How My Local Buy Nothing Group Made the Suburbs Feel Like a Real Place
The gifting economy offers exactly the kind of low-stakes engagement I never knew I needed before COVID.
I’m not saying the 17-pack of microwaveable pork rinds my wife and I dropped off on some nice woman’s porch in Spring City was the weirdest give ever on my local Buy Nothing group. But on any list of oddities, it would have to rank high.
We never asked for the pork rinds. They just kind of … arrived. A late-capitalist miracle, or a pandemic glitch in the system — delivered out of the blue one afternoon by a harried delivery driver and dropped on our front porch in a giant box. It was addressed to us. Meant for us (at least in some sense of the word) and left like accidental manna during the depths of COVID’s second wave, when everything was somehow terrifying and old hat at the same time.
The box originally held 18 packs of microwaveable spicy pork rinds, but I — being me, being curious, being unwilling (at first) to simply ignore so many portions of delicious fried pig skin — ate one.
It was terrible. Like, maybe not objectively, but to put it politely, the pork rinds were very much not to my taste. And there were so many of them. So the answer was clear. Laura, my wife, snapped a picture, then went on our local Buy Nothing group’s Facebook page and posted it.
They were gone in a day. Presumably to a good home, where shelf-stable microwaveable pork products are more appreciated. And when it was done, we felt good, because we’d given something away to a person who wanted (or needed) 17 individual bags of pork rinds rather than just tossing them, wasting them, adding more trash to a world already awash in it and more food waste to a system already rife with it. And the person who’d wanted the pork rinds also felt good, I assumed. Because now they had pork rinds. It was a win-win.
But it was more than that, too.
In the Suburbs, 1976
When I was growing up, my parents knew everyone on our block. They weren’t the most social people in the world — they didn’t swan around at dinner parties or invite neighbors over for coffee or martinis in the evening — but they knew everyone’s name. They knew where they worked, who their kids were, and when those kids were headed to college or jail or getting married. This wasn’t information gleaned in any way I can recall. It just existed, like oxygen or the smell of cut grass.
For a while, I thought it was just time that did that. You spend long enough in one place, you get to know its rhythms. You learn things about it without ever really knowing how. My parents had been married three years when they moved into the house I grew up in. Like the seed of some not-terribly-exotic plant, they blew in from one town over, sank their roots deep, and never left. My father died in the living room of the house where he’d spent his entire adult life. My mom lives there still.
And there’s comfort in that, I think. It feels good to be part of a community. To know and be known. My mom used to say it made her happy just to hear the hum of life going on outside. Not to invite it in, necessarily, but just to know it was there and, should she choose to part the curtains and look outside, be able to recognize that life and name it. To know where she fit with it.
In the Suburbs, 2022
I know no one in my neighborhood.
I’ve been here for 10 years now, and I couldn’t name most of the people I live among on a bet. My immediate next-door neighbor — maybe we say Hey, how’s it going? if we see each other on the street, bringing in the trash cans, loading up the kids in the car, whatever. But that’s it.
Everyone else? They’re ghosts to me. Accumulations of bumper stickers and yard signs, their children a blur of Ninjago backpacks, flip-flops, scooters rusting under back decks. Quick snaps of prom photos on the front lawn. The occasional shouting matches heard through windows accidentally left open — almost always about money, almost always stalemates.
And for a long time, that was fine with me. I had a family, a job in the city, an office to go to, friends elsewhere. A thousand distractions. It was a life, or something like it, and there was very little quiet in it until, very suddenly, in March of 2020, there was almost nothing but.
COVID brought a silence that was nice while it was a novelty, then became something else. We took our precautions seriously — grocery delivery to avoid the stores, no more working at the bar or the coffee shop around the corner, no more trips to Wawa or Target or anywhere, really. On my street, in my development, the doors stayed closed, and the world, abruptly robbed of the hum of life going on outside that had comforted my parents and made up the background static of my childhood, felt stark. Empty. Even after the panic of the initial lockdowns, the grinding exterior quiet that came of work-from-home, virtual school, and those zombie months of pandemic inertia felt, somehow, worse. There were no more voices outside. No world beyond the windows. Our family, our house, became this isolated little island, surrounded by a thousand other isolated little islands populated by people who were complete strangers to me.
And it’s easy, so easy, to dislike a stranger. To distrust a stranger. To look out the window and see the world filled with nothing but strangers and think, We’re alone here. This island is all there is.
In Those Quiet Days
We reached out a dozen different ways, my wife and I. We did Zoom happy hours with locked-down acquaintances and calls with distant friends, virtual museum visits, movie nights for the kids. Our local Buy Nothing group was just one of the many flailing, sporadic attempts we made at connecting outside our bubble. But for us, it was the one that stuck.
