By Sara Lewin Lebwohl
You might expect this article to start with an example of someone posting an unconventional item to give away, but that story has been done, and misses the bigger, more beautiful picture of the “Buy Nothing Group” (BNG).
Sure, we’ve had our share of wild “giftings,” some of which have landed the group on parody Instagram pages, but the real story is about neighbors building a community.
“Often people join for the free stuff, but stay for the community,” said Jennifer Mattie, one of the administrators of the 5,600-member Buy Nothing 60-90 St UWS Facebook group.
“The Buy Nothing movement is a hyper-local gifting economy that lessens our impact on the environment,” Jennifer explained. “If a person is holding onto something and realizes someone else can use it, it’s a lot easier to give away,” she said. “We also place an emphasis on lending and borrowing. There’s no reason why every person on the Upper West Side needs to have their own personal drill.”
When I told Jennifer that I could write a book about all the stories I’ve heard coming out of the group, she said the original founders of Buy Nothing did just that. In true BNG fashion, she stopped by the next day and gave me a copy.
Founded in 2013, the Buy Nothing Project began with two women who wanted to reduce plastic waste they saw in the ocean. They started a movement that now comprises more than 6,000 Facebook groups, so that members can reduce what they buy, and recycle what they have and no longer use, by searching for and gifting items among neighbors.
As the weather gets warmer, Jennifer looks forward to more community gatherings, like “stoop cake.” What is stoop cake? When your neighbor’s kid has a birthday party and there’s tons of cake left over, a post can be made with a time and location to sit and eat cake with your neighbors.
Laura Santos-Bishop is a well-known member of the UWS BNG because of what she brings to the table, literally. Laura, a lawyer, posted in the group that she planned to make her own wedding cake, but her decorating skills needed some work.
“I need to make cakes, but I don’t actually really like [eating] them,” she said. So, her neighbors happily took more than 30 cakes off her hands (see one above). She worried that people would think it was strange, but her first post generated over 85 people expressing interest.
Bill Hyman has lived on the UWS for 32 years. When I met him at a 20th precinct meeting a few years ago, he was looking for a way to get more involved with the community. Now, he says, he has never felt as connected to his neighbors as he does with the UWS BNG. He finds it refreshing that “nobody has a bad word to say about each other and some of the stories are really touching….If anything, this group shows people they don’t have to go through life alone.”
One of Bill’s favorite stories is about a woman who was going to a wedding and needed a dress. “Within a few short hours, many people offered dresses and were cheering her on,” he recalls. He also loves the way group members have emerged as ‘specialists.’ “We have DIY specialists, sustainability experts, even, professional home organizers.”
Margaret Mustalish, has emerged as one of the group’s multitalented specialists, and often posts, thanking members who have supplied her with items. These posts are known as gratitude posts.
Margaret has turned her apartment into a beautiful oasis for repurposed and thrown-away items. “It’s funny because I never would have discovered I can do [certain things], because I never had the money. I’ve never painted a mural before, because I couldn’t afford the paint.” After posting in the group, Margaret received 20 cans of different colored paint.
The Buy Nothing Group emphasizes that all gifts have the same value, and you do not have to be “in need” to participate. “It doesn’t matter if you make a million dollars a year. If you are looking for something and someone has it, you are just as worthy of that gift as someone else,” explains Jennifer.
The UWS BNG has become so large, that the administers have decided it is time to “sprout,” which means they will split into two groups, according to location. They also created a sister group, called “Being Neighborly, UWS, NYC W60-90,” so that members can keep in touch, despite having separate BNG’s on Facebook.
There is a screening process to get into each group, so it may take a little time for your request to be approved. A series of questions that the admins review make sure you live within the listed area and will abide by the rules, which include being a member of only your local BNG and not others around the city.
Recently, Margaret posted seeking a backpack for her daughter. “My daughter is on the autism spectrum and the backpack has to have those interchangeable sequins that she finds very soothing,” she said. Within an hour, neighbors had offered up a selection of backpacks. A neighbors even offered to drop one off, so she didn’t have to scramble for childcare. When the backpack arrived, her daughter said, “Mommy, I love it.”
Each person I spoke to made one thing clear: it is not the items they are most thankful for, but the friendships they have built as a result of the group.
As the UWS BNG gets ready to “sprout,” gratitude posts are many, but so are sad ones. I am a member, so, in part, this is a gratitude post. I joined this group to offload some of my daughter’s Paw Patrol toys she had outgrown. Not only did I gain additional space in my apartment, but also a community I never knew would make me so happy.
Thank you to the grandma who sends me pictures of her grandkids playing with my daughter’s toys. Thank you to the new mom who gave me a copy of a sleep-training book for my eight-month-old, who promptly chewed it up in an act of defiance. And thank you to the young women who picked up my pre-baby wardrobe and sent me pictures of themselves wearing the dresses (especially the one from Valentine’s Day).
To find your community BNG use the Facebook search and write in Buy Nothing. Or you can use the links we just received: