This Is Us

How a ‘Buy Nothing’ Group Kept Me Human

It’s an alternative to waste—but also proof of life

Photo: Catherine McQueen/Moment/Getty Images

“Need a vibrator?” I received this text from a neighbor after moving into my new apartment in downtown Manhattan last summer. Attached was a screenshot of a Facebook post advertising a free, unopened vibrator for pickup on my block.

“Omg, what FB group is this?!” I texted back.

“Only the most important thing ever,” she said. “Added you.”

The feed was completely baffling to me; people gave away everything from a single roll of toilet paper to flat-screen TVs. “Two of my avocados are ripe early,” someone wrote. “Any takers?” Nothing went unclaimed. This was our neighborhood’s Buy Nothing group, a community project with the mantra “give where you live.” It’s an offshoot of the hyperlocal gifting project founded by two friends, Rebecca Rockefeller and Liesl Clark, in Bainbridge Island, Washington. Now, these groups dot communities across the world, each one with its own personality.

I’d soon realize the group wasn’t just for laughs or unloading junk, though. It was an entire ecosystem sustained by compassion. There were leaders and facilitators and good-natured structures in place. For example, items typically aren’t first-come, first-serve; instead, givers are encouraged to let their posts “simmer,” keeping them up for a few days before deciding on a recipient. This is so that more people can see these posts, especially members without solid access to the internet.

The group leans into communal responsibility—gently reminding new members of the rules, making each person feel seen (even just through “reacts”), encouraging cognizance of how much you give versus how much you take. This mentality extends past hand-me-downs; once, someone announced a newly unhoused member in need. Group members swiftly pulled together a basket of essentials and a safe place to stay. When the seasons changed and the city froze over, our group organized a socially distanced clothing swap on a central block.

Over the last year, this little group has brought me unexpected surprise (the taxidermied bat everyone went nuts for) and joy (a loving boyfriend claimed said bat for his partner, who later posted several excited photos of it). The group has also become a lens for me to understand the fabric of my new home despite moving during a pandemic. It’s difficult to establish a sense of belonging when it feels like there’s little to belong to; Buy Nothing, at least, showed proof of life.

I slowly learned who the respected, longtime residents were, the people as much a staple of this neighborhood as the sturdy old brownstones themselves. I noticed one member always volunteered to deliver claimed items to those who couldn’t leave their apartments. I scrolled far enough back to see he’d been doing it for years. Later I started seeing him in real life on his bike, various items draped over the handlebars. I’d recognized him from his Facebook photo.

These members reminded me of the importance of investing in your community — that even in a big city, you can carve out a space and nurture it.

Following the group’s stories made me feel connected in a time when connection was so very rare. I’d read a post and imagine two strangers meeting over a chipped teapot, one that would’ve been trashed otherwise. Perhaps they’d become friends, or maybe, more likely, they’d only share this tiny human interaction. It didn’t matter. Each post was a vignette that eased me out of my own head; everyone else was also in their own tiny box just doing their best.

My favorite type of post is the gift of plant cuttings. These are wildly popular, and threads can last for months as proud new plant parents post progress pictures and ask advice from the greener thumbs. All summer long, I saw people walking down my block with little cups of roots or stem, heading to the garden shop for potting. For $5, you get a ceramic pot and soil, and the kind owner will bury the roots for you with the gentlest touch I’ve ever seen. She’ll whisper a few words and send you off with your new charge. Later, (hopefully) your tiny root will become a leafy goddess that you can propagate for others. I love to imagine all of these sister plants on windowsills in neighboring homes, their humans pruning them to make room for new growth.

Meghan Gunn is a writer. tweeting @95gunn

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