An Interview with the Nashville Free Store

by Nash Hamilton

On August 7th, I had the privilege of interviewing one of the organizers for the Nashville Free Store. I took the time to get a look at the store, located in Drkmttr, by volunteering on their donation day. When I arrived I noticed a large array of condoms accompanied by various sexual protective products placed prominently on a shelf in the front. A table sitting in the back was decorated with baby items, diapers, clothes, and formula; and, living up to their Nashville roots, there was a table in the middle covered with granola. Drkmttr has really made the whole transformation into a storefront, and it's hard to even tell that you're standing in Nashville's premiere DIY music venue. While the store has food and supplies necessary for survival, they also have school supplies and literature. A bookshelf caddy-corner to the door has "It" by Stephen King brandished on the top shelf. While I was sitting, waiting for the donations to arrive and be sorted, a woman and a toddler walked in off the street after seeing the sign. She asked if they were open, and even though it was donation day, they let her shop around. I helped her bag her items, and load them into her car, she let out a "have a blessed day" and the volunteers responded "You too."

At the end of my volunteer shift, I asked one of the organizers for an interview:

Was there a political inspiration for the Nashville Free Store?

Mutual aid is something humans have done for all of time. . . It's an alternative way of having an economy. I hesitate to define it as anything.

Your slogan is “Solidarity, Not Charity.” How does the idea of charity set up a power complex?

People should never feel guilty for having certain needs, and we live in a system that does not provide for people. It actually targets certain groups and neglects them, essentially, through systemic racism, classism, and ableism. Disabled folks are often helpless. So, I think that the system is the problem, and there is a lot of pressure being placed on institutions to change with protests and we see all kinds of stuff like that. That's all so important, but what we're trying to do is create an alternative way so that once we dismantle oppressive systems, we know how to work together.

What are some of the Free Store’s goals?

Our limitation is what we can do while having Drkmttr still do what they do; especially when they start doing shows again. But resources in general, it'd be nice if there were other free spaces in Nashville, in other parts of town.

Is the Free Store affiliated with the Community Fridge?

We work together. We're organized by different people, but we're in this together. Like, if we have old produce, or like anything we have to save for next week, we'll just throw it in the community fridge.

What does the Nashville Free Store need?

I guess what we're looking for is people who can commit to provide something every week. Like cleaning supplies, we definitely need that in large amounts every week. And it'd be nice to know if people are going to bring it instead of hoping that individuals will. We need to do some outreach for committed donors. Donation drives are a great way for businesses and organizations in our city to contribute to the store, and may be more convenient for people that can't make it to drkmttr to donate.

Was the founding of the Free Store a spur of the moment decision or was it a long time coming?

I think that the existing problems were already there with inequality and systemic neglect but I think that the pandemic just made it worse. I guess for me, it took me realizing that there was a space to make it happen. Working with Drkmttr has made it happen more quickly and conveniently. If we were paying rent it would take a lot more. It's possible, but this made it a lot easier.

Is there any literature/history that inspired the Free Store?

Oh, there definitely is. I think it's important to mention that this is not my idea. . . So many organizers have gotten us to this point of awareness. . .One example of mutual aid is the Montgomery Bus Boycott Through organizing very strategically, black folks were able to set up carpools so people actually didn't have to use the segregated buses . And this was before phones and internet. Maybe it seems that mutual aid is trending right now, but it has always been a survival strategy.

How can people maintain mutual aid in the modern day?

I think that a lot of people know that it [inequality] has to change, and it's a privilege not to pay attention. So, I think if people, instead of thinking of this as "It feels good to do something one time," started thinking, "What if I actually committed to doing this every week because it is necessary work?" Because that's what we need. We need long term commitment from all of the community. Because we can't do it all. The whole community is doing this, it's not just the people who are volunteering. This is everyone. Also, it's helping others out -- we have to realize that that's a necessity and shouldn't be a privilege.

Were you surprised by the amount of donations you received in the first two weeks?

I think so. I think like the initial weeks were very indicative of people being excited by what's happening here. . . But it looks like we're not getting as many [donations] this week, which makes me realize we will need to set up some outreach for those long term donors. At first I thought I would be going to farms and gathering stuff myself, but the community has really came out and shown support. At the same time there's always that risk of randomness and not knowing what you're going to get. So I'd like to be a bit more stable and reliable for the community. I think that's our next goal.

What do you think local government can learn from what your organization is already doing?

I think that there's a lot of things the government could do for us that they're not. Which is why we're doing this. It's for the survival of our community. So, if they cared a little bit, well not a little bit -- a lot more about local policy, unemployment, and giving away food for free. And to clarify, [this is] solidarity not charity, in a way we have a lot of charities that work with the government, and I'm not saying that that's a bad thing. Just that there's requirements and forms and it's like "you deserve two tomatoes", or "you get this many food items". And "you have to prove you have a kid". And we're just trying to avoid that, we want people to be able to evaluate their own needs. That's empowering. I think what the government does, is they tell you what you need, and if you can't get it, they blame you for not working. Especially in a pandemic, the fact that we all have to go to work means the virus disproportionately affects the service workers and caregivers. And I think when we have all these people that we know are human beings, to withhold food and make them pay is completely wrong. . . We're doing this out of necessity and we're hoping the government will have a concern for what people need.

What is the ideal scenario for the Free Store?

I just hope it can inspire people to imagine alternative lifeways, to not feel disconnected and individualized by the system. To realize we're interdependent, so honor that and actually work together.

Do you see any ways other community organizations can embrace the Free Store ideology?

Yeah, like in Chicago there's a lot more mutual aid stuff going on; like there are doctors who work for free, they teach people how to do crisis response. I think if we're going to expand on that, as we abolish the system that doesn't help the people, we become more autonomous and it's not the state that does everything. We can kind of reclaim things that have been taken: skills, knowledge, the earth.

By the time the interview was over and we had walked back to the front of Drkmttr, donors had dropped off boxes and boxes of goods. There were three manufacturer sized boxes of period products, a whole bunch of school supplies, the local farms had made their deliveries of peaches, tomatoes, potatoes, carrots, apples, and they had been restocked on canned foods. People were donating not for validation, but rather to benefit the community. In the interview, the interviewee stated that the idea of mutual aid has always been there; but I think right now is the perfect time for it to be cemented in human ideals.

If you’re interested in helping out with the Nashville Free Store, you can follow them on Instagram @nashvillefreestore for info on volunteer needs and donation times. If you’d like to donate money (which is also greatly appreciated), their Venmo is: @Nashville-Freestore

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