I drive the stretch of MacArthur Boulevard between the Laurel and Dimond Districts of Oakland quite a bit. When I take the curve by Coolidge Avenue I often glance at the small shopping center that is home to a local favorite, Loard’s Ice Cream. A sign has always caught my eye towards the back of the parking lot that says “Free Oakland UP.” I have often wondered what it represented. When I learned that an interesting concept was at play behind the doors of this unique thrift shop I added it to my list of places to pop in.
What I discovered what that a study in fairness was at play; a look into human behavior created by a social practice artist curious to see if her temporary installations could sustain long term. People of all income levels now seek out this little storefront to dig for everything from artistic inspiration to daily necessities. What awaits them at the end of their visit is the question, “What do you think is fair?”
Jocelyn Meggait, a Canadian artist who made Oakland home during her grad school years, opened the doors of Free Oakland UP in May of 2014. Jocelyn had already been exploring the concept of a free Utopian economy through temporary installations beginning in 2011. Free piles with discreet signs placed about sharing and greed were installed in places such as Yerba Buena Center and at events like Maker Faire. Angered by the capitalistic greed that resulted in the 2008 economic crisis, she sought solace in a vision of a Utopian society. The idea of societal perfection where everything is free and communities thrive on a “give more” mentality instead of one founded in “give ME more.” I think a Utopian vision sounds quite nice these days, don’t you?
When Jocelyn searched for a space to put her Utopian vision to the long-term test she was unable to find a free space to do so. She decided to bite the bullet and rent a retail location, adopting an “if I build it they will come” mentality. The store was filled with items either donated or secured through estate sale contacts. She first operated on a strict policy of one free item per day; that was it. You could not offer money to take more. She shared with me “…everyone was equal, it didn’t matter how much money you had, you couldn’t buy a better experience.”
Unfortunately donations and grants could not cover the $900 monthly rent, so she started hosting fundraisers; for a monetary donation you could take ten things. She adopted the policy full time in her second year; one free item per day and for a monetary donation you could take ten items. However, small items weren’t finding a new home and she was left feeling taken advantage of by less-than-ideal donations. Her final strategy has found longevity; one free item per day and for a FAIR monetary donation you can take whatever you would like. So this raises the question, “What is fair?”
The definition of fairness brings to light terms such as just, equitable, honest. It is defined as “legitimate” and “without trying to achieve unjust advantage.” So how does one determine a fair price on items ranging from a wind-up robot to a full box of 1969 editions of the New York Times on microfilm? Is it fair for a woman in a Lexus to fill her arms to the brim and offer chump change? According to Jocelyn this has happened, all too many times. Many who come in are homeless or downtrodden. Immigrant families often stop by, hopeful to offer a fair price for items to fill their new homes. There is the soft-spoken girl who comes in everyday peeking around; during my visit she took a few postcards for a price that was deemed fair.
It’s interesting to me. I couldn’t stop thinking about it as my treasure seeking fingertips dug through old cookie tins. I kept returning to necklaces pinned to a bust form that I hoped would keep my daughter’s fingers off of my own, curious of their value and worth. Is fairness to be defined by what I see as the true monetary value of these old items in my hands, or is it defined by what I feel financially able to give?
Unable to accept all donations due to space, Jocelyn is selective in what she takes on. No clothing or shoes are accepted. Free Oakland UP is not set-up as a non-profit, so receipts are not given for tax deduction. This has been an issue for some people who have come in to donate.
Jocelyn is constantly battling the problem of people dumping boxes outside her door as if she is Goodwill; an issue she has to closely monitor with the help of friends. It is a condition of her $900/month rent which the landlord has agreed to hold; the sidewalk needs to be kept clean. During my visit a man came in looking for place to take all the items being removed from a home in Piedmont that the heirs just wanted to trash. When he heard she wasn’t willing to take it all he said he couldn’t be bothered and that he would tell them to just trash it all; and out the door he hurried. With principals grounded in sustainability and the environment, Jocelyn shook her head in disbelief.
Free Oakland UP hosts a plant sale fundraiser the second Sunday of every month to supplement donations to help pay the rent. In addition, the store has an Artists-In-Residence program which hosts 2-3 artists every few months. With the treasures at hand in the store, the artists create pieces to promote alternative art supplies and sustainable practices. The result is a month long exhibit on the gallery wall in the store. On display during my visit: a colorful pattern of old board game boards.
So in the end I decided on an old cookie tin, a bead necklace for my daughter, and a small airplane for my son. How did I reach my decision on what was fair? I assessed the couple of bills I had in my wallet and considered an additional errand I had to run. I pulled out my $10 bill; Jocelyn seemed very pleased with my offer. A fair deal was made.
So as we wrestle with all the changes underway in our country that jostle our emotions and heighten our fears, it can be comforting to wish for a Utopian society grounded in a free economy. Perhaps we can find some solace in what that vision could mean for our communities, how various groups might interact from a place of giving and generosity. The small storefront that is Free Oakland UP is an example of the struggle to maintain the ideology in our capitalistic world. However I think we all need to find a bit hope in something these days; inspiration for a daydream that allows us to escape. An opportunity to exercise fairness in an effort to help the concept exist in this corner of Oakland was enough for me to feel just a tad bit hopeful on this day.
Free Oakland UP is located at:
2809 MacArthur Blvd.
Oakland, CA 94602
(in the small shopping center which is home to Loard’s Ice Cream)
Hours: Thursday-Sunday 12:00pm-4:00pm
More information is online at www.freeup.us
The next plant sale to raise money for rent will be Sunday February 12th. On hand will be potted succulents, cactus, and houseplants.
All images by Adrienne Schell. Do not use without permission.