It’s a radical but simple experiment that builds community and keeps useful things out of the landfill.

Kathy Cole is on a mission to persuade her community to stop throwing things away. She makes her way to the edge of the town of Independence, Virginia, a couple of times a week to run a new venture she simply calls the Free Market. It’s a radical but simple experiment in the “take what you need” philosophy, and an ambitious spin-off from the little free libraries trend that has spread across the country.

The idea of “reciprocal giving” has been percolating in Cole’s mind since 1975, when she was a graduate student at the University of Oregon. She and other students living on campus shared what they could to get by. When she retired about eight years ago, Cole finally put the idea into motion.

She and local nonprofit Grayson LandCare have moved into an empty storefront whose longtime owner died recently. The event is like a swap meet, except no one pays for anything and no one makes a profit. People donate knickknacks and useful household items that couldn’t be resold but might still be useful to someone else. In turn, community members take what they need. As Cole explains it, it’s less tit-for-tat and more of a “reciprocal giving” experiment.

“I’m not a hoarder, but I just want things to go to the right place. I grew up in this area, and my parents were like this. They were very resourceful,” Cole says. “My mother never met a Cool Whip container she couldn’t use to store something else in the freezer. You just don’t throw something away if there’s a way to use it. I think, for a couple of generations, we’ve gotten away from that, even here in this rural area.”

Though backed by a group of ambitious volunteers, Cole is at the center of the whole experiment. On paper, she isn’t exactly the woman you might expect to find in this town. Independence, with a population of about 900, is the seat of Grayson County, a sparsely populated area tucked between the Blue Ridge Mountains and the New River. It’s about 80 miles northwest of Winston-Salem, North Carolina, the nearest sizable city.

Most folks here are politically and religiously conservative, and few went to college. The town’s economy, like many others in Appalachia, once thrived on the blue-collar workers of local furniture plants. Those plants are now closed, and people needed to tighten their wallets and look elsewhere for work. The Free Market helps the community pinch a few pennies, and Cole, a lifelong environmentalist, hopes it reduces waste the town produces.

Have some extra bubble wrap laying around the house? Bring it down to the market. What about packing boxes, used toys, office supplies, gift wrap, tools, or old kitchenware? It’s better in the hands of someone who can use it than forgotten in a landfill somewhere, she says.

The market is run entirely on a volunteer basis, with members of local nonprofit Grayson LandCare giving what time they can spare. The organization is made up of a collection of local farmers and landowners working together to help the environment and the local economy. They have supported local farmers to raise grass-fed beef, grow organic vegetables, and to promote selective harvesting of hardwoods instead of clear-cutting a forest, among other things. The Free Market is the newest program.

One woman recently dropped off a music stand at the market. A few days later, a young girl just beginning to learn to play the clarinet found it. Another woman zipped straight to the back of the store hunting for a single piece of black construction paper. She found it, saving her a trip to the local Dollar General. The Free Market is even a place to shop for Christmas gifts. The market hopes to host, whenever the weather is nice, a holiday celebration to let people come and find gifts for their loved ones—anything from jewelry to winter gear, table linens, and more.

When the market’s doors first opened in September, not many people visited, says Colette Nester, a health promotion intern at Appalachia State University working with Grayson LandCare. A few eventually trickled in, mostly just to see what it was about. Foot traffic picked up as word spread. Now when the market is open, 20 to 30 people stop by. Nester has volunteered since the market opened. She uses the opportunity to promote fitness activities in the community and to connect people with dental services in the area.

The venture cuts across political and economic walks of life. Unlike Cole, the people involved with Grayson LandCare mostly did not grow up in the area. They’re mostly well-educated, financially well-off retired people who moved to the area to take advantage of the cheap land and beautiful scenery. Cole says they’ve struggled to spread the message of their work because of the perception that they’re “the crazy environmental hippies up the road.”

“I’m meeting lots of people who are not well-off, who have been here for generations,” Cole says. “You get to know them, and we’re all mixing and mingling over this common thing of getting stuff where it needs to go and can be useful.”

This article was funded in part by a grant from the One Foundation.

Jake Jarvis headshotJake Jarvis (@NewsroomJake) wrote this article for YES! Magazine. Jake is a recent graduate of West Virginia University and a lifelong Appalachian. He reports on education for the Charleston Gazette-Mail.

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