Buy Nothing takes giving and receiving to a different, more neighborly level

Meanwhile, in Ambler and a host of other places …

Buy Nothing groups are active in Upper Dublin in Montgomery County, Doylestown in Bucks County, Malvern in Chester County, and in the Mount Airy section of Philadelphia, among places in this region.

Colleen Johnson, of Buy Nothing Ambler/Blue Bell/Lower Gwynedd, stepped into the admin role as that community grew. With more than 1,000 members, it may sprout a second group to maintain a hyperlocal feel.

However, it is also becoming aware how reinforcing boundaries could segregate people along class lines.

“So it would be like West Ambler and East Ambler or something like that, but you also have to look at the socioeconomics of people,” Johnson said. “So Blue Bell tends to have more wealthier people in a sense, so that they might have bigger items to gift. There’s a lot of renters in Ambler. There’s a lot more established people in Blue Bell and Lower Gwynedd, so we have like a good mix of people.”

She’s noticed that the demographics of the gift economy skew more toward women, yet Johnson said that hasn’t stopped her husband from participating and bringing home more stuff than they can handle on occasion — though they always make it work.

Part of the benefit of being an admin is being able to see the inner workings of other groups. That’s where Johnson saw her favorite thing gifted.

“Someone’s relative was going into hospice, and he wanted peanut butter Girl Scout cookies. And it wasn’t Girl Scout season time — but one of my members had them in the freezer,” Johnson said. “And so … I drove it to her, and she brought it to her relatives. So it was like a little train. But we were able to fulfill someone’s last request, and it didn’t cost anybody anything.”

Items can change hands quite frequently. Gina Carrozza, an administrator of Buy Nothing Pilgrim Gardens/Drexel Hill, said a “Happy Birthday” lawn sign became quite popular in her group.

“So much interest was on it, we started doing a sign-up sheet. So we had one post and everybody would sign up, and every day almost somebody else had this sign,” Carrozza said. “And [it] lasted about six months and I think went through 75 people.”

Melinda Levandowski, an admin of Buy Nothing Jenkintown/Wyncote, happens to be a professional organizer and declutterer by trade. She said we buy too much stuff and it stresses us out.

The value of Buy Nothing, she said, is that it provides an emotional exchange when we can find a home for things of sentimental value.

“You can actually match your stuff up with what you think it’s worth in that emotional value, like you can find a taker that values it and that you can pass it along to,” Levandowski said.

She’s big on the neighborly spirit, even online.

“I do send out reminders every once in a while, like, ‘Hey, everyone, here’s how you’re polite in comments.’ And, ‘Here’s how you talk to people on the internet.’ And, ‘Here’s how you gift, and here’s how you receive,’ but otherwise people are just generous, and people kind of get it,” Levandowski said.

Ally Sabatina, of Buy Nothing Broomall/Newtown Square, has flipped the script on the role of the admin. She and the other admins have began asking their members for recommendations about how the group can best function to help everyone in the community — not just those on Facebook.

“As our group has gotten much bigger and we have kind of polled our group members, we feel it’s important to support community resources just as much as we support the heart of our group,” Sabatina said.

Liana de Lara, an admin of Buy Nothing Conshohocken, has noticed that gifts and asks can reflect the holiday season, but she has also seen that they can reflect the hardships facing the community, such as losses from Hurricane Ida.

“It hit Conshohocken pretty bad. There’s been a lot of asks that have been going around … like ‘whole house got affected, so does anyone have extra dishes? I’m just starting at a new place,’” de Lara said.

And in the pandemic …

Things nearly ground to a halt in many groups as the coronavirus hit, but it brought out the best of Buy Nothing Lansdowne.

Mother and daughter Gillian and Caroline Lancaster came to the United States by way of England in 1988, though Gillian says, “I moved to Pennsylvania in 2004. And I’ve been living in Lansdowne, but hardly knew anyone because I was working and I was never here during the day.”

Gillian (L) and Caroline Lancaster (R) fashioned their porch into a makeshift food pantry during the pandemic with the help of Buy Nothing Lansdowne. (Kenny Cooper/WHYY)

Caroline Lancaster has lived in the Philadelphia area since the 1990s, but she didn’t make her stop in Lansdowne until the pandemic. She was bored, and her mom needed help cleaning out the house. (Both women are self-employed graphic designers.)

Gillian Lancaster admitted that she has a bit of an obsession with Facebook, and that’s how she came across Buy Nothing Lansdowne.

“I mostly lurked to begin with, because I didn’t completely get the idea of just asking for something and people would just provide it. It seemed a little alien,” Gillian said. “And so the first thing I did was actually lent somebody a music score, because that felt safe. And I got such lovely, positive feedback from that I thought this actually probably would work. So when Caroline came, I told her about it.”

Because Caroline didn’t initially live in Lansdowne, she was only allowed to join on a probationary level. The duo soon started to give out crafts and goods. They really enjoyed seeing people give and receive items both big and small.

“It’s one of those things that might not make sense from the outside; once you’re in the cult, it suddenly makes sense,” Caroline said, laughing as she added, “It’s not a cult.”

They soon found a way in the pandemic to leverage the generosity of Buy Nothing to assist their neighbors.

“And then there was a food box program which we decided to help take part in, because we have a porch. And I had time and why not,” Caroline said.

A neighbor with a van, Deborah Van Dornick, and her son Jonathan Cairnes had connections to places giving out leftover food. They also made sure they weren’t taking food from other places in need. Soon, the Lancasters fashioned their porch into a makeshift food pantry, where people could drop off food or come and pick some up.

The Lancasters usually were not outside when people were picking up food, because they didn’t want anyone to be uncomfortable. Still, people in need of food would leave dish soap, because they felt like they should leave something.

“There should be no shame in needing food. Everyone needs food. And during the pandemic, a lot of people didn’t qualify, especially in the beginning didn’t qualify for any extra help. And there was a huge amount of need, because a lot of people around here are paycheck to paycheck,” Caroline Lancaster said.

That wasn’t Caroline’s only passion project using Buy Nothing resources. She turned unwanted Harry Potter books into origami, bookmarks, and key chains. She has sold them, but she doesn’t pocket the change. Instead, Caroline donates 100% of the proceeds to trans organizations that help change laws for the better.

Gillian Lancaster said that seeing acts of giving warms her heart, especially in the pandemic, when there has been so much death.

Caroline said giving should be thought of as an act of service to the community as opposed to the individual.

“​​And it’s so nice to reframe giving, instead of a reciprocal thing. Like, I’m giving you something to show you how I care about you. You’re my town. You know I love you. So, let’s take care of each other. Why not?”

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