Lorie Gassie misses the library. Since the pandemic shut down her local branch, the Queens resident has a pile of overdue books in her apartment that she cannot return.
That’s what brought Gassie to my stoop last week. I met her on Facebook, where we are both members of a Buy Nothing group that aims to create a little gift economy among its roughly 1,300 members.
My midnight bout with spring cleaning led me to post a few things on the page, including a coffee table book about the Met Gala. Gassie thought it would be good inspiration for her work as a costume designer; I wanted more space for my new money tree.
So we met, masks on, me wearing winter gloves on a 70-degree day to prevent any potential germ transmission. Gassie told me she joined Buy Nothing in March after a pregnant friend told her she found some free, hardly used baby clothes there.
“I was curious,” Gassie told me. “I got some books from a person a few blocks away from me and I gave away my recreational softball stuff for a family that has kids. A girl gave me some fun costume-y crafty things that I use for work on a daily basis.”
Gassie is one of the many residents who have turned to the Buy Nothing Facebook group during the pandemic. The movement started with two friends named Leisl Clark and Rebecca Rockefeller from Bainbridge Island, Washington, who made the first post in 2013. Interest has grown as coronavirus shuttered stores and left people across the country dependent on the kindness of strangers.
“Never have gift economy groups been more important and more useful,” Clark, 54, said. “People are starting to understand a little more about the value of not monetizing items, but actually sharing what we have in abundance rather than going to a store.”
The two women wrote a book called The Buy Nothing, Get Everything Project in April; groups continue to sprout up across the country. Each one has a few moderators; my local is led by three women.
One of them, a 28 year-old copywriter named Cecilia Stelzer, told me that these days she gets about 40 to 50 requests from new members who want to join each day. Before the crisis, that number was “probably more like 5 to 10” people.
“The number of people posting and joining now is far, far higher,” Stelzer said. “Since so much has shut down, nobody knows what to do with their stuff anymore. I see a lot more people who are excited to just go walk and pick up a single book. Before the pandemic, they were too busy to put in the effort. Now they’re interested in just getting these little things to cheer up their day.”
Rockefeller said that in the past, the group has faced criticism for catering to privileged people—those with access to the internet and a wealth of things to give away.
“People have said this was only good during times of robust financial markets, all that stuff,” she explained. “All along the way, we’ve been saying this is a way to deal with resources and prioritize relationships above personal hoarding, wealth, or accumulation. This is a way that people all over the world can take care of each other through hard times as well as the good times.”
Sherose Badruddin, a local administrator and volunteer with the project’s Development Team, mentors those who set up new groups in the southeast. She lives in North Carolina and works as a librarian for the state university’s graduate school.
“I joined the group a few years after I moved here from Chicago,” Badruddin said. “I saw it as a suggested page on Facebook—the algorithm introduced me. I was living below the poverty line at the time and I thought this would be a good way for me to get stuff for free. I soon learned it was much more than that.”
Badruddin remembers her first pickup: a black oscillating tower fan. “I thought I could never afford something this effective,” she said. “I was so excited. In getting free stuff, it forced me to pick it up on people’s porches, meet them somewhere, get around, recognize faces and places. It gets you to know your neighbors. It’s nice to know the people you see around. I stopped feeling like a stranger.”
The “sweet spot” for most groups is 500 members, according to Badruddin. “Once groups hit 1,000 [people], things quickly turn into first come, first served. You’re less likely to communicate with each other. It’s as if you walked into a room—three people can hold a conversation, 20 people you’re not going to be talking to everyone,”
Some groups have started limiting capacity. The Williamsburg, Brooklyn cohort stopped accepting new members after hitting 1,800 people. A woman who came to pick up some of my books admitted that she joined two neighboring groups. “The Williamsburg group has, like, 100 new posts a day,” she told me.
Especially in gentrifying neighborhoods, moderators are asked to “listen to what the community culture is.” A Buy Nothing Facebook group should ideally be made up of as many residents as possible—not just the ones who are quickest to scoop up every new item posted.
“The more hyper-local the groups are, the more true to the vibe and needs of the neighborhood, the more equitable they can be,” Clark said.
“Be mindful and ask yourself who you’re not hearing from,” Rockefeller added. “If there is a population missing from the group, what can you change to shift that? We’re not just in each other’s bubbles of privilege. We are very actively working to include everyone who lives in that community.”
Everyone seems to have their own reason for joining. Some people I spoke to wanted to ease their dependence on big-box stores and Amazon, especially as the pandemic’s financial fallout left them distrustful of capitalism. Others were simply looking for puzzles or games notoriously hard to come by in the early days of sheltering in place.
Clark and Rockefeller freely admit they buy things. “This is not meant to be a movement of doctrinal purity,” Rockefeller said. “It’s not, ‘Let’s see how much you can suffer’ and that makes you righteous. It’s about sharing everything that we can possibly share. That frees up the cash I have to spend on things I want, like buying a little drawing from an artist I like or supporting a small local business.”
Clark and her husband recently picked up a queen bed and boxspring from an acquaintance. During the socially distant exchange, the women bonded over learning they had both lived in Boulder, Colorado once. “It was a much more meaningful experience than just going to Home Depot and wishing we could get out of there as quickly as possible,” she said.
The group’s founders like to say that every Buy Nothing Facebook post tells a story; lately, those tales have grown more poignant.
“We are really seeing a reflection of the current culture in what people ask for,” Badruddin said. “Homeschool supplies and toilet paper: those two things are really, really hard to find.”
Especially around the end of the month, pages flood with people offering up furniture or other home goods to prepare for moving out. “I’ve seen people who have lost their housing, so others are offering their garage apartment or safe housing to hold them over until they find something else,” Rockefeller said. “A lot of families are welcoming back extended family members into their homes—suddenly they need a bed, a bedside table, clothing, all of this stuff that you literally can’t purchase right now.”
Stelzer told me that an acquaintance cleaning out her closets recently found “10 to 15 boxes” of Harlequin romance novels. These have proved surprisingly unpopular. “I’ve been trying to post them in Buy Nothing, and I haven’t gotten people to take any of them yet,” she said.
During the pandemic, many pick-ups have turned contactless; people leave items on their stoop rather than handing anything off. “I’ve noticed people being extra-cautious,” Stelzer said. “Someone had me give a pair of shoes to their dad. He didn’t want to come into my building, so I opened the front door a crack and handed them out.”
When I ran out of my apartment to give Gassie the book, I stopped at my front door and asked if she was OK with me coming closer. It felt appropriate to assume she was taking extreme precautions. She let me come down the stairs and pass off the book. “[It’s not like] I’m going to lick it,” she laughed.
“At the beginning [of the pandemic], people didn’t want to touch something you had touched,” Gassie told me. “People are less terrified now. [Coronavirus] is not over, but it feels a little less present. I’m going to go wash my hands, and we’ll be OK.”
Rockefeller hopes the Buy Nothing newbies are here to stay, even as stores reopen. “Buy Nothing becomes sustainable when it becomes a habit,” she said. “Once you have done this often enough, it becomes rote behavior. When you need something new, whatever it is, you will ask around for it.”