It sounded too good to be true: a store where everything cost exactly nothing.
But that’s just what you would have found if you walked by 55 Church St., the storefront across from the Rite Aid on the corner of Church and Crown, last summer.
This past May, two Yale students, a Cooper Union student, and a New Haven resident banded together to found the New Haven Free Store. Their vision for the store was grand: a community space for the disenfranchised, a means of bringing diverse groups together, and an effort to prop up the local economy of New Haven.
The Free Store shut its doors at the end of July. What went wrong, and it will it ever come back?
A SAFE COMMUNITY SPACE
In the fall of 2010, Ben Aubin, then an employee of Blue State Coffee, read an article about Hans Schoenberg ’10. Schoenberg was developing a website for the exchange of free gifts. Aubin, who had run a free store in Portland for three months out of an old bus, was looking to start another one in New Haven.
It was a match made in heaven.
Through Project Storefronts, an initiative of the New Haven Department of Cultural Affairs that helps entrepreneurs find space downtown, the team — which now included Cris Shirley ’10 and Marion Hunt, a Cooper Union School of Art student — gained access to the property at 55 Church St. For the first three months, rent would be free.
The first donation came from Yale’s Recycling Department, an organ that no longer exists, comprising several tons of clothing that Yale students had discarded at the end of the year. Soon after, a friend of one of the founders donated half a dozen industrial-grade clothing racks. They opened in June.
For the first two weeks, said Schoenberg, there was a line at opening every day. Most people had heard about the store through word-of-mouth, newspaper coverage, and local radio, he said, but it didn’t hurt that there was a bus stop directly in front of the door.
“Housekeepers, janitors, people who had downtown jobs but lived outside of town would go to the bus stop and see the Free Store,” he said.
The basic mission of the Free Store was simple.
“On the one hand,” Schoenberg said, “we have a large portion of the population that can’t afford basic necessities. On the other, we have people for whom basic necessities are so affordable as to be basically meaningless. They hemorrhage waste. The Free Store took advantage of these two societal ills and generated a great solution for both.”
But it became more than that, too. Most of the customers and the volunteers who worked at the store were unemployed. Many were also homeless.
“People developed a feeling of gratitude and love,” Schoenberg said. “It was a safe community space in which everyone felt welcome, and there were no prices to make anyone feel unwelcome.”
It was also a place to help the homeless learn about and apply for assistance, Martina Crouch ’14, who volunteered at the store, said.
Besides free stuff, the store also offered workshops taught by its volunteers. By the three-month mark, Crouch said, workshops in mural-making, flipbook-making, magazine publication and bag-making were up and running. Shirley ran an enormously popular workshop in bike repair where participants would repair two bikes and take one home. There were plans for a screenprinting workshop, a recycling workshop, even a day camp.
Sometimes the store ran out of items, but at the beginning there was a persistent sense of plenty.
“I think much of the positive energy in the store was enabled by the abundance of stuff that we had,” Schoenberg said. The volunteers, he said, “were having a great time, because they were finally able to contribute to society.”
‘IGNORANCE FINDS PEOPLE, EVEN IN VOLUNTEERING SITUATIONS’
Nevertheless, there were hurdles to clear.
For one thing, if the store was to be sustainable, it would eventually have to pay rent.
Aubin had some ideas for generating revenue.
He hoped that some of the people the store trained in bike repair or screenprinting would be able to turn a profit in the exercise of those skills. Then, Aubin said, the Free Store would suggest that they return a percentage of their profits in gratitude for the training.
There was also a plan to have customers sign up for a wishlist of items to be delivered to their homes. The Free Store would use bikes with trailers to carry the goods around town and sell ad space on those trailers to local businesses.
Yet Aubin said he was the only member of the group with sales experience — and on top of that, the managers could not agree on a brand image for the store.
“So many aesthetic arguments were going on between the three partners,” said Aubin. According to Aubin, Shirley was gunning for an “anarchist aesthetic” while Aubin and Schoenberg were aiming for something closer to the “pristine retail environment” of Urban Outfitters.
Worse yet, the landlord was getting fed up with what he saw as a “homeless hangout,” according to Schoenberg, and would not allow the store to remain in the building after the first three-month period.
(As of Thursday evening, the landlord at 55 Church St. was on vacation and could not be reached.)
