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Commentary :: Environment : Human Rights : Organizing
The Free sHop Movement
14 Nov 2005
Scrounging for Freedom, circa 1999.
The Free sHop Movement

Tom Dowse was an indomitable foe of apartheid, scorner of racial segregation, motor mechanic and dope smuggler; since gone aloft. He used to turn up at my folks' place in his clapped out old Jaguar, grinning widely. "Pieter, come have a look what I got from the free shop". There, just transported in style from the Hout Bay garbage tip, would be some wondrous article that only needed three hours of skilled work and parts from a duplicate, to be just as good as a dilapidated one.

In Tom's honour, the Free sHop Movement was launched. The principles are simple. Junk belongs to us, the people. It does not belong to councils, shires, governments or contractors. We paid for it in the first place. We hire councils and the like, and among other less important tasks, they are required to sort the good junk from the stuff we are prepared to let them keep, put it out of the weather in a place convenient to us (near the tip or transfer bin is as good as any), and then help us load it into our cars or trucks or across the handlebars of our bicycles, free, and wish us good day. For this we let them keep their jobs.

We are philosophically tolerant of the sort of manic re-cycling that engineers so love, where point nought-nought-one cent's worth of paper is collected with loving care and shipped to Taiwan to be recycled as a parking ticket.

What we are really passionate about is things like washing machines, turfed out because a button got stuck in the pump and the owner had never been introduced to a screwdriver in his or her expensive schooling. Double or triple the useful life of a thing, and you really help keep down mining and forest scalping.

Vic Calthorpe, once an Englishman, started the first free shop we know of, at Mount Nebo, a hideout for hillbillies near here. That one has flower beds, a neat but rather small shed (in fact a roof over a bench rather than a shed), rain water to drink, and places for bottles, cans, old oil, plastic containers, newspapers, and a charity bin for clothes. There is a large steel bin for export junk and another for scrap steel. Trucks cart those away. Vic didn't know that he had kick-started the Free sHop Movement, but the Mount Nebo tip got to be famous anyway. It's been on television several times. You can occasionally get free chickens there; it's way off in the forest, miles from houses, so all chooks are fair game. Either you catch them or the dingoes do, in a day or two.

There is yet another free shop, unrelated except in spirit, in a small town on the coast just north of San Francisco. The town is rather touchy about being named, all the road signs to it being regularly pulled down by the locals, so I'll not abuse its hospitality by an act of unauthorized naming. Hitching by, a year or two back, I was delighted to be shown, tucked away in the middle behind something more pretentious, a free shop. The differences were, you have to go there especially and their shed is a touch small. This one dealt in food inter alia, and was permanently manned. For all I know, there may be hundreds more. Patagonia may have had them since the Middle Ages.

Anyway, there is another one functioning very well now, at the Samford tip. Officially the place is an Environmental Transfer Unit, but folk here have trouble adjusting to new-fangled ideas and long titles, so in the local dialect it's still the tip. Samford is just over the hill from the end of Brisbane's suburbs. Brisbane is on the edge of Australia, which is the dry bit they use to fill the hole between the Indian and Pacific Oceans.

There is a small but adequate shed now, where almost everyone puts what they don't want, but think some other character might. Bicycles by the score, some nearly perfect, colour televisions likewise, computers and bits of, endless furniture, crockery, large inanimate fluffy dogs, needles, anchors and all between. It's often a shambles but now no-one seems to care. We found a working chainsaw one day and a perfectly good, 30-foot long mainsail another day. Both were in the bin by mistake and not in the shed, but no matter.
A useful 44 gallon drum stands just in front of the take-away bins. It says "Plant pots please or help yourself" on the side, and is third generation, the previous two having collapsed from overwork. I have a small nursery and have not yet bought a pot. Competition, particularly for the larger pots, is strong. They don't hang around.

Whole carcasses of small trees and bushes, and the limbs of large trees, get turned into mulch every Monday, and then dumped on the ground. People bring utes and trailers, shovel it up and take it all away again for free. A few hours after the mulcher stops running, there is never any left. Competition is strong, as this is a gardening sort of district. All the usuals get re-cycled too - the Scouts get the ally cans, someone else gets the bottles, paper goes to Asia to revive the tigers, and so on.

