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A cart of memories from the last Free Store (click to enlarge)

Meat. One of the first things offered for exchange at the Free Emporium and Gift Exchange (FE&GE) at Cuchifritos was a slab of meat. Face it. If you choose to move past traditional capitalism, shit is going to get weird. But that’s OK. Double A Projects, aka Athena Robles and Anna Stein, are used to it. They opened the wildly successful Free Store in the Financial District back in March, and before they knew it they were sharing a green room at MSNBC with money vortex Steve Forbes. Can I get an “Anti-matter moment?” Hollaback.

The latest “franchise” of the Global Free Store is a cross between a swap meet and a museum. Whereas everything was free for the taking at the Free Store, at the FE&GE customer’s are asked to bring an item to exchange for merchandise. Free trade, baby.

Sharing the space is a look back at the store’s aforementioned first incarnation. Being located on the Lower East Side, the push cart that houses all the memories seems especially appropriate. History makes a tidy seam.

Sitting snugly in the corner of the Essex Street Market, the FE&GE continues the tradition of the Global Free Store by fitting into its environment while simultaneously reacting against it. In the midst of a bustling market where customers have been conditioned to exchange money for product, and vendors have relied on turning a profit from it, this little shop demands nothing more of its customers than to show up and bring a gift. A set of mittens can be traded for a bicycle, a jar of jam for a television set. Anything for anything, and one for all.

Items at the Free Store (click to enlarge)

It would be easy to see FE&GE as some radical call for a revolution against capitalism, but the gestures that make up the experience nullify that sentiment. It’s not about capitalism. It’s about you. And it’s probably about me. The first time I took something from the Free Store, it felt downright unnatural, a little itchy. Conversely, when I gave something to the Free Store it was an immediate thrill, but it was almost too much of a thrill. The discomfort on both ends of the equation opened up an inner dialogue about possession and community. I found myself thinking about the narrative of the objects before and after I knew them. I was surprised to find myself thinking that money smooths that over. We pay for the disconnect.

The extremes were muted in my reaction to the process at the FE&GE, but that doesn’t mean it was any less fun or challenging. I dropped off some records that they were happy to see. When I went back about five days later I was a little sad to see that nobody had discovered the trading genius in my Jamaican-pressed vinyl, but I enjoyed the possibilities of the shelves just as much as ever, and I had a laugh at my own expense in regards to the vanity I attached to my things. I still haven’t traded in my gift certificate. I’m waiting for something as good and weird as a slab of meat. Or maybe just a nice pair of mittens.

The Free Emporium and Gift Exchange is open through January 9, 2010, so there’s still time to shop for holiday gifts, or exchange your post-holiday castoffs for something better.

Brent Burket

Brent Burket is a writer and curator living in Brooklyn. His blog is called Heart As Arena, and he tweets here. He has a really bad sense...

2 replies on “Supreme Trading: The Free Emporium & Gift Exchange”

  1. I’m used to visiting places where “slab of meat” are there for me to grab and take for free. Mwhahahahah…. sorry I couldn’t resist Brent….. But on a more serious note, I love your point about how money can smooths over transactions…. it can create a sense of equivalency that doesn’t always make sense…. like when you buy a drink that’s three times the feder minimum wage in the meat packing district….. a brillant little article

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