PARIS — On each shelf, on each piece of tableware, on household appliances and children's toys, a label indicates the price, "0 euro." And yet — it never fails — new customers always ask the same question, as if they're incapable of processing the notion of free goods. "What about this? How much does it cost?" It's free, Debora Fischkandl is forced to say all day long.
Her Paris shop opened at the beginning of the summer, on Daumesnil Avenue in the 12th arrondissement. Anybody can come here and take whatever they want. People don't need to show proof that they're unemployed or to give anything in exchange. "Generosity is contagious," Fischkandl says smiling. The creator of this place for giving, which has the support of local and regional administrations, clearly has a unshakeable faith in humanity.
Standing in front of the hanging rack for adult clothes, Béatrice Lanouar hesitates over a blouse, as if it was going to cost a fortune. The fifty-something seems to be playing the part of the typical customer, something she doesn't get to do very often nowadays with her state-sponsored job and her 570-euro monthly wage ($640). "I take what I like. It's a real treat!," she says. "Nobody has ever given me anything. But if I don't wear it, I don't keep it. You shouldn't abuse people's generosity."
As soon as she entered the shop, she rushed to the counter to drop off a bra she'd bought on sale for a few euros. It's too big, so she figured someone else could use it.
The first "Magasin pour rien" (shop for nothing), inspired by a similar initiative in Germany, opened in 2010 in the eastern city of Mulhouse. Paris and Rennes, in Brittany, followed suit. But it's just one of many signs that demonstrate that such initiatives are flourishing.
Pass it on
In a cafe not so long ago, there was a slate hanging on the wall that read, "three suspended coffees." It was a brand new system in France, the waiter explained. You pay double the price of your coffee, thus offering one to the next customer who can't afford it. "Homeless people don't come for that — it's beer they want — but it's more for students and pensioners struggling at the end of the month," explains Fred Machado, owner of a cafe in Bordeaux. "People don't abuse it. They only take advantage of it from time to time. And my customers love it. They get to do a good deed for just 1.50 euros."
After coffees, other shopkeepers all over France started to "suspend" baguettes, meals and even haircuts. CoffeeFunders, the online platform that lists these suspended items, reports constant development in this area. "And yet, it's difficult for people to accept something that's free," says Madeline Da Silva. "People are a lot more used to bartering."
At Debora Fischkandl's La Boutique Sans Argent in Paris — Photo: Facebook page
For a year, she's been trying to make Les Lilas, the town in the eastern suburbs of Paris where she serves on the town council, the first "suspended town." Seven shops have already agreed to participate, at least for a time.
A thirty-something mother of two, she even organized a cash-free, collaborative wedding. Everybody, from the florist and the DJ to the stylist and photographer, agreed not to take any money, but instead to have the couple work on their PR strategy, proving that, even for champagne, "It is possible to do things for free," she explains.
"We can't ignore the circular economy any longer, the expectations are too high," she says. "Everybody buys second-hand clothes nowadays. It's no longer just for the poor, or for idiots. Those who pay full price are the idiots! The same thing will happen at some point with free stuff."
For the community good
The next step for Les Lilas is a big box for donations in a public park. Picture a sort of giant telephone booth made out of recycled material, with little shelves and pegs inside where people could just drop what's cluttering their apartments. Anybody can take and bring whatever they want. The concept, invented in Berlin's trendy neighborhoods in 2011, has already spread to several French cities such as Nantes, Roubaix, Besançon, Le Havre and Lyon. And it all started with a more modest version just for books.
The snowball effect is even affecting markets, with the emergence of "free zones" or "gratiferias" (free fairs), a garage sale where everything is free. As a worker in an employment center, Nacira El Manouzi, who organized a gratiferia in her southern town of Sarlat-la-Canéda, knows that money is scarce. "But some people also want to give," she says. "They get their payment with a smile or a conversation, and their objects get a second life instead of ending up in the dump." And the planet thanks them for that.
In cities, neighbors share their seeds and plants in seed libraries, compost bins, gardening tools. Others share their couches with travelers or cook giant soups with collective leftovers … until the day when outdoor refrigerators can be used to store any unwanted items. For a generation that grew up with free Wi-Fi everywhere, online movies and Wikipedia, the "free economy" is a self-evident truth.
Still, donation boxes aren't being raided. Similarly, fruits and vegetables that people grow together in cities aren't being stolen. A sort of self-regulation has emerged. For Anne-Sophie Novel, a doctor in economics, the success of these initiatives originate in the crisis, the rise of inequality and the fact that they can be easily replicated. "There's also growing criticism against the sharing economy, which pushes towards commodification and encourages people to sell the slightest morsel of their intimacy," she says.
Social entrepreneur Nathan Stern goes further and explains that although the sharing economy implies compensation (financial or otherwise), it "carries free-of-charge essence inside its DNA." "It's the individual's trademark, the little extra detour that a BlaBlaCar driver will do for a fellow user he's become friends with, or the nice gift you sometimes get when you arrive at a house you exchanged on HomeExchange or rented via Airbnb," he says.
But the rise of the donation mentality also comes from the loss of confidence towards "vertical, government-sponsored charity," explains Sophie Dubuisson-Quellier, sociologist and researcher at the French National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS). "So it's up to us to help, to regain the upper hand. What's more, the new ways of donating avoid the gift-reciprocity described by Marcel Mauss and Pierre Bourdieu. To give is a form a domination because you get the upper hand over someone by making them indebted to you. But in this case, it's anonymous and dissociated from time, meaning we're freed from this debt."