Another Buy Nothing Day at the Freeshop

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Neighbourhoods: shoreditch

A blog spot written two days before the eviction of Non Commercial House tells the story of a day in the freeshop.

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I wrote about the beginning of the freeshop earlier in my London post, and the project has been going on since. The last time I was on the rota to open the freeshop I had so many good experiences that I thought it would be very nice to gather them in a post. It went like this:

I arrived late and a bit stressed because all the morning hassle, so A already opened the shop and made tea. The breakfast was skipped falafel wraps of yesterday with donated tea and a cigarette on the green bench in front of the shop. The bench itself is a small institution of its own by now, the carpentry piece of V: when I was living in the freeshop I realised that a lot of people actually use it, and not only when the shop is open.

For example, when I came home in the sunrise hours of Sunday after the squat parties with E on some successive weeks, we repeatedly encountered two young Frenchmen coming home from other events, and we had a little afterparty chillout on the street. Sometimes several people joined us and we had conversations that seemed interesting at the time. (Hmm..) The most funny part was when I realised that there are too many of us for the bench, so I told the company that I fetch some chairs. I slipped inside through a side entry and threw two chairs over the gate. It turned out that the other people didn't know that I was living there, but they thought that it is just a bench on the street where we accidentally met. So it was the most amusing thing for them to hear my declaration about the chairs and see them flying over the gate in the next moment, with me being really relaxed about finding chairs so easily on a random London street. The other time we met an old working class man who said that he was very glad for the bench to be there because he always takes a little walk early in the morning, but since he can hardly walk it is good for him to find rest there. Indeed, in that particular part of London there is not a lot of benches on the streets, except for Brick Lane which is a kind of tourist attraction. Actually, the only other bench on the street was not very far from us, in front of a falafel restaurant. It has wheels attached to its legs that look like the wheels of a wooden cart, the kind that is pulled by horses. Now, it seems that one of the wheels broke somehow, and they decided to throw it away. L rescued it and fixed it, replacing the broken cart wheel with a spare bicycle wheel. It needs a bit more work to be portable, but we plan to put it back to its original place in front of the shop eventually. Indeed, it is very surprising that I wanted to write about a day in the freeshop, but there are so many little lovely stories about only the benches. :)

So back inside the freeshop! R who lives there now was also there - I think he brought the skipped food, but also N arrived with a trailerful of skipped fruits from an organic shop. There were many things to do in the freeshop, and today was especially Buy Nothing Day, so we started with the days' work. First, putting out the sandwich board in front of the shop, and writing in chalk under "What's on" that it's BuY noTHiNG dAy! Second flip the sign that says "closed" to say "open". Third, putting up the cages from the shopwindows. Fourth, finding some CDs on the shelves that we can play to make the space sound nice. Fourth, preparing more tea for our customers. Fifth, making some posters about the theme of the day (by now you know what it is). Finally, there is always a lot of mess that could be better organised, so you can spend half of the day putting clothes on hangers and arranging miscellanea on the shelves and boxes. The most funny part is looking through the strange objects that people leave in the shop: today for instance we got an electronic egg that turns different colours depending on the room temperature, and shows a face that is sad when it is cold. It was working perfectly, and it was blue and sad because these days it is really cold in the freeshop. The worst thing is that we have to keep the door open for the people to come in, because according to our experiments it is a serious psychological barrier for the people of the street against entering the shop.

There are many different people who come to the shop: only on that day, we had suits, homeless people, kids with skateboards, some neightbours and precarious (temporary) workers from the corner, an illustrator, a backpacker, and many others. The backpacker was a nice young guy from Spain, who kept saying that London is a very confusing and chaotic city, where the freeshop is an island of calm. Indeed, he sat around for most of the day, and he drew "SHOP AT THE FREE SHOP" and other signs on the paper bags that we had lying around, so now we even have branded bags for people to take away their stuff in. It was a funny moment when I went home and told the story of this guy, because there were some people who opened the shop yesterday around our bar, and they said that he popped in yesterday as well and went on about "island of calm". I really like the idea of doing such a space where people can enter without any particular reason and find so supportive that they are inspired to stay for some days. The other person I wanted to mention was a charming girl who said that she is an illustrator and would be happy to work with us in that capacity, so probably she will come to the meeting on Tuesday. I looked at her works online in the evening and they are extremely intelligent, very aware of discourses and reflective in a witty but professional way. I hope we can find out a good way of doing something about the freeshop, it couldn't be that hard after all.