I have also just finished putting an all-steel roof over an old caravan. I had some left-over sheet iron from a shed, but not enough. The rest of it, the framing, the brackets (old bed frames were used), the steel screws, bolts, washers, nuts and green paint, were all from the free sHop. It cost a lot of work, fitting the oddities together, but not a cent. Give my fondest regards to the taxman.

As you can imagine, this is a popular tourist attraction, since this is a rich valley and we have very classy junk. All sorts come from miles around. Shiny new four-wheel drives and shaggy looking vehicles that aren't local come in droves. Council and government trucks put in regularly, doubtless to see what they can save for their respective departments. That is not entirely in jest, as the local parks ranger, in years when they forgot to provide a budget for maintenance, claimed he stopped daily at the Mount Nebo tip for supplies to keep the buildings from falling over, or to fix those recently attended to by hoons.

The shed took a bit of getting. There are many conflicting versions to the story, but mine is thus:

There was a sort of corral in the open, between the two bins we had then. People put useable things there, but rain was a problem. Also the arsonist, who burned it and the bins a couple of times. David, who was then the tip commander, the chairman of the Progress Association and editor of the local paper, got a bit fed-up and didn't promptly clean the mess. This sparked complaints of untidiness, a mortal sin in the eyes of our beloved council. It removed the corral. Someone, who best remain unfingered, wrote a sarcastic letter to the paper, tagging the elected official responsible the "Empress of Garbage". David, to his undoing, wrote an editorial in support of this impolite letter. These between them prompted a good-humoured letter of response from the Empress and the sack for David, from the tip and from the chairmanship of the P.A. He also got tipped out of the editor's chair, as the paper belong to the Progress folk. In high dudgeon, he went off and started another paper, which thrived for years but is now resting, perhaps in peace. The lady who got his job, when it was her turn to be tipped out, started our third paper, still going strong. These are real newspapers, with ads and colour photos and all and they now contribute stoutly to our contribution to the Taiwanese economy. Freedom of the press can have odd beginnings and consequences.

About six local disreputables went down to the office of the mayor, who was polite and really quite innocent, and shouted at him a bit, to his bemusement. He was, of course, tipped out a week or two later. Pure coincidence you'd have to say, but perhaps out of revenge, we got our shed a few months later. Poverty in this area is now only a distant memory, and as a good bit less junk goes away on publicly funded trucks, the shire council's debt, now tipping $100 million, has been reduced by at least a dollar or two annually. Several people collect things steadily and sell them on the Sunday markets over in the suburbs, fixed or unfixed. This is splendid, as it slows the export of money from the area and enables people with zip capital to start trading in a small way and generate extra dollars. I have done it myself when short of loot. Once, a friend and I collared a vast shop counter, loaded it on the ute, went to a row of shops a few miles away and sold it for a hundred dollars to the third one tried. That being an otherwise financially uninspiring week, we were happy.

As fast throughput is a necessity at the tip, we have a localized backup. There is a large shed here at my place, with things in it, like about twenty bicycles. Anyone who turns up and wants a bicycle can make their own out of the bits, or just take what bits they need. Also lots of pieces of steel that shape, in the adjacent combined (planted) rain and steel forest, for the same purpose. Inevitably, there is a shortage of shed space here too, so not everything is for the taking by anyone, some being private junk. About a dozen people, at a guess, put in and take out things on an irregular basis. Maybe there are other local sheds doing the same, I don't know.

Lee, the present O.C. at Samford, does an excellent minding job, though you have to ask politely if you want a lift up with some particular monstrosity. He won't take free cars, whatever you say. But we did get a boat.

This is a more interesting way of finding some of life's necessities than working every day for banks and supermarkets. If you like the idea, join the movement. Send no money to anywhere you like, blink twice and you are your own fully approved Free sHop co-ordinater, managing director, field marshal, private or somnambulist. We don't need to know, unless you feel like yarning. Do whatever seems like a good idea. Leadership is popular with small Norwegian rodents called lemmings; you won't get any from us.

There is no copyright on Free sHop literature. Misquote it any which way you like. We write it that odd way as a tracking device. Use it or not, to suit. Cheers.

Peter Ravenscroft.

This work is in the public domain
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