The home of the free

by Brian Clarey

The home of the free

When Black Friday comes, the stores hire extra help. They’ve got attendants waving traffic in the parking lots, extra shopping bags and gift boxes stacked below the counters, plenty of small bills and coins in the registers.

When Black Friday comes, the seasoned shoppers lay out game plans and itineraries, create budgets to blow, sharpen their elbows while amateurs get trapped in auxiliary parking lots and interminably slow checkout lines.

When Black Friday comes to Glenwood, it does so with more of a smile than a grimace, more of a conscious awareness of this compulsion to consume that seems to grip us all as the days grow short.

“The big idea is to get people to stop and think how much they’re consuming,” says Kathy Clark, asquint behind her sunglasses against the early afternoon glare. She’s been organizing the Really, Really Free Market here at the Hive for two years now.

“It’s in conjunction with AdBuster’s Buy Nothing campaign,” she says. “Instead of consuming more, buy nothing.”

So while across the nation bank balances are depleted and credit statements are fed transactions, here in Glenwood, in the parking lot of the Hive, commerce stops on the corner and true giving remains.

It’s a subversive idea in an era where we have been conditioned to believe that our spending habits fuel our economy, and there’s something vaguely un-American, if not downright unpatriotic, about getting something for nothing.

But the Really, Really Free Market comes at a good time, with unemployment figures topping 10 percent and many families apprehensive about what the coming year will bring, not to mention the onslaught of winter.

There are warm clothes here at the Really, Really Free Market: sweaters, sweatpants, jackets and hats awaiting the chance to once again fight off January chills. There are cases of CDs by artists you’ve never heard of, unless you’re a fan of the band Romance’s work on The Divide or been hoping you’d stumble across a copy of Alice Gomez’s The Healing Flute.

Other treasures lurk amongst the piles: shoes, ladies’ office attire, model railroad magazines from the 1970s, a goodas-new scanner and computer keyboard, lampshades, video cables and a roll of pink bubble wrap.

Along the side of the building runs a table loaded with produce — peppers, cukes, a bucket of kale and some questionable mangoes. There are books: schoolbooks and self-help books and picture books and paperback novels. There are pictures without frames, frames without pictures and look, right over there, a perfectly good Panama hat.

Nick Fields holds up an extra-large, candy-striped nightshirt, compares it to his slight frame.

“I’m probably going to take it,” he says. “I am going to make it into a fire-eating tunic.”

Over at his table, a couple women in jeans and suede boots pull a long woolen stocking from the pile.

“That is a vintage 1970s toe sock,” he says, “from my grandmother’s closet.”

“I’m gonna wear these,” one of them says, pulling off her boots right then and there.

The shoppers are a mix of young and old, politically motivated and flat broke. There are hipsters and homeless, neighborhood folk and out-of-towners, takers and givers… most of us fall somewhere in the middle.

I score a copy of an April 1975 edition of Argosy: Man’s World of Adventure magazine that contains survival stories, war tales, fishing yarns, a piece on Bigfoot and a cover story about the human cannonball from the circus. Bearded models in suede leisure suits, brazenly bearing chest hair, testify frankly about their cigarette preferences and their fondness for an exercise device known as the “Bullworker.”

It is, in a word, awesome. I also grab a British joke book for the kids. Sample: “What is a sea monster’s favourite fastfood? Fish and ships!” I think it’s gonna kill. Two kids squat by a box of toys on the parking-lot pavement. They have no idea who the California Raisins are, but they like the figurine anyway, making him prance along the precipice of the cardboard box where he had been living, probably since the days when he was big time. The shadows of the children grow long on the ground.

And still they come, bearing boxes and baskets, armloads of things: a wine rack, a dartboard, a pair of rollerblades size 11, a brand-new garment bag fresh out of the box. New inventory is eagerly sorted and evaluated.

“Every year I struggle to find meaning in the season,” Clark says. “It’s been increasingly difficult. Is the spirit of giving compelling us to go out and buy a bunch of stuff?” As she surveys the free market, a man from the neighborhood heads back home, a grocery bag of yellowing kale and patchy limes tucked under his arm. He is beaming.

“People who have stuff drop it off, people who need stuff come and get it,” Clark says. “It makes more sense this way.”