New York store gives away goods for free

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New York store gives away goods for free

Every day for the past few months thousands of people have crowded into the narrow streets of downtown Manhattan. Some people describe them as ‘disaster tourists’ because they have come to look at Ground Zero, the site of the 9/11 attacks, or to look at Wall St, where the current financial crisis began. This week, though, visitors expecting to take a close look at terrorist and economic catastrophe have been amazed to find something far more positive just around the corner.

It is a shop front in Nassau Street, a couple of blocks away from Wall Street, that would be completely ordinary without the two words on the shop window: Free Store. These days, slogans like ‘free store’ usually mean the opposite – they are often used to market exclusive shops that sell nothing cheaper than $1,000. But in this case free store means exactly what it says. Every item on offer inside the small shop is free. Anyone can come in off the street and browse through its goods, select an item and, if they think they need it, walk out with it completely free of charge.

Last week it sold a variety of goods, from kids’ dresses and art supplies, to DVDs, posters and postcards. The shop is the idea of two artists, Athena Robles and Anna Stein, who launched it with the help of a $9,000 grant from a local cultural body and the September 11 fund. They began planning it 18 months ago but believe it is opening at the right time. “It’s a certain time in history in this country when people really need to help each other out.”

Five minutes after the store opened on Friday, it was packed with ‘shoppers’ browsing through its T-shirts, scarves, baskets and boots. Robles and Stein explained that people could take whatever they wanted. The only condition was that they thought they “needed it”. They wrote down each transaction in their records and gave the customer a receipt just like in any normal shop.

Richard, a travel agent who works in Wall Street, chose a large framed photograph of Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. “It’s a great time to make people happy by giving them gifts, and why not?” he said. “The government has given money to the car companies and the banks, so it’s nice to get something back for once.” Kevin walked away with a free copy of a book called Great Sex Trips. So why did he think he needed a book with a title like that? “Why not? You can always learn something.”

Robles and Stein got the idea for the shop from the free stores that appeared in San Francisco and New York in 1967. They were set up by the hippy group the Diggers. In San Francisco, the Diggers set up two shops in the Haight-Ashbury district. In these shops, men returning from the war in Vietnam exchanged their uniforms for hippy clothes and ate vegetable soup known as Digger Stew. The Diggers even set up free hospitals for those who did not have insurance, as well as free concerts.

Stein and Robles don’t have the same kind of ambitions as the 1960s Diggers, and their project is more artistic, where the Diggers were more political. But they are planning to keep the store open until the end of March. “When we started I was worried we would run out of stuff,” Robles said. “But after two days that’s no longer a worry because people are bringing in bagfuls of lovely things.”



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