A Brussels second-hand store offering everything from toys and books to clothes and homeware in exchange for nothing more than a simple "thank you" will be able to become a long term feature of the neighbourhood after receiving financial support from the Public Centre for Social Welfare.
First opened in May, the Anderlecht store has been providing services to locals as a store, community centre and donation point for four months, and has no intention of stopping.
The concept is that customers can take up to one item a day provided they leave a thank you note to whoever donated the item. 80-100 customers use the store each day.
Those looking to donate items are encouraged to give as much as they like, with a particular interest in providing a new life to products that would otherwise be unused.
"With the Free Shop, we want to help give unused or underused items a new life so that you don't have to buy new ones. In this way, we give value again. The cupboards of a middle-class family are full of stuff that is hardly used," project coordinator Gerd De Wilde explained to The Brussels Times.
"Research by the MacArthur Foundation shows that we buy more clothes but wear them (much) less. 80% of plastic toys end up in landfills, burned or in the ocean. In 2019, Belgian households together owned about 392 million electrical and electronic appliances, equating to approximately 79 per household. This is an increase of 14.5 million appliances compared to 2017."
In De Wilde's experience, the store is not used by all members of the community, but he stresses it is open to all.
"People with a sufficient or large income rarely become customers, let alone regular ones. I myself have brought many people to the shop after a meeting or visit to our spaces in Circularium. After spending a few minutes in the shop and often even spotting something interesting, the hesitation starts: 'this is not for me', or 'if I take this, I'm taking away the opportunity for someone else who might really need it'," De Wilde explained.
"It is a diffidence that, as far as I am concerned, is unnecessary but, at the same time, it is also beautiful. Not taking can also be giving and if your needs have been met, why take any more? A rhetorical question that, in a world of finite resources, we would do well to ask ourselves more often," he added.
The financial support received by the project will allow the store to undergo a small makeover, De Wilde told Bruzz.
After that, the plan is then to see what else can be done with the concept behind the centre, including research into opening more stores across Europe. "We’re developing the concept and the ‘how to’ part so it will be easier for people to set up their own shop," De Wilde explained, adding that he sees the process as one way to occupy otherwise empty spaces with something positive for the local community.
"Many cities and municipalities are struggling with vacancy: last year was a historic high with 11.2% vacancy for all commercial properties. In 2008 it was only 5.1%: more than double in 12 years," he explained. "Online shopping is an increasingly important cause. The covid epidemic and its aftermath will most likely reinforce these (digital) habits. But we all want vibrant and welcoming centres that are good for cohesion, attractiveness and the local economy."
"A free shop is quick to set up and creates a nice dynamic. It can also be set up as a pop-up for short periods. A city council can lift the vacancy tax in exchange for the use of an empty building. [We hit] three birds with one stone: fewer empty shop premises, a service for the population, and a social binding agent."