Tired of spending money on the things you need? Then try joining a truly free market

At its heart it is an old-fashioned swap meet

Published May 10, 2019 8:00PM (EDT)

A man sells bread rings and donuts at a flea market in the port of Piraeus, near Athens, Sunday, June 28, 2015. (AP Photo/Thanassis Stavrakis) (Thanassis Stavrakis)
A man sells bread rings and donuts at a flea market in the port of Piraeus, near Athens, Sunday, June 28, 2015. (AP Photo/Thanassis Stavrakis) (Thanassis Stavrakis)

This article was produced by Local Peace Economy, a project of the Independent Media Institute.

Imagine needing a refrigerator, a child’s car seat, and a stroller. Except you’re broke and have no funds to make a Target or a Walmart run. What do you do?

Detroiter Halima Cassells has the answer: Create your own Free Market.

Cassells is co-founder of Free Market of Detroit—a place where you can probably find the things you need, and then some.

It started in 2012 like this: Cassells had a year-old baby, and since her other daughters were so much older, she no longer had the baby supplies she needed. So, she decided to host a backyard BBQ, invite all her family and friends, and ask them all to bring baby items they no longer needed. People could take what they needed, as much as they needed. The result was all the moms in need left with more baby gear than they could have imagined. Their needs were met. And they didn’t spend a dime.

Fast-forward to 2019. The Free Market has grown into a regular event, with one or two held a month, dozens of people attending each one, serving a thousand or more annually. There is a DJ, there is a dance space, and everyone brings as much to give away, or as little, as they are comfortable doing. Some people who might not have an item to give will offer to teach people something, like knitting, crocheting, or yoga. They can also pledge to host a Free Market in their own communities.

In this way, the Free Market of Detroit is a multi-genre interactive installation, while at its heart it is an old-fashioned swap meet—although nothing is technically traded. It’s all given, freely, says Cassells.

“It’s grown into... a space where everyone who enters is part of a circle of giving and people are inspired to up-cycle, make things, and be creative and learn new things,” says Cassells. “There’s space to share stories, and bask in their own wealth of their community.”

When Cassells realized how abundant her community was, she asked herself, “How can we put this [idea] to good use? It amazed me how much stuff people were really happy to get rid of, and happy it would be used. That was the beginning, and a lot of those questions continue [to] inspire more questions like, ‘What is value? How do we place value? Is it time specific? Beauty specific? Status specific?’ ...How do we place value on objects and people and usefulness of time and information?”

Cassells continues to explore the transformation of apparent scarcity into abundance with her co-founders. “These questions led me to continue the Free Market, especially with the help of friends: What if we made this bigger, what if we set it up like a store and made it inviting? What if we had a DJ and dance floor?”

Cassells says it grew from a place of asking, “how can we uplift our wealth and not have to spend money?” into celebrating the fun of being in community and helping to meet each other’s needs, and get more people involved. Some people are great at sewing and jewelry making, or art, and at the Free Market, they can share their skills.

In this way, says Cassells, “We’re pushed to say, ‘What can I give? What do I have that I’m happy to give?’”

While the first Free Market was small and intimate, within the year it became a holiday swap, and provided an opportunity for people looking to opt out of the ultra-consumerism of the holidays. It’s grown to public events held around the city, and anyone can “pay it forward” by hosting a swap in their own community.

“I think just by encouraging people to do it, and being in a model that is anti-capitalist, it makes me happy to share it,” says Cassells. “It makes me happy to see it proliferate.”

She encourages people to host their own in a way that fits them, adding she doesn’t “own” the idea. “It makes me happy to see people doing more, and more people continue to share resources, stories, ideas, and moments of gifting and fun with each other throughout the city.”

The Free Market may bring about one pitfall: “At one point, I started to hoard stuff, because I was finding so much cool stuff. Now I’m minimal—I love the detachment to things, and the things that are really special, we know what those are and why.”

The things that aren’t so “special” are cycled through, throughout the family and community.

“It’s affirming to know whatever we need is already out there; we don’t have to buy it.”

Cassells talks about how, if she’s wearing a bracelet, “there’s all this memory associated with it… It creates a different relationship with objects.”

And, she says, it creates, “a deeper sense of trust—just knowing we are all provided for. Our nature is to be interconnected and to live in abundance,” she continues. “Every place that I have been, in every culture, I see people giving generously with each other. It’s only in commerce that we act differently.”

She’s also quick to give credit that the idea is nothing new. After all, for thousands of years, the indigenous people of the land Detroit now sits on engaged in freely giving what was needed to others. The practice is ancient.

It’s only recently we’ve been forced into the paradigm of purchase.

Here are Cassells’ tips for starting your own Free Market:

    1. Start small in your circle. Set up a swap table (or designated space) at a get-together or holiday. When you invite folks, just let them know to bring something to give away. It’s the beginning of the practice, but it may turn into a really cool holiday tradition.
    2. Identify places close by that can be put to good use for all of the items that are left at the end. There are often lots of items left, and people feel better knowing they will be gifted on than taking them back home.
    3. Do what feels doable and fun! Bring what you love to the party and invite others to do the same.

By Valerie Vande Panne

Valerie Vande Panne is a writing fellow and chief correspondent at Local Peace Economy, a project of the Independent Media Institute. She is an independent journalist whose work has appeared in the Boston Globe Sunday Magazine, Columbia Journalism Review, the Guardian, Politico, and many other publications.

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