Correction: This story wrongly says the Really Really Free Store will move in March to a building next door. The Free Store moved into that building this month. The on-scene reporting for this piece was conducted in mid-October, when the Free Store was still located in the house.
In the latest episode of our podcast A Trifling Place, we take you to a store where everything is free. It's in a complex called Area 15.
Area 15 got its start 13 years ago along East 15th Street in the NoDa arts district. It's an old warehouse painted over with bright, pastel colors and graffiti art of baby birds and peace signs.
It's a mix of businesses and nonprofits all in one space: there’s a music academy where you can learn how to DJ, a 24/7 urban prayer room, a tattoo parlor, modeling agency, art studios, real estate agency, a fitness center and a bike co-op.
And nearby, is a one-story house known as the “Really Really Free Store.” Here's how first-time visitor Brian Cornelison describes it:
"Well the concept is written pretty clear on the sign out front, 'Give what you want, take what you need'," Cornelison says. "And that's a pretty simple concept. And it's a concept I really like."
Walking into the Free Store, it feels like you're trespassing into someone’s home.
Barbara Forquer and Donna Young are cooking grits in the kitchen and in the living room, about a dozen men and women volunteers – mostly homeless – help themselves to breakfast before the weekly Bible study begins.
They sweep the floors and sort donated clothes, books and household items to put on display at the front of the house for others to take for free.
Don't expect to find a cash register in this store, says co-founder Robert Forquer.
"We like the idea that there's no money involved," Forquer says. "So it doesn't matter how much you have or how little you have – you're still valuable."
Free Store Philosophy
The Free Store got its start back in 2007, when music lessons were exchanged for T-shirts. Back then, it didn't really have an address.
"The Free Store was founded by some – maybe for lack of a better term – some anarchists – that got together on weekends and decided they wanted to just share, share stuff," Forquer says.
When Forquer took over the Free Store around 2010, he moved it to Area 15. At the time, he was a real estate attorney. But he was unhappy. He says he was spending most of his energy trying to cover his overhead and it didn’t leave time to find solutions to the problems he saw every day in his work, like the increase in foreclosures and the growing homeless population. So, about two years ago he moved his law firm from Ballantyne.
The Most Hipster Digs In Charlotte?
Forquer likes rubbing shoulders with artists and musicians and the general hipster vibe of Area 15. He now has more time to become friends with homeless people and help them in his own way. His brother-in-law Paul Fisher worked with him to launch the Free Store.
"He was a pastor and we wanted something totally different from what we've ever experienced," Forquer says. "And so the joke was that whenever we had to make a decision about something, we would try to think what a church would do, and we would do the opposite."
The Free Store is open Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays and volunteers occasionally bring in breakfast. The front door is constantly creaking as people shuffle in and out with books, clothes, picture frames and other household items like vacuum bags and dish racks.
But as Forquer likes to say, the Free Store is not really about the stuff.
"We try to use the house and the front porch and we always have coffee on to try to create a safe space where people can just come together and share life a little bit," Forquer says.
On the front lawn, the leader of the local "Food Not Bombs" group hands out fliers. And inside, Pastor Christopher Cookhorne leads the Thursday morning Bible study.
But in March,
the Free Store is moving next door into the Area 15 warehouse. a farm-to-fork pizza joint, Pure Pizza, is moving into the house. Forquer says the move will allow the Free Store to stay open more hours by combining staffing with other tenants in Area 15.
"We have no idea whether what we're doing makes a difference, except for when we do see somebody who has been homeless, they hang out with us for a while and then are able to get a job or get a place to live. Or when I had one gentleman after we spent some time together, he looked at me one day and said, 'You love me, don't ya?''
He says it's times like that, that make him think the Free Store is making a difference in people's lives.