Grayson County tax benefit.  Because the Free Market was offering community service, Grayson would reimburse the owners – Kathy’s new landlords – for their annual county property taxes.

The Free Market opened in September 2017 and operates just like a store… only there’s no cash register.  Housewares, office supplies, tools, hardware, and greeting cards are organized on shelves like any retailer.  Visitors can bring in items to donate or shop for something they need.  Anyone can leave some cash in a donation box or, when money is tight, you can simply take your chosen items and leave.  Cash donations go to keep the lights on.  

In subsequent years, the Free Market expanded to add two outreach areas, a medical supplies lending service and emergency housewares for people in urgent need.  These outreach areas are separate from the Free Market.  Anyone who needs to borrow medical equipment – wheelchairs, walkers, canes, crutches, shower seats, etc. – can find a support device that suits them.  Urgent-need housewares are available by referral only.  People who have no resources and are just starting out, or starting over, can bring in a referral from their caseworker, counselor, law enforcement, or religious leader and make an appointment to get some nearly-new housewares. 

Medical Equipment Lending at the Free Market. (Photo by Sara June)

The Free Market fills a critical need in a rural place with limited access to affordable household supplies. For this reason, the store isn’t a good fit for collectors or re-salers.  It’s 17 miles from Independence to a big-box store or a donation center like Goodwill.  In an area with limited work opportunities and a rising cost of living, it means a lot for neighbors to find something they need and bring it home for free.  Look at it this way, is it worth spending the money for gas to drive 17 miles to buy a $4, three-ring binder for your 3rd-grader when you can walk a mile to the Free Market and get it for free?  

I asked Kathy if she had any recommendations for other rural communities who want to set up a similar program.  “Coordinate with your county,” she said.  “Let them know how this program will benefit them because, for example, our county has to pay $55/ton to put things in the regional landfill.  In 2017, we kept track of a sample of weights to estimate how much we are keeping out of the landfill.  We took our first sample shortly after we opened and we calculated that we’d saved the county $2,000 in tipping fees.  When you can show the county how you’re helping them, they will become more of a partner who is invested with your effort.”

Another consideration is locating an existing non-profit that can house a community service like the Free Market.  Operating under a parent organization meant that Kathy didn’t have to spend time with paperwork and locating money to establish her own non-profit.  The mission of her store fell under the umbrella of an existing non-profit called Grayson LandCare*.  Started in 2008, Grayson LandCare was established to serve and preserve Grayson’s rural and agricultural heritage, advocate for the region, and expand economic opportunities while working to protect the environment.  Kathy’s free store checked a lot of boxes for Grayson LandCare and being a part of an established non-profit offered access to information about more funding sources, support for grant writing, and amplified community presence.

The Free Market is located on the outskirts of Independence.  It’s open 10 AM – 2 PM, Thursday through Saturday.  A chorus of neighbors and volunteers will be delighted to greet you, receive your box of donated, clean, gently used items, and point you to the department which might have that one thing you’ve been needing… and it’s free!

Be well, country… and be in touch.

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