Next, lot of friendly sceners arrived, who I will not name because I forgot to track all these letters. Suddenly the freeshop situation reminded me of the first weeks of the shop and my stay in London, when there was always 4-8 activists and some strangers busy in the shop, and that's how I know all these people, by opening the shop and talking to the people who are coming in. Everybody was very excited about their different travel plans, we synchronised our diaries for the next week and the next months, concluding that we should all see this film "Copy Me I Want to Travel" in the Library House because it sounds superexciting to mix queer girls with geek infohistory. Indeed, we shall make our own queer film screenings in the freeshop, and NN already came with a proposal for a flyer and film list. She started to make flyers with free software some weeks ago, and she already put together a layout that looked quite exciting, so I was pretty amazed. I will link the event and flyer here once it is up on Indymedia London. It was simply impossible to study the Bauhaus movement with CC as we planned, because Noncommercial House had the vibe of a house party and not a boring shop as we might have had thought. Instead, I had a totally inspiring conversation with AL about her studies and Phd plans. She said that here the people do a lot of small things that are more spontaneous and in Italy they reflect more deeply on what is going on without acting on their insights. The best would be to find a good combination of these, that could lead to a more effective way of social organisation. That's just the old topic of the dialectics of theory and practice that pave the way to the revolution, of course, but it was exciting at that moment to take up the thread again, because I was also thinking about it lately. I proposed my idea about the lack of the Theory of Transition in the movement, and it seem to have worked (more on that in later post).

The cesura of the day, as usual, came at 4pm when suddenly most (noisy) people left the shop and the sun went down. We were very tired by then and badly needed that brake. We had some lunch from the free food that our friends skipped earlier, and considered how difficult it is to celebrate Buy Nothing Day in the freeshop, because there every day is buy nothing day! The most radical idea that I quite liked was to go on strike and declare the shop closed for the day (see Stevphen's presentatio about art strike?), but because we liked to keep it open so much we didn't really have the energy to do that. Then the customers started to come again and we had to say "Yes, it is really free!" to a lot of people, because they sometimes ask twice before they dare to walk out of the door without paying. Such is capitalism.

The first wave was a sudden burst of teenagers with skateboards and the battlecry "let's see what we can sell on ebay!" They obviously didn't get the message of Buy Nothing Day. We tried to engage, educate and control, but they were many and they were full of adrenaline. Most of them were really OK, but somebody took the CD player that we used to make the ambience in the shop. At least personal stuff didn't got stolen - I am sure that in a few days somebody will walk in with a discman. The freeshop is a very dangerous place indeed if you have anything to loose. I wrote earlier that I got my laptop in my bag stolen from the site, which was real theft, and quite exceptional. On the other hand, there are "accidents", as when somebody puts his personal stuff down for a moment, and somebody else takes it as part of the freeshop. You have to be really careful, because the freeshop eats things!

The freeshop takes away but the freeshop also gives: the next moment a neightbour appeared, who always comes with a kid and another middle aged man. They are coming to the freeshop every now and then since V fixed their bikes in the early days. This time they came with some pulleys and bags, one full of carpet strips, the others of umbrellas of various sizes and descriptions. I am gathering carpet for my room these days, because I got four pieces of advises about my room from my fellow patrons: to have (1.) curtains, (2.) carpets, (3.) hot water bottle, (4.) a little room which can be easily heated. I made some effort, but I am not yet there, so these carpets came really handy. That was the personal reward of the day which can also be called - LOOT! >)

I also took a black umbrella that was a bit broken, and we started the big work of unpacking and testing the new acquisitions. Most of them worked, and some of them were totally perfect. At first the sheer amount of umbrellas seemed overwhelming. There were half a dozen really big ones, some good personal ones, then around two dozen little ones best for kids. Then there was another bag of foldable umbrellas, in all varieties and sizes. We didn't really know what to do with so many umbrellas, but it was surely fascinating. We were putting them everywhere in the shop: hanging open from the ceiling, standing open on the top of a hatstand, lined up like mushrooms on the top of the clotche lines, etc. It all seemed magic, that suddenly we have these umbrellas everywhere.

