A yard sale for freedom

The Reno Free Store opens 10 a.m. to 1 p.m April 21 at Stewart Park at Wells Avenue and Stewart Street. Volunteers, donations and tables are needed. Call 223-7656 or e-mail renofreestore@gmail.com.

At the first-ever Reno Free Store in March, organizers “sold” jeans, shirts, office chairs, bike parts, frying pans, food items and a microwave oven. Usable items found homes—homes without a Waste Management logo. No money changed hands.

The store’s motto: “Take what you want and leave what you can.”

Call it recycling at a high level, reusing items that might otherwise become land fill, said James Girnus, 20. Girnus, a sophomore sociology major at UNR, helped start the non-hierarchical Free Store. Members collect and redistribute new and used stuff at occasional markets.

“The Free Store is an intrinsically political idea,” he says. “We’re getting the word out about over-consumption. In a country so abundant, people have too much junk in their houses and, at the same time, we’re spending so much on more stuff at stores.”

People seem glad to contribute to the store. Donations are piling up in one member’s garage. But there’s room for more, Girnus said. The store operators need volunteers, tables and more gratis goods.

“We really want people to be comfortable making donations,” Girnus said.

Members plan a second Free Store from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m.—"or until we start running out of items"—on April 21 at Stewart and Wells.

Though the Free Store lists among its goals distributing items to the needy, organizers want everyone to come out and shop for free things.

Members don’t ask for money or do fundraisers.

“Anything we need, we buy out of our own pockets,” Girnus said.

Group members get word out with a MySpace page, www.myspace.com/renofreestore. An official Web site is in the works.

Girnus met me for an interview at the Record Street Café near UNR. He wore a sweatshirt with the logo of Alternative Tentacles, Jello Biafra’s record label. Besides that, Girnus doesn’t look much like a capitalism-abolishing radical.

In fact, he’s a Millennium Scholar from Las Vegas. He was raised Mormon. He likes to snowboard. His musical tastes range from hip hop to punk to classic rock.

Girnus experienced stirrings of political awareness while on the debate team in high school.

“My radical ideas took off from there,” he said.

The Free Store idea, based on the Baltimore Free Store model, rose from discussions with like-minded friends about activism. Girnus and friends wanted to do more than carry signs or perform stunts for media attention. They wanted to help people.

“The thing that’s cool about this is that it’s not limited to symbolic action,” he said. The Free Store is one of several newish local activist groups like the Reno Bike Project, Great Basin Food Co-op, Food Not Bombs and the Holland Project.

“There’s a lot of good stuff going on,” Girnus said. “We’re pushing for community involvement and helping people become responsible citizens.”

That’s not always easy.

“We’re busy with work and our personal lives,” he said. “We’re distracted by the media and by our own consumer fetishism.”

Girnus cited as an example the purchase of a Hummer. Though to some, this kind of unsustainable conspicuous consumption offends, a profusion of marketing renders the choice acceptable. A Hummer becomes a status symbol.

“It’s hard to recognize there’s something wrong when the status quo is being affirmed every day,” Girnus said.

The movement isn’t without its critics. At the first Reno Free Store, a few passers-by muttered hostile comments about the free-market anti-capitalism.

But Girnus wasn’t too worried about angry critics crashing the Stewart Park event.

“They’d look a little silly,” he said, “showing up like that at a yard sale.”