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The second 'R' is all about sharing

Free stores allow those of us who have too much stuff to give some of it away to others who can use it

A friend told me that a column I wrote -- "Don't Trash Your Unwanted Stuff" -- was taped up in his condo's garbage and recycling room. Underneath it, people place items that aren't trash, but are still useful, so other people can take them. That's how he got his wine rack, which his sommelier girlfriend has put to good use.

What if there was a store where you could drop off your unwanted, usable items and, for free, take something you needed? In Port Alberni, there is. The Island Re-and-Free Store (often called "the Re-And-Free" or "the Free Store") has been giving useful items a second life since opening in January.

"We give away housewares, clothing, footwear and knick-knacks ... all kinds of stuff, we give away for free. The whole idea is to give as much away for free as we can," says Shelley Shenton, the free store owner and organizer. "It's great to see kids who normally couldn't have a pair of Nike shoes or the latest jackets can get them for free, or people who have to start over again after a fire come and get stocked up."

The Re-and-Free is the second Port Alberni free store. The first ran for almost two years, but closed in November 2009 when its operators moved away. The new Port Alberni Free Store is open five days a week, and is operated entirely by volunteers.

But how can you run a store where you don't sell anything? The bills are the same: heat, hydro, rent and disposal fees for items that are too far gone to be given away. There's still the overhead associated with retail, but without the profit.

Shenton's solution is to sell certain items for a small fee, as well as selling metal from items that are no longer useful (such as old dishwashers, fridges or wiring) to pay that overhead. In the last four months, the Re-and-Free has collected four tons of scrap metal.

"We do the 're' to provide the free. We're reselling stuff because we want to have the free store," she says.

Port Alberni isn't the only community with a free store. Hornby Island has one of the oldest, founded in the late 1970s by residents concerned at the high cost of shipping items to and from the island.

"You can find anything here, because we take anything, pretty much. At one point, I even took cars," says Stani Veselinovic, the recycling manager. "Anything you can think of, it's here. And it's all free. And everybody uses it."

During the busy summer tourist season, Hornby's free store is super busy, he says. Paperback books are cleaned out. During the interview, Veselinovic counted 40 customer cars in the parking lot.

The Hornby Free Store is totally free. It's subsidized through the Hornby Island Residents' and Ratepayers' Association, and the Comox Valley Regional District. Like the Port Alberni Free Store, it's run by volunteers.

Free store donations often come from people who like the idea that the stuff is being given away for free, Veselinovic says.

"A lot of people bring their stuff because they know nobody else is being charged for it. A lot of Hornby's summertime residents live in Vancouver or Edmonton or elsewhere, and they bring their stuff here because they know there's no other organization making money from it," he says.

Both Denman and Saturna Islands have free stores. The Cowichan Valley Regional District has two more -- Bings Creek and Peerless Road. In the Capital Regional District, though, I couldn't find any free stores. But what seems to be popular in town is, an online site that lets people post items for free. That's only items that are free, not any items for sale or anything that involves a fee.

The group is moderated by locals, and in the last month, there have been more than 700 items offered for free. Some items have come and gone in less than an hour. This year, the Luminara Festival is even on the local freecycle boards, searching out things that might make good lantern parts for the late-night festival of light.

If freecycling online isn't your thing, useful items can be dropped off at the CRD's recycling area at Hartland Landfill. The items are donated to local non-profit organizations, who then use or sell them to help fund their operations. It's been going since the early 1990s.

"This is in recognition of the second 'R', right? We want to reuse things whenever possible, and help out our local community as well," says Tom Watkins, the manager of solid waste operations at Hartland Landfill. "I'd encourage people -- if they want to bring stuff up -- to check with the attendant on site, or call our recycling hotline at 250-360-3030, or even check online to see what is and isn't acceptable."

Watkins is often asked why people can't take items from the CRD facility. The landfill has a no-scavenging bylaw, and in a larger area such as the CRD, a free store might attract people who are collecting items to sell, then returning unsold items. The intent of the facility is to support local non-profits, not to help individuals or businesses to make money, Watkins says.

Shenton, of Port Alberni's Re-and-Free, thinks all communities should have a free store. It's an appropriate response to so many people having too much stuff, she says.

"If you're going to buy new, give us your old stuff so it can go on to someone else. We want to promote buying second-hand instead, and help us stop being a throw-away society," she says.

"The kind of store that we're doing here, communities could start up on their own. It's a small vision, but a significant one all the same."

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