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Business Is Booming at Belmont Graduate’s ‘Free Store’

While in his junior year in Belmont’s Social Entrepreneurship program, Austin Sauerbrei discovered a “Free Store” in Columbus, Ohio, and a dream was born.

After graduating in December 2010, Sauerbrei set out to make his project a reality. The process began with a trip to Columbus, Ohio to visit  his initial inspiration. The trip was followed by almost nine months of planning before the store finally opened its doors in December 2011, a year after Austin graduated from Belmont.

Austin (top left) poses with volunteers outside of the Free Store.

Almost immediately after opening, the store was a success. “The first weekend there were only about 20 to 25 people, then we had 30 the next week and then 50 the week after that.”

Recently, on Saturday Aug 18—a little over six months since its opening—the store set a new record; over 90 people came through, and there are now over 400 registered members.

Every Saturday, from 9 a.m. to noon the store is open to anyone and everyone. Because the space is so small, only four people are able to enter the store itself at one time. In a waiting area members of the community help themselves to coffee, snacks and conversation.

A large part of the store’s success comes from the high level of engagement of its shoppers. Of the over 400 registered members, Sauerbrei approximates that 70 to 80 percent have donated products and almost 20 percent have volunteered at the store.

Sauerbrei is adamant about making it clear that the Store is not a charity. “When people think of a charity, it’s very one-sided, and that is not the mission or goal of the Free Store,” he said. “What’s promoted is the idea of mutual sharing.”

It all runs on a give-a-penny-take-a-penny system in which members of the community are encouraged to share what they can, be it their time or their treasure. In the spirit of the project, Sauerbrei has endeavored to “create a system that is not dependent on any one person.” Each week, a new manager is assigned to run the store.

A shopper browses through the products at the store.

Having majored in Social Entrepreneurship with a sociology emphasis, Sauerbrei is acutely aware of the racial and economic divides within the Edgehill community. Though he personally enjoys the shops of Edgehill Village, he also laments that they are not accessible to everyone in the community. The Free Store offers a place that is both appealing and accessible to everyone. “At the core of [the project] is building relationships with neighbors, people coming together to work on a project across economic lines—any lines or barriers.”

The Store itself is underwritten by the Edgehill Neighborhood Partnership, a small community-centered nonprofit. The Edgehill United Methodist Church, which donated the space for the store, works through the Edgehill Neighborhood Partnership to partner with the surrounding community; however, the ENP is its own nonprofit.

Those who are interested in becoming involved with the Free Store can send an email to freestore@edgehill.org, or call 615-750-5027.