By the evening of July 30, almost everything in the store had been packed up for the move to a new location on Court Street. But the Free Store would soon be done for good, a result of a fight that broke out among some of the volunteers.
“Part of the problem of working with [volunteers] who have these storied pasts is that they also have, generally, a lot of emotional problems,” Schoenberg said.
And those pasts were indeed storied.
“It was actually a running joke that if we had to do background checks, we would have to kick out all the volunteers,” he said.
Sometimes volunteers just wouldn’t show up, Crouch said. And there had been multiple instances of bad behavior before the fight that would spell the end of the Free Store. Schoenberg estimates that there was a “violation of property rights” in the store roughly once a week.
“Our motto became, ‘Everything is free in the Free Store’ — if you bring valuables in, you have to pay attention to them,” Schoenberg said.
The fight broke out July 30, one day before the move. None of the managers were present. (Of the five weeks that the store operated, Schoenberg said, there was a period of a total of three hours during which the volunteers were left unattended.)
One volunteer, Jacob, started arguing with another, Bob, over who was the rightful owner of a chair that remained in the store. According to Schoenberg, Alexis, a much younger volunteer, started siding with Bob. Jacob gave up the chair.
The whole incident was captured by an anonymous online poster (presumably Alexis) on the version of the story that made it into the New Haven Independent:
“I told the man who gave up the chair that ignorance seems to find ppl even in volunteering situations,” the poster wrote. “The man came over there, started stating that I was a bitch and so I did what any bitch would do … I grabbed a huge kitchen knife donated and continued sweeping up crap [sic].He tried to hit me twice with a damn metal chair and both times, I deflected his attempts with my arm … can u believe it … I called the cops after he picked up a fire extinguisher and I would do it all again.”
The landlord of the building on Court Street saw the story in the New Haven Independent and backed out. The Free Store was kaput.
(On Thursday evening, Wareck Real Estate, the company that owns the property on Court Street, was not responding to calls.)
“It was a huge letdown,” Crouch said. “Once it was clear that we were not going to have a Free Store, many of the volunteers left in complete dejection and we very sadly moved our stuff to a storage space and left it there.”
Schoenberg was riled.
“Just the idea of a landlord sitting on an empty property when you can create such a community is really infuriating,” he said.
SHIFTING THE EARTH
It was 6:00 p.m., and people were starting to come out of a soup kitchen on Temple Street.
One man, who asked to be identified as “J,” was a volunteer at the Free Store. He lives in an apartment with his family and said he works “sometimes,” as a carpenter or in marketing.
“I think the Free Store was probably one of the best things that ever happened to this city,” he said. “In the times we’re living in — the greedy times — it changed the dynamic of the land. Nobody believed there was anything, anywhere for free — but when they came near, their whole mindset was changed. It made people want to give. It helped shift the earth.”
The next man, Mitchell, had shopped at the Free Store. He said he had worked as a butcher but was forced to quit for medical reasons.
“Where I worked in the butcher place,” he said, “my jeans used to get messed up with blood, and I had no money to wash them. That store helped me out a lot.”
Brad Scheller said that he earned his master’s in business administration from Harvard and went into management consulting before turning to venture capital around 10 years ago. Through a series of freak accidents — his wife was ill, several of his partners died — he found himself impoverished and unemployed.
“The fact that people set that up in this community showed that someone cared,” he said. “If that store continued, it could have served as a focal point for all the services [the homeless and poor] need.”
And for the Yale students who worked there, the store was a means of getting direct experience of people and situations they might not have otherwise encountered, Crouch said.
“As a Yale student,” Schoenberg said, “I was led to believe that I was of an almost elite class due to my talent, abilities, knowledge, and ‘sharp intellect.’ Working at the Free Store made me realize how inspiring people who I would have dismissed can be.”
For now, the New Haven Free Store is gone. But there may be hope for a revival, or something like it.
Ben Aubin is trying to secure space in an abandoned clock factory outside the city, and is currently writing a how-to book on setting up free stores. Next week, he plans to launch a supply caravan that will travel between the “Occupy” movements in New York and Boston — in essence, a moving free store. Schoenberg’s gift exchange website, GiftFlow.com, got off the ground last week.
Outside the soup kitchen, feelings about the disappearance of the New Haven Free Store ranged from confusion to frustration. When I asked to interview a harried man as he made his way into the soup kitchen, he brushed me off.
“Open up another free store,” he growled. “Then I’ll talk to you.”