Kathy Cole grew up in a family that never let anything go to waste, or as she says, her family was very “resourceful” and that her 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.” It’s this same attitude that inspired her very own ‘free market’ venture in the small town of Independence, Virginia (Population: 900).
The market, a project that Kathy has had in mind since she was a graduate student back in the 70s, relies on the idea of ‘reciprocal giving’. Community members are free to leave any unwanted items at the market, and are also encourage to take what they need, free of cost. The radical idea has taken the town by storm, and has grown substantially after just a few months in operation.
After partnering with local nonprofit organization Grayson LandCare, Kathy set up shop in an empty storefront and got to work. The market is open several days a week, and it is described to have the feel of a swap meet – except without the money and without any profit. Just as much as donations pour in, items flow out of the store with new owners and happy community members. The entire operation is run by an energized group of volunteers that hope to inspire a mindset of reuse and sustainability, instead of just buying whatever is new and unnecessary.
Many of the small town’s residents are middle-class blue-collar workers, and Kathy’s market has unleashed a new style of conservative spending and conservative wasting that fits in perfectly with its old-fashioned, laid-back atmosphere. Kathy has countless stories of an item going from one happy home to another, all through the effort of running her market effectively and efficiently.
More recently, the market was used as a place to swap for Christmas gifts. Old treasures were traded in for items that would soon be new for someone else. Shoppers were able to stock up on gifts like jewelry, winter clothing, household linens, and many other unique and upcycled items.
The project got off to a slow start, with little monetary investment, and an entirely volunteer-based staff, so Kathy and her team had to get creative. September marked the official opening for the community market, and word began to spread slowly throughout the town of the new store open for business. These days, Kathy finds the shop to be a bustling center of community activity, and uses the space as a way to not only provide community members with items they want or need in a pinch, but it also provides people with a place to meet, learn about others, and especially, to donate their own items that can one day be in the hands of someone who needs them most.