The concept for the Baltimore Free Store grew out of the work of a number of social justice organizations centered in Towson, MD. Students from Towson University, Goucher College, and area high schools worked together on issues of Fair Trade, labor rights, anti-war, animal rights, and other pro community related issues. From fighting for a Living Wage for workers on university campuses to opposing corporate globalization, the students and the community worked together to make great strides towards achieving social and economic justice.
From 2000 to 2003 a number of individuals dumpster dived area stores and neighborhoods on a regular basis. Due to the amount and quality of items people were collecting the idea was posed to start having a space where those items could become available to others for free. The first such place was the basement of a house a number of Towson University students shared. There they established a school supply Free Store where school supplies pulled from area office supply store dumpsters were collected and made available to friends, and friends of friends for free. Items would include paper, notebooks, printer inks, pens, book bags, desks, chairs, computer cables, electronics, and so on. In addition a small textbook library was created with textbooks that students had thrown out when leaving from college.
In late 2002 it was decided to hold a public Free Store where anyone could come and take items that they wanted. The first Free Store was held in a church located in Towson, MD. The majority of the items made available had been dumpster dived with the opportunity for the public to donate as well. Following that two more Free Stores were held in a similar fashion with the last one in 2003.
In October of 2004 the early concept of the Free Store was taken and altered with the goal of becoming a self-sustaining, professionally run organization. The idea was to go to the communities who needed it the most. In addition the idea was to get communities involved, hand over control, and use the Free Store as a catalyst for social and economic change.
The first Free Store under the name of the Baltimore Free Store was held on December 18th, 2004 near the intersection of 31st Street and Greenmount Ave.
The Baltimore Free Store started as a 100% volunteer run organization. Working full time jobs, raising families, and being students, the founders of the Baltimore Free Store worked evenings and weekends to grow the organization.
All items for the first Free Store were collected over a couple of months from thrift store dumpsters. A Geo Prizm would be loaded with bags from the thrift store dumpsters a couple of times a week and the storage unit of a house apartment was used to store the items. Following the first Free Store a couple community members got involved and basements or spare rooms were used to store additional items.
In February of 2005 operations were moved to a one-car garage rented in the Charles Village neighborhood of Baltimore City. There we began collecting donations on Saturdays. At first we would spend our Saturdays mostly trying to organize the items we had already collected. Incoming donations were far and few. By late spring we were having an average of three to five cars coming through to donate a week.
In July we had an article in the local City Paper, which boosted our popularity three fold. We increased donations days to twice a week and had an average of 10 cars donating each week. We rented an additional garage as well as utilized a two-car garage behind a house one of the organizers was renting.
Throughout all of this we were continuing to develop our concept and hold Free Stores throughout the city. By the end of the Summer 2005 we had held four Free Stores, were taking in donations twice a week, and utilized three garages for the storage and collection of donations.
By the Fall of 2005 we were operating as a five person collective with a volunteer base of around 20 people. We picked up the pace of Free Stores, actually we changed the name at this time to ‘Free Markets’, to twice a month. From September to the end of December we tripled the number of Free Markets we had held to a total number of 12.
In November of 2005 a member of the collective received a fellowship with the Baltimore Open Society Institute to further the growth of the Baltimore Free Store. This meant the Baltimore Free Store now had a full time paid organizer. In January of 2006 we signed a contract on what is now our donation warehouse, an 8,000 square foot warehouse in Highlandtown. We moved out of the garages and into the warehouse space.
The donation warehouse expanded our possibilities incredibly. We now had office space, space to develop additional programs, and space to take in a lot more donations. We increased donation days to three times a week. We were now getting an average of 15 to 20 donors a week. We also started offering donation pick up service with a small monetary donation to help cover expenses. Acquiring the donation warehouse also meant we now had more need and opportunities for volunteer involvement. Our volunteer base slowly grew with more volunteers coming from the communities where we were establishing the Free Markets.
By the summer of 2006 we had held eight more Free Markets to bring out total to 20. We had increased our volunteer base to around 100 and started working with programs such as transitional housing projects and welfare to work programs that provided us with volunteers on a regular basis. This time period represented a big change in the operations of the Baltimore Free Store as involvement switched from being the original group of organizers doing the majority of volunteer work to community members from the areas where we had established Free Markets taking on the majority of the volunteer work. This was a big step because it was heading in the direction we wanted to go, towards community involvement and ownership.
This was also a dramatic time in terms of the overall operational structure of the Free Store. Over time the collective nature of the Free Store began to deteriorate. The Summer of 2006 marked a shift in how the Baltimore Free Store was managed and run.
Up until the Summer of 2006 we were having to reach out to communities and various organizations to find locations to establish Free Markets. The Summer of 2006 marked the first full block of Free Markets where we were invited by the community to come into the neighborhood. We joined with halfway houses, community centers, recreation centers, schools, and block parties to bring the Free Store to neighborhoods throughout the city
When this project was first started no one involved had any idea how fast things would take off. We went from having an idea pulling items from thrift store dumpsters and storing them in apartment storage units to operating out of an 8,000 square foot warehouse with 12 Free Markets under our belt and full time paid staff person, founder Matt Warfield, in a little more than a year. We were growing at such a rapid pace that sometimes it felt as if we were only there to facilitate a process that we had no control over.
Our growth came through trial and error. None of us knew how to start a non profit organization, run a business, operate a successful free distribution operation, manage a warehouse, or deal with the overwhelming number of relationships that come from working with people. We grew by trying something, judging its outcome, and then adjusting accordingly. We are still growing in this manner.
In August of 2006 we became a project of Fusion Partnerships, INC. This provided us the benefits of being sheltered by a non-profit 501(c)(3) organization. This increased our ability to provide tax deductions for monetary and item donations thus increasing the quantity of those donations.
We held numerous Free Markets between 2006-2009, and then in 2010 we opened our first permanent Free Store on W. Baltimore Street. After 7 months of operations – giving out nearly $100,000 worth of items – we decided it was time to look for a new space to call home.
Since closing the store, we have held approximately 1 Free Market per month, giving away up to $10,000 worth of donations to over 150 shoppers at each event.
With the experience we’ve gained and the community support we have earned, we look forward to opening a new store as soon as possible. We continue to search for the right space, in the right location, to expand our mission and engage the community. In the meantime, our Free Markets will continue going strong!