The inside of the Baltimore Free Store is considerably larger than the caged up entryway would have you believe, but the aisles were narrow and the shelves so jammed with stuff that the volunteer staff was having trouble finding places for everything. However, the first place she led me to was the front desk, or as general manager Bonnie called it during my orientation “Central Command,” where she had a young Asian lady named Shon fill out a name badge for me.
As expected, she and her fellow “commando.” an older black woman, had trouble with my name until I finally pulled my ID out of my wallet (but at least they could see I was a man). She then, despite my protests, put a small dinosaur sticker in the lower left hand corner of the badge (for God’s sake, I’m not that old) and led me into the work area.
The back room was almost the same size as the front one, but it was so full of cracked bins, flimsy clothes racks and volunteer sorters that it was nearly impossible to navigate through. But our destination was past all that and back down the steps into the small outside “Receiving Area.”
This small, but open, backyard consisted of gravel with a few medium sized plastic bins along the west wall, a narrow fire escape leading to the unused second floor along the east wall with the north gate open so we could place donations in the middle.
However, at the bottom of the steps, Shon turned to a huge pile of empty boxes tossed randomly next to the door. Said pile was damp, dirty… and easily taller than I was.
“Your job,” she said in perfect, unaccented English, “is to break all of these down for recycling. No-one wants to do it, so it keeps getting bigger and more insurmountable each week.”
As she was talking, someone came out and threw another load of boxes onto the already massive heap. I could tell this was going to be a fun day.
But before I could get started, our first donor arrived and I was tasked with emptying his car while Shon filled out his receipt form. As soon as he pulls out of the alley, another car arrived, and it was like that all morning. I’d break maybe two or three boxes before the next wave of cars came through and by then the next load of boxes would appear.
By noon traffic on both sides of the Free Store had virtually disappeared, and Kathleen began making the rounds telling people that while the store would remain open, the staff was “free” to go to lunch if they chose to. But most people seemed to work right through it, in fact, I was helping with the mid-day restocking when a woman arrived in a blue truck and offered to take some of the books along the fence to some “Book Thing” in Dundalk (apparently, it’s a book exchange program in Baltimore County).
Kathleen came out, and said “take all of them” and then disappeared into the store coming out a minute later with another box of books. The woman asked if she was sure she wanted to get rid of all those books.
“Eh,” she shrugged. “We’ll get more.”
I followed Kathleen back inside and proceeded to sign myself out. I had no idea where I was going to go or what I wanted. But it was almost 1pm and I needed to eat something (if only to get away from those stupid boxes).