The system is elegant in its simplicity. Started in 2013 on Bainbridge Island in Washington state by two women, Rebecca Rockefeller and Liesl Clark, the Buy Nothing Project aims to build connection through the gifting economy. There’s an environmental element to it (the recycling of consumer goods is better than the abandonment or disposal of them) as well as a financial one (getting what you need for free will always improve the household bottom line). There’s an undeniable attraction to the idea of decluttering for a cause, one that operations like Goodwill and the Salvation Army have leveraged for decades. But at its core, the Buy Nothing movement is about community. You “give where you live,” in the parlance of the groups, and you ask for what you need without shame or guilt because a Buy Nothing group isn’t about charity. It’s about solidarity.
“We have plenty right here within each of our local communities to sustain us,” Clark told the New York Times in 2021. The game is to find the things you don’t need and get them in the hands of people who do. To ask for the things you want and to see if the community can provide. And it says something about the glut of stuff we all have lying around that very often, the community can.
Professor and political theorist Lauren Hall, writing about Buy Nothings on Econlib, says, “Humans love giving and receiving, we’re profoundly and weirdly social, and we have magpie tendencies that show up in funny ways.” All of which I think is absolutely true and gets at the inherent oddity of a system where a pre-loved Elsa doll from Frozen has the same inherent value as a Peloton bike or a box of pork rinds, because desire for an object exists independently of extrinsic monetary worth and anyway, everything on the site is given away for free — no bartering, no trading, no strings attached. Hall continues: “While I sometimes see coverage of BN groups that discusses them as though they’re some new form of community made possible by technology, I actually think the most interesting part of the BN project is how much of it is in fact very, very old. BN is, in a sense, a kind of throwback to our pre-market lives, focused on mutual aid and generalized indirect and direct reciprocity.”
Which means the more you participate, the likelier you are to benefit. The more you give when you’re able, the more you’re likely to get what you need. A bedframe. A covered, segmented appetizer tray (the first thing we ever took from the group). Baby clothes. Hamster bedding. Tickets to a baseball game. Sand shovels. Drain-line connectors. It’s all there — the strange and the mundane, the gives and the asks.
And honestly, that’s the part that first hooked me — the anti-capitalist mutual-aid side of it. The idea of a bunch of Gen X suburbanites looking around at the underutilized resources cluttering their nests and deciding to buck consumerism and give a slight, exhausted finger to the system by just giving it all away.
But what held my interest were the small dramas being played out in the never-ending scroll of offers and asks. Some posts — not all, but some — could be read like that story “Baby Shoes,” allegedly by Hemingway, with so much freight packed into so few words. Others are like that game you play in restaurants where you see a couple across the room and try to guess their histories.
Look close and you can see children growing up, hobbies found or abandoned, relationships beginning and ending. You see the offer of a random pair of oversize St. Patrick’s Day novelty glasses, and you wonder how the party was and why this person held onto those for so long. You wonder who would need them now, in May. Because every object has a story, and every story has a person at the center of it.
And all of a sudden, that person isn’t a stranger anymore.
In Today’s (Gifting) Economy
There are, as of the moment I write this, 5.3 million members of Buy Nothing groups organized into 7,000 communities spread across 44 countries. By the time this sees print, there will be more. There’s a movement to get everyone off Facebook and under the umbrella of a centralized app that makes some of the organizing (allegedly) easier, but ours — mine and Laura’s — remains a Facebook group, with over a thousand members. As in any community, there are rules, written and unwritten. All gifts are equal. Everyone gives from their own abundance, and we keep it in the neighborhood. Recently, with the pandemic in brief retreat, people started doing personal hand-offs of gifts rather than listing porch pickups and hanging bags off doorknobs. The gratitude on the site has increased since then. People meet, shake hands, make friends. They post about that, too.
“We exist for the sole purpose of building community,” it says on the Buy Nothing Project’s main site. “We believe a gift economy’s real wealth is the people involved and the web of connections that form to support them.”
And while I may not lean so fully into the whole “The real treasure was the friends we made along the way” squishiness and sentimentality of that mission statement, it’s not entirely wrong. During the worst days of pandemic isolation, those small sparks of connection I got from seeing my neighbors’ lives through the filter of a screen — in witnessing their generosity, their care, and participating in this small anti-capitalist rebellion — was enough for me. It made the world feel a little less cynical, a little less divided. A little less empty, most of all.
And now? Now I’m in it because it feels good to be a part of something. Because I like giving stuff away. Because on a quiet night, the small narratives and internecine squabbles in the group still feel like the murmur of neighbors talking in the street. I don’t know everyone’s name the way my parents did 40 years ago. I never will. But my Buy Nothing group offers exactly the kind of low-stakes engagement I never knew I needed before COVID, and it makes the suburb I’ve inhabited for a decade now feel, finally, like a real place, populated by something more than just strangers.
Plus, my oldest daughter is leaving for college soon, so if anyone needs a used six-drawer dresser, a barely touched acoustic guitar, some candy-colored nail polish, or a life-size cardboard cutout of Harry Styles, I’m your guy.
Published as “Give and Take” in the July 2022 issue of Philadelphia magazine.