They won’t cost you anything.
Photo-Illustration: Curbed; Photos: Getty Images
A woman from Brooklyn was baking banana bread. She had one rotten banana and needed another, so she posted a “request” on the Buy Nothing Fort Greene – Clinton Hill – Downtown Brooklyn Facebook group. In three minutes, she had seven offers of rotten bananas. Such is the power of Buy Nothing, a constellation of hyperlocal Facebook groups where members ask for what they need, come up with unused mixes, and get to know their neighbors through the unique exchange link.
Buy Nothing is like the “Kumbaya” cousin of Facebook Marketplace. During the pandemic, as we all sit at home in the midst of our mess, membership in these groups increased across town. It is explicitly do not in markets or transactional relationships. Rather, its mission is to “give, receive, lend, share and show gratitude in the hyperlocal economies of giving, where the real wealth lies in the bonds between real neighbors”. So the “value” doesn’t come from the item or service being traded (how much are seven Rotten Bananas, after all, even at Citarella?). Instead, it comes from building community and maybe a little less consumption and destruction. The Fort Greene – Clinton Hill – Downtown Brooklyn group, the second largest of some 75 groups in the city, has approximately 3,500 members. Its moderators receive more than 100 requests for new members per week.
There are guidelines for not buying anything: you can only be in one group at a time, and you must live within its neighborhood. In New York, this neighborhood can only measure ten blocks. (The Buy Nothing organization is global, but, like everything else, New York has its unique twist.) You should join as an individual, not a business. You can be kicked out for trying to sell or barter. And there are three types of explicit messages: give it, ask it, and gratitude.
In this city right now, when people are huddled in apartments in a hustle and bustle of life / work / school / leisure or on the go – trade because of the market downturn, trade because of job loss , are moving back to Indiana – everyone needs both more and less stuff. Lately, people have given up on complete pieces of furniture to make room for home offices, to give the value of entire apartments when they leave town, or just to declutter because they have free time. Meanwhile, people need more things to keep themselves entertained and their children entertained. They need (and scramble to grab) free weights, Ethernet hubs, desks, homeschool pod decorations, crafts, kitchen gadgets, puzzles – almost anything that looks good. or will do. And articles for dogs. Especially dog items. “Everyone has a dog,” says Eddie, the administrator of an Upper East Side group of 3,300 members spread across 14 blocks. “We are a community with more than we need. I just finished playing a video game that I got from the site. Now I can pass it on. Gifts and requests are not only goods but also services. A neighborhood walker may offer to pick up and deliver items during their trip. Some members have offered to help find vaccine appointments, write resumes or provide life coaching. There is also a lot of packaged food. The other day in a group in Midtown Buy Nothing, someone offered a jar of slightly used peanut butter described as “95% full” after buying it for a big baking frenzy that didn’t. not happened. (Someone took it.)
When it comes to the actual transfer, things are sometimes left at the doormen or at the front doors. But unlike an Amazon delivery or a Goodwill discount, part of the Buy Nothing experience is the face-to-face exchange (socially distanced and masked, these days). “The value comes from the little conversations when people drop things off,” says Anna, co-moderator of one of the Brooklyn groups. “It’s the only thing that gets them out of the house and interacting with new people.”
You would think the deal is first come, first served. On the contrary, often a donor is encouraged not to favor the person sitting at home all day cooling off. A “Buy Nothing” concept is to let the message “simmer”. It is up to the donor to choose the new home for the object. Sometimes a game element sets in too. Consider the bottle of prosecco from past Valentine’s Day: The giver challenged potential recipients to tell a story about how the bottle would be used, and it went to the best tale spinner. A donor can use a random number generator on the Internet, pick names from a hat, or have people tell a joke or write a haiku.
No matter how precise the request, there is something out there, like in this domestic emergency: One weekday fall morning, a 4-year-old used the last temporary tattoo in the house, and the 2 year old child exploded into a whole – a temper tantrum. Mom posted the urgent need for temporary tattoos and got ten answers in ten minutes. The family immediately took a glorious (and calming) walk to get the toddler temperature inked.
Expected exchanges (children’s clothing, kitchen gadgets, electronics) are displayed with the quirky ones, like habanero-infused honey, non-chubby baby aloes – which piqued the interest of 45 people! – and carpet cleaners. These aren’t all cheap stuff either. The Peloton bikes, the family heirloom cut crystal, the ex’s jewelry – all have arrived. So have things quite simple: three packs of 12 ordered ramen noodles in the wrong flavor, for example, or a big pack of Hawaiian macadamia nuts about to expire.
Buy Nothing groups have recently been enriched with “bend over,” the process of finding items thrown in the street, posting photos of them to the group, and forwarding them to an interested recipient. The Upper West Side group even has a super-stooper, a member who organizes expeditions around the neighborhood. This is how one lucky member got a potting bench. The bench has been spotted; a photo has been published. The member who wanted it posted a request for help with the delivery. A neighborhood couple grabbed the potting bench and tucked it away in their hall. The recipient picked it up and drove it home three days later. There is even the transfer of dominoes: someone gets a king mattress and gives a queen. Someone else takes this queen and offers a full. Then someone finally gets the kid their own twin bed and completely outclasses it.
There are also rides. Puzzles have been around the apartments for the past 11 months. Someone will complete the puzzle, post a photo, and then pass it. A member gave a computer screen to someone who needed it for a few weeks. It has been transmitted. After several jumps, he found himself with the member’s sister, only to return to the original owner and be fired. And then there’s the toilet snake saga. Imagine it is 7 p.m. and your toilet is clogged. You ask a question and of course within minutes you have your toilet snake. And who needs to buy and keep this? You hang on to it until the next neighbor needs it.
Amidst the wacky stories, there are some deeper ones. Earlier this year, a member who moved from a shelter to an apartment asked local group Buy Nothing for help. Over 100 comments later, this group has fitted out the entire family apartment – furniture, bedding, clothes, toys. Often people pack bags of clothes and toys to deliver new babies. Once the newborn outgrows these clothes (usually in, oh, about three days), they are washed and passed on to the next baby in the neighborhood.
The weather will be fine soon; the pandemic can even last for more than a day. People will come out of their walls to greet their new friends in the park or on the streets. The toddler will read another child’s old book, the baby will be in the neighbor’s old stroller, you will wear their old shoes, they will wear your jacket. And everyone is hoping that the toilet snake has found its way to someone else’s apartment.