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September 28, 1967, Vol. XII, No. 50
Everything’s Free, But Don’t Steal It
By Don McNeill
The one rule was “No Stealing.”
Aside from that, it was a free-for-all from the moment the Diggers opened the doors to the Free Store Thursday nigh. Even when the storefront, at 264 East 10th Street, had filled to capacity, there were still hundreds of people stretched along the block, leaning on cars and drinking free coffee which was given away on the sidewalk. As people moved from the store to the street, space opened up bit by bit. A few entered, a few left, and when the piles of clothing lay scattered on the floor, the Diggers would hold the door shut for a few minutes while helpers stacked and redistributed the wealth.
Would the impact on New York be instant? Would mottoes (“We cannot be undersold”) and values become obsolete? For once the Diggers hoped that the establishment would seek to exploit a good thing. The uptown stores have had be-ins, said one Digger. “Now let them have a free day!”
“It’s interesting,” said Paul Goodman, who was stacking clothes. “It sets your mind going.”
A free store has been a goal of organized heads on the East Side since the idea was first kindled by Digger emissaries from Haight-Ashbury in the spring. When the wheels were finally set in motion, it took four days from signing the lease and turning the key to opening the store. In those four days the Diggers with a lot of help from their friends, painted the walls, built the shelves, put up a day-glo facade, and stocked the store with five truckloads of clothes, quickly depleted and quickly replenished. The stock came in as fast as it left — quite a trick for a free store. “Friday someone came down and gave away a motorcycle,” a Digger said. “And a newcomer — a kid who just arrived from the Midwest — left his suitcase, with all his clothes and shaving stuff and everything. He said we could have it.”
The store is total theatre. For the hippies it was no surprise, for the kids it was natural, and for the old people native to the East Side it was strange. An old lady tried on a hat and complained that it didn’t fit her. The Diggers told her that her size would be in next week.
“This is like an energy exchange,” a girl named Morning Dove explained, “and the energy is in flowers and clothes and pots and pans.”
The audience freaked out the first night. Neighborhood kids, who never had a grandmother’s attic, stumbled around in second-hand dresses and high heels. “Don’t people take a lot of things they don’t need?” a man asked a Digger. “It’s a sale,” the Digger replied, “and people take a lot of things they don’t need at sales. But after the sale it will be business as usual.”
A bearded hippie walked out in a silk smoking jacket. He said he was going to use it as a smoking jacket.
A sign read: “If you break it, you’ve got to take it.”
Free stores have been thriving in San Francisco for over a year. A successful schism resulted in the Black Man’s Free Store in the Fillmore ghetto. Though New York is a rough place to put it over, it looks as if it will work.
The Diggers are already cooking free stew in the back of the store which they give out daily at 4 p.m. in Tompkins Square Park. “The prayer meeting is the food,” said a Digger in reference to some of the more conventional, competing facilities of the Lower East Side.
The Diggers’ next goal is a free medical clinic, and several doctors have already offered their services. They plan to open offices on St. Mark’s Place, with legal aid and housing and job referral services. “We’ll come up with that in a few weeks if we get some funds,” a Digger said.
In the meantime, Allen Ginsberg will find an answer waiting when he gets back from Europe to the question he asked in a poem in “Howl,” published in 1956.
“When can I go into the supermarket and buy what I need with my good looks,” Ginsberg asked.
The answer is now.
[Each weekday morning, we post an excerpt from another issue of the Voice, going in order from our oldest archives. Visit our Clip Job archive page to see excerpts back to 1956.]