Greenpoint Free Store looks for new location to host free-of-charge shop

picture of an outdoor free store in greenpoint
The Greenpoint Free Store was suddenly closed last week as crews got to work on the Polonaise building, where the store had been operating since last year.
Courtesy of the Free Store Project

The local do-gooders behind the “Greenpoint Free Store” are seeking a new home for their altruistic community project, after their current year-old location was shuttered due to construction. 

Operating outside an empty storefront at 150 Greenpoint Ave., a group of volunteers had used the location to solicit unused items (like furniture, books, clothes, and toys) from people that were otherwise throwing them away, and offer them up to community members free-of-charge. 

Opened just over a year ago, the Greenpoint outpost was one of several built by Myles Smutney, founder of the Free Store Project, who launched the idea in Manhattan in October 2020 — taking inspiration from free stores in her hometown of Chicago.

“Initially, this was all an experiment,” said Camille Dodero, a Greenpoint resident, and a volunteer with the project. “They were unofficial spots on buildings that weren’t otherwise being tended to. Some of them have lasted, some of them haven’t.”

With many people leaving the city during the pandemic, or simply moving within the Five Boroughs and ditching their old goods, the project quickly spread around the city, where over a dozen Free Stores are still operating today. 

Rather than leaving their items on the sidewalk to be whisked away by the sanitation department, the project allows bargain-hunting New Yorkers to snag them at no cost.

greenpoint free store being taken down
Volunteers built and painted the Greenpoint Avenue Free store last year, and the community adopted the responsibility of stocking and monitoring the store alongside volunteers. Courtesy of the Free Store Project

When the Greenpoint store went up last year, the building was empty, for sale, and a perfect quiet place for a free store. 

When it sold earlier this year, the team knew they would need to find a new location, Smutney said, and started fundraising — not just to find a new place in Greenpoint, but to keep opening new stores for locals that need them.

The Free Store Project had no agreements with the owners at 150 Greenpoint Ave., and the volunteers were happy to have been able to use the space at all.

“We’re grateful for the use of the storefront, the memories and connections it was able to generate while it lasted,” Smutney said.

On Dec. 17, the good samaritans got word that they’d have to take down the makeshift store, but luckily, construction crews and volunteers banded together to disassemble the wooden panels and shelves that afternoon.

“The fact that they even gave us a heads up was wonderful,” Dodero said. “It was sad, afterwards, I’m sad it’s not there. They helped us, the [construction] crew, when it was coming down.”

“They were like ‘Hey, so is this trash, do you want to save this?,” she said. “So, we salvaged everything. We worked with them when it came down. That was nice. It doesn’t always happen like that.”

Some of the free stores have been whisked away by sanitation in the dead of night without warning, so, being able to use the space for so long and having ample warning and assistance to take down the Greenpoint location was the best of a bad situation, Dodero said. 

The Free Store Project now has their eyes on expanding with community partners, and they hope the potential new Greenpoint store will be opened in partnership with a local organization that’ll give them a more-permanent home. 

“We are very hopeful and actually very confident that we’ll find new partners,” she said. “There’s a free store in Williamsburg, and it’s by P.S. 18. And that is sustainable because the PTA and the school are our partners, and they support that it’s there, they like that it’s there.”

greenpoint free store being disassembled
Volunteers and contractors took apart the Greenpoint Free Store’s shelves and painted plywood backing on Dec. 17 to allow construction crews to get to work. Courtesy of the Free Store Project

When a free store opens, it’s with a sign asking neighbors not to leave large items like furniture, to keep the spot from becoming a nuisance to the community, and a small team of volunteers who keep it clean and orderly. 

Fairly quickly, though, the community usually adopts the store and takes responsibility for keeping it stocked, clean, and safe.

“The locals got so invested in it, and they were as active as us, in terms of keeping it neat,” Dodero said. “The neighbors would monitor it on their own. If someone was acting inappropriately, I’ve seen wonderful Polish grandmas tell them off.”

Getting to know the people who were donating items, taking items, and just making sure things were running smoothly connected her to her neighbors in a way she hasn’t been since she moved to Greenpoint in 2011, Dodero said.

People left clothes, shoes, toys, books, and more, and other thrifters would pass through and snag any items they needed.

A local grocery store donated $1,000, so, each week, a volunteer would spend $100 on nonperishable groceries to fill the shelves for hungry Brooklynites to take at their pleasure. 

But, the items on the shelves weren’t just for people who “need” them, in a typical sense — they were a big community swap. Dodero herself got her new favorite Fleetwood Mac T-shirt from the store, she said.

Even on the day the store was coming down, a man showed up with a pair of Doc Martens boots to donate, and wasn’t sure what to do with them as the store came down — until a woman who was standing nearby with her son said she’d like them, and the boots got a new home.

“It absolutely, 100 percent makes you feel so much more connected to the people around you,” Dodero said. “You have these amazing little spontaneous interactions with people you’ve otherwise passed or probably otherwise wouldn’t have talked to.”

For now, the shelves that made up the store, and the items they held, are being stored helter-skelter in volunteer apartments, in Dodero’s studio space, and in nearby Quimby’s Bookstore. 

The project has a short-term fundraising goal of $10,000, not just for the Greenpoint store, but for the whole organization to get to a “sustainable” place, Dodero said, and especially to secure a place where they can store donations and building materials. Long-term, they want to raise at least $50,000 to keep expanding and building new stores.

“I would say the goal is just for us to have a space where we can centralize, where, when anybody says, ‘We have a donation in bulk, and they don’t want to figure out how to give it to people,’ they can give it to us, and we can redistribute it,” Dodero said. “Through the free stores or other organizations and things like that. But we don’t have that space right now.”