Free for the taking
Make no mistake, in Berlin’s Schenkladen it’s OK if you just take
We’re told to take what we want from the tight racks of used clothes, kitchen supplies and books in this secondhand shop in the Freidrichshain neighborhood. We don’t have to pay. We aren’t stealing. We don’t have to exchange anything in return.
The Schenkladen is a gift shop where everything is free. The free store is part of a platform called Systemfehler, meaning “system error” or society mistake. It is one of four free stores in Berlin, located inside one of the many “housing projects,” elsewhere known as communal or collective living.
The concept is simple: People donate stuff they don’t need, and people who need the stuff take it. The free store is not charity; it is preventive practice. The free store works as an alternative economic system based on mutual aid.
“People, they’re not used to doing stuff without money or without [exchanging],” say volunteer Ellen Sati as we sit around a dimly lit coffee table in the space. “It’s something that’s not so presented in society . . . that there’s not really money involved.”
Free stores subvert the entire premise of what people understand as a store, transforming it into a place of cooperative sharing. Organizers don’t want people to have to buy and sell stuff, and they especially don’t want items to sit at home untouched. The general guideline is that each person shouldn’t take more than five things, but the very concept of taking something without anything in return can be strange at first, said Sati.
“Some people are a bit not at ease when they just take something, and they ask, ‘Is it fine?’” and, she explains, “‘Yeah, of course.’” Around her, volunteers are preparing a soup dinner before this evening’s free entertainment, a clown performance.
Through the free store, Sati and the other volunteers fight for an economy that’s “not so much based on money and on getting things in return, but more on people, interaction, creativity, and [the] energy people put into [projects].”
The free store encourages collaboration.
“It’s not like capitalism, so against the people with the elbows,” David Vogel said from the other corner of the table, sitting on a sofa up against the window. Systemfehler’s horizontal organizational structure reflects the volunteers’ belief that cooperation transcends competition. The store has monthly meetings where decisions and problem solving happen based on unanimous consensus.
“We always try to find a solution that fits everybody, which takes more energy and time sometimes, but [if] it’s more I think it’s better,” Sati said.
Vogel said that in his experience, the unanimous consensus process, while sometimes painstaking, is ultimately more sustainable.
“Another concept of our group is good feeling,” he continues. Instead of credit card-style cold transactions, people leave the free store with the feeling that they participated in a cooperative project.
Systemfehler was founded in 2007 at a different location. The original free store was evicted due to problems with the house owner, but rather than allow the police to just throw them out, free store volunteers turned the eviction into a demonstration walkout to foil the police force.
“It was very funny because the police opened the doors of the shop [and] there were a lot of colored balloons coming to them,” he said, explaining that they packed the store with balloons and then marched to the new location carrying all the free shop items, an over-escorted moving day.
There are costs to running the Systemfelher space, however. The volunteers pay their rent costs through monthly donations from people in different forms. They also act as solidarity partners for noncommercial festivals and info stands at events in the city.
The free shop is the most well-known project using the space, but Systemfehler also hosts a cafe which runs various cultural evenings, including concerts, a theater and a bar. Systemfehler also hosts a Volksküche night, or people’s kitchen, where the volunteers cook for lots of people for minimal cost, as well as nights for anarchist ecological films and meditation.
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