On the third Saturday of February, the Gainesville Free Store opened at the Civic Media Center on South Main Street, as it has been doing for the past two and a half years.
The tables at the Free Sore were stocked with everything from toiletries to kid’s clothing, all donated from various sources.
Run entirely off of donations, the Free Store provides those in need with clothes, toiletries, household goods, and whatever else they’ve received. The event, held from 2 to 5 p.m., had about 20 people in attendance.
One of the attendees, Mary Lopez, said she had been going to the Free Store for the last six months with her daughter.
“I got her a dress for the Tim Tebow Prom here. Saved me about $30,” she said.
Lopez said they usually have kid’s clothing, but when they don’t, she looks for small women’s clothes that will shrink in the dryer.
The Gainesville Free Store was originally started in 2014 by various organizers at the Wild Iris Bookstore. It closed for a time when the bookstore closed, but then J.D, Schmidt, 49, and two other organizers decided to restart the Free Store, with permission from its founders.
“The need is just tremendous,” Schmidt said. “The people that come to Free Store range from houseless people who are still fully on the street to newly housed people — people who are setting up a household from the ground up.”
He said on average between 20 and 50 people attend.
Schmidt and the two other organizers began running the event together until one moved away. Currently, Schmidt and the other remaining organizer rely on assistance from volunteers to run the event.
According to Schmidt, there are five or six people who help with the event semi-regularly. To volunteer, Schmidt recommends people attend a Free Store and speak to one of the organizers or message them on Facebook.
On the day of the event, they go to a small storage unit, which they pay about $140 a month for out of their own pockets, and pick up as much as they can fit in their cars. They leave behind any seasonal items but make sure to bring as much as possible in case someone could need it.
“It’s like playing a giant game of Tetris,” he said.
A big source of volunteers over the last six months has been the Alachua TranQuility group, which co-sponsored Saturday’s event. According to its website, Alachua TranQuility’s purpose is to “improve the quality of lives of transgender and gender non-conforming individuals in North Central Florida.”
The Free Store organizers don’t have their own location, so Schmidt said they have limited times within which they can accept donations. They ask that any donations be brought to the Civic Media Center on the day of the event, no earlier than 12:30 p.m.
To promote the event, Schmidt said they post to Craigslist, their Facebook page, and some community Facebook groups such as the Alachua County Peace Coalition and the Alachua County Labor Coalition. Among some of the homeless attendees, word of mouth is the main way they hear of the event, he said.
Heather Curtis, one of the attendees on Saturday, said she likes the free store because it’s similar to a swap.
“I brought a coffee pot and it was picked up almost immediately,” she said, and left the event with two dinner plates.
Curtis heard of the event from Trisha Russel, who had been once before. Russel, who has been looking for a new job, took home a pair of slacks. Last time she attended, she took home 12 sets of new razors.
Schmidt said that they appreciate all donations but are currently in need of personal care products and socks the most, as they get taken the fastest. They request people ensure the items they are donating are clean.