Priceless traveling store

By Bertha Serrano

Whoever said “Nothing in life is free” obviously never met this group. Without declaring a special holiday to give things away, four people open a store a few times a year where everything is free-no exceptions.

Free Store Chicago has many locations throughout the city. Their operating hours  vary from month to month; and instead of being open throughout the week, they are open for one day, and only three to four times a year.

Though the idea of having free stores has been around for a while in other cities,  Free Store Chicago has seen a recent increase in attendees.  After the most recent Free Store in Pilsen on April 25, the founders recongnized the need to have events more often.

The way the Free Store works is that people donate things they no longer want and attendees can take items without having to give anything in return.

Four years ago, two of the four founding members, Salem Hollo Hulo and Melinda Fries, were inspired by a group known as the Diggers. They were a nationwide “hippie” group that would open free shops and give things away.

Because both of them were involved with the art community and had access to art spaces, the idea for a free store and having different locations seemed reasonable.

“In the past, the idea and the concept have been around for hundreds of years, people have been giving away services and items to each other for a long time,” Hulo said. “I asked Melinda if she would want to do some sort of day of giving stuff away, and we decided to collaborate on that. [It has been] very successful, and since then we put the free service together.”

Though hosting a free store is something they enjoy doing, it’s not as easy as it sounds.

Just like any other event, it takes time to plan, find a location and find people to donate items.

Once all that is covered, donors usually need someone to pick up their items and move them to the Free Store location. Having other people help out always makes things easier for the four of them, they said.

Items that people have given away or taken include things like books, clothing, canned goods, furniture, office supplies and computers. Hulo said they’ve had some unusual items donated, like a canoe and a portable dishwasher.

So far, they have organized around seven or eight Free Stores in the city. The first one was four years ago in Mess Hall, 6932 N. Glenwood Ave. They try not to have it in the same neighborhood, so everyone has the chance to experience one and they can help people around the city. Past neighborhoods have included Pilsen, Rogers Park and Pullman, among others.

“We try to find a place that is open to the public and [that] we can use to reconfigure in an interesting way,” Hulo said. “We’re always looking for a neighborhood that we haven’t been to before. We also try to partner up with a space or neighborhood group, and they give resources.”

Fries said the amount of people who show up depends on the location. They have held the store outside in the past, and a lot of people attended. On one occasion, they hosted the store for weeks, and when they were about to run out of things, Fries said people would show up and bring more stuff.

Aside from helping others, the group wants to show people how easy it is to have one of these events on their own.

“[People] can do a Free Store in [their] block,” Fries said. “It doesn’t have to last all day. It can just be for a few hours. It can be very flexible.”

Fries said people are skeptical about the Free Store at first, because they think it’s a scam. Once they realize it’s really a free store, they take whatever they want.

Depending on how much stuff they have left over, sometimes it goes to a neighborhood organization that they know will use it to help others, and sometimes they keep it for the next Free Store.

Chicago has other free stores available to people, including The Pit. The Pit, which is organized by the Reba Place Fellowship, 737 Reba Place, is a Christian organization in Evanston.

Charlotte Oda, a Reba Place member, said there can never be too many free stores.

“In our neighborhood, we have a place called Albany Care where it’s an institution with people with mental illness and they don’t have much money and they like to come,” Oda said. “People who are refugees and who just moved here and need some things like to come [too].”

The next Free Store is scheduled for the summer.

“The four of us see it as something that we all enjoy doing,” Hulo said. “It’s an opportunity that gets people to think about the economy and gets people to think about [the] value of items in their life.”

To be a part of the next Free Store, visit