You can imagine how excited we were when the rain started to fall! I went out with a cigarette and started to shout "free umbrellas" and things like "hey you, you need an umbrella, come in!" It worked, more or less, and after some time the shop was bustling again with customers inspired by free umbrellas. Some of them just took an umbrella from our street set, some of them came inside to choose one, and some of them stayed to look for other stuff as well, or to chat with us. If you work in a freeshop, you have to explain a lot about anarchy and freeconomy. After some time you learn how to explain in one sentence, how to give the short story or the long story. It depends on the human encounter: what is your mood at that moment and what the visitor wants to hear. There was a funny one earlier in the day, when two pretty girls came with makeup and all that style, and the first thing one said was "I know why it is free, because you are anarchists!" Indeed, there is a big sign high on the wall that states something about anarchy is not chaos but self-organisation, etc. So she went on saying that "I am very much into anarchy these days." All in that voice that I expect only people who read these glossy womens' magazines can really speak. The other continued in the same vein: "Don't you know who to ask about squatting? I am a squatter now. I don't pay the rent any more." So finally they were serious about anarchy, in their own way.

Then we explained about the Advisory Service for Squatters near Whitechapel Gallery where you can get advice from people who deal with squatting issues all day, and who are part of the movement. Another establishment that provides alternative infrastructure that solves the real problems of the real people instead of providing interesting diversions in the form of events preaching to the converted! OK, both the freeshop and the ASS caters heavily for the activist type, but at least in the freeshop we have around 30 visitors a day, and most of them simply come in from the street. We are also a very approachable institution, with a "family friendly" concept, very different from the grimy punk attitude that pervades some other activist spaces (and which I like a lot). However, as we discussed with AL, this is also an example of the limits of activist practices today: forming a collective and setting up the project was a very dynamic period, but now that the institution is established inertia reigns. The initiative didn't start a dynamic that would mean it can grow beyond itself: we couldn't start to modify and produce clotches, we didn't even have the energy to brand them with our designs. Nobody was inspired by our relatively spectacular success to start similar initiatives all around London. Despite serving the local community and the people of the street on a daily basis, the project didn't really have an impact factor on the wider social strata. My Theory of Transition answers for that, but more about it later.

Now just to explain that night fell and we were about to close the shop. A, who came with a bicycle trailer, wanted to go a party, and I had a lot of carpet to take home with my bike, so we exchanged our bikes because we didn't have a spanner to take off the trailer. Then I set off on a night ride with a trailer full of carpet for my room, leaving the others to deal with the practicalities of closing shop. It was pretty OK, but I was not really dressed for the rain, and, as I soon learned, not even for biking. S found a new skirt for me that was similar to the one I went to the shop in, but lighter and a bit longer. I was wearing that because the original one is a bit short for biking, especially in the rain. But this other one was too long so it got between the cog and chain, ripping gracefully. I was not really happy about cycling in the cold, dark, rainy weather with an unknown bike and a trailer and suffering this accident, but I could stop and fortunately I had my other skirt in my backpack. So it all went merrily and I arrived home for diner. It was nice to exchange experiences about the freeshop days through the bar in our house. Soaking wet, I badly needed a hot tea and a fag. I left early from the shop since I wanted to go to South London to deliver a bag of donated freeshop money to Dissident Island Radio, but looking at the timetables it turned out that it would be a five hour trip at least, which was impossible at that moment.

I actually spent most of the idle time at the shop banging on my laptop digitizing the many (300) signatures that we gathered for our petition to the Corporation of London who owns the building, asking for them to leave us alone. Some letters got sent, finally, but it still makes sense to come to the shop and sign the petition. Hmm, I should really get down and write a bit of petition software to gather these online as well... but that's another story.

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