Drew Silverman’s friends in his South Philly Buy Nothing Facebook group know to expect humor and an odd assortment of offered gifts from Silverman, their resident funnyman. And the 30-something writer who lives in Grad Hospital knows his audience. Which is why, on a recent weeknight, he thought little of posting this to the page:
Give: A bag* of homemade chocolate chip cookies** for one of my favorite BNP friends***
*UPDATE: The cookies are delicious, so it’s now half a bag.
**My wife gave me the cookies to bring to work, but I forgot to take them out of my bag and they got all smushed and broken.
***I’m embarrassed to bring them to work now, but I’m sure I can pawn them off on one of you hungry savages.
As Silverman predicted, within an hour, his ziploc bag full of crumbled homemade cookies was devoured by a neighbor, thankful for the on-foot delivery of a perfect topping for his late-night ice cream snack.
On any given day, dozens of Philadelphians can be spotted knocking on neighbors’ doors and receiving gifts from strangers. (Others can be found somewhat suspiciously picking up gifts from designated pickup locations—an easement, a mailbox, the footrest of a parked, covered scooter.) These are members of one of Philadelphia’s 15 Buy Nothing groups—a gift economy similar to Freecycle or the free section of Craigslist, but within a hyper local geographic area.
In an era when social media platforms often reduce the frequency of real-world interactions, Buy Nothing does the opposite. It allows neighbors to meet in person, using 21st Century digital tools to create a fabulously retro neighborhood experience. It speaks to a need in many of us to connect with our neighbors, a piece of urban life that sometimes seems to have disappeared. With Buy Nothing, knocking on the neighbor’s door to borrow a cup of sugar—and check in—is no longer a charming thing of the past; the practice is alive and well.
A Buy Nothing exchange starts out being about stuff. But it will also include introductions between people who may have walked past each other for years. “This is Drew,” said a Grad Hospital BNP member as she introduced Silverman to her husband recently. “He’s wearing your shoes.”
The Buy Nothing Project, a network of gifting communities, was launched on Bainbridge Island, Washington in 2013. Founded by Liesl Clark, a National Geographic filmmaker inspired by a gift economy in the Himalayas, and Rebecca Rockefeller, a social media expert, the rules of the project are simple: “Post anything you’d like to give away, lend, or share amongst neighbors. Ask for anything you’d like to receive for free or borrow. Keep it legal. Keep it civil. No buying or selling, no trades or bartering, we’re strictly a gift economy.”
Buy Nothing is active in all 50 states and a few overseas locations (such as Australia, South Africa, and Japan), and uses closed Facebook groups as platforms for neighbors to post gifts, ask for things, or express gratitude. Joining BNP is as simple as asking the volunteer administrator of your neighborhood group to add you (which they will do after verifying that your address is within the group’s geographic boundaries).
Gifting is not a requirement of belonging to a group, but members who only ask to receive items without offering gifts in return are generally weeded out by BNP “karma.”
Silverman is one of the 1,427 members in Philadelphia’s largest Buy Nothing group, but the city’s first group was started in the Bella Vista/Washington Square West neighborhood in 2014 by Bella Vista resident Paige Wolf, a green living expert with her own public relations firm. “It’s one of the best things I ever did,” Wolf says.
Wolf read an article about Buy Nothing, and immediately wanted to join a local group. Philadelphia had none at the time. After coordinating with the organization, she set up a group that initially included the entire Center City area. With lots of narrow rowhouse dwellers eager to purge unnecessary items (and do some free shopping in the process), the group quickly grew and eventually split into more pinpointed neighborhood affiliations. Now there are 15 groups, from South Philly to Brewerytown, Roxborough, Holmesburg and the River Wards.
“Asking and receiving isn’t about who needs it most,” Wolf explains. “I mean, you can choose who you want to give to based on that. But it’s equal. It’s about being less wasteful, and consuming less, and being neighborly.”
Common gifts offered on Philadelphia’s Buy Nothing pages are, not surprisingly, the types of items that city dwellers are eager to evict from their small homes in an attempt to free up square footage: toys, IKEA furniture, clothing, and obscure kitchen appliances. Areas with many young families are particularly active, teeming with quickly outgrown kid things.
And then there are the more bizarre gifts. Members have gifted Bruce Springsteen concert tickets, frozen breastmilk, career counseling services, homemade kimchi, and live goldfish. As evidenced by Silverman’s hastily claimed gift of crumbs, no offer is too strange.
In an era when social media platforms often reduce the frequency of real-world interactions, Buy Nothing does the opposite. It allows neighbors to meet in person, using 21st Century digital tools to create a fabulously retro neighborhood experience.
Members may also offer their time and talents to their neighbors. “Things that stand out are always, always gifts of self,” says Veronica Dawn Byrd, administrator and organizer of the Graduate Hospital/Newbold/Point Breeze group. “We have one extremely talented member who baked and decorated a gorgeous cake for an elderly neighbor’s 99th birthday. This member has also taught a class in his own home, supplying all materials teaching a group of members how to make soap.”
Buy Nothing is not just about free stuff, however; gift-giving fosters a sense of community. Several months ago, Liz Todd Scott, a recently-transitioned transgender woman in the process of overhauling her wardrobe, asked the Grad Hospital Buy Nothing group for a statement necklace—a necklace big enough in size and bold enough in color to garner the attention she was no longer wary of attracting. Her neighbors took notice.
“When I first transitioned,” Scott recalls, “my partner got me a lot of jewelry on Buy Nothing, including a necklace that I get compliments on constantly, I think both because it is beautiful, and also so people can give me a subtle, ‘You’re okay and respected.’ I love that I now get tagged on every post about statement necklaces. It’s like I’m on the inside of an inside joke, and it’s made me feel really welcome and accepted.”
A Buy Nothing exchange starts out being about things. But it will also include introductions between people who may have walked past each other for years and are saying hello for the first, but now certainly not the last, time. “This is Drew,” said a Grad Hospital BNP member as she introduced Silverman to her husband recently. “He’s wearing your shoes.”