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The Ghuznee–Willis St. intersection comes alive during peak-hour traffic, people in cars, on bikes, and on foot, look on at the crowds gathering in the carpark of St Peter’s Church. Within this parking lot, people are waiting for The Free Store to open. We met with Benjamin, the operations manager, to find out about this place. As we walked away, we felt moved by the stories we had heard, and the people we had met. The Free Store is more than just a container in a parking lot—it’s a community. One that crosses the boundaries of social stratification, and focuses on the individual people of this place. One that refuses to label and categorise, and treats everybody as a somebody.
Tucked into the corner of a carpark, beside Old St Paul’s church in the city, sits a repurposed shipping container. It’s the after-work rush hour on a Tuesday, and pedestrians in corporate wear stream past, some holding shopping bags, intermingled with the more casual commuters in active wear. The Ghuznee–Willis St. intersection is bustling with cars, buses, and scooters carrying people home. The church doors are wide open, and people filter off the pavement and into the carpark space. The carpark is empty but for one car, which people lean on as they wait.
The Free Store is run out of a sleek, well designed container. It is decorated with varnished slats of wood and an ornate white iron sign—bringing a touch of warmth and homeliness to the otherwise sterile industrial feeling one would typically associate with a container. Inside the container, volunteers are lining the shelves and getting the portions ready. As a few people begin to gather outside they are given tea and coffee, while they chat. Volunteers pop in and out, bringing in supplies that have been gathered from cafés around the city. A volunteer leaves the container, their shift over, and takes some salad with them as they go.
Slowly the space becomes busier and a crowd of people builds. You can’t pin down a particular type of person here: from fedoras to leather jackets, to skateboards, to beanies, to hoodies, and backpacks. The crowd that gathers is a complex and varied bunch of individuals. Some look like they know this place well, as they walk and talk comfortably, and others look like new visitors, shy and standing close to the periphery.
A woman peers through the window, her hands on the ledge, as she hoists her body up to get an unencumbered view of the goods lining the shelves. As she balances on her tiptoes, her shoes slip off the back of her heels, and the people behind her wait patiently for their moment to gaze at the stocks within the container.
The project had its first life in in 2010, when times were tight as the after-effects of the 2008 financial crisis rippled across the country. People were struggling to afford to eat well, while paradoxically there was a crisis of surplus, a huge wastage of food—being chucked out when it could be eaten. They had found the gap that they wanted to fill, and Benjamin Johnson and his team set up their first site in an unused commercial space in Left Bank. They approached local cafés, taking on board all who agreed to give them their surplus food at the end of the day.
Eventually, the space they were using was needed by someone else. They had to move on. At first they were planning on finding unused sites around the city to occupy until a paying customer came along, but they soon realized that if their concept was to work, they needed stability. The people who were using the store could not chase it across the city, it needed a permanent home. Benjamin noticed there were rows of containers along the waterfront quay, sitting unused, and knew that a container would make an ideal space. He managed to get one donated, and so began the fit-out project.
Quality of design was vital to the members of the team, they wanted a beautiful and sustainable structure for the store. Because they had little money, they accepted that it would take a long time. Architects Stapleton Elliot helped them with the design. They had to go through a complex resource consent process, and had to negotiate with heritage site limitations (being based on the Old St Paul’s site). Countless local businesses donated materials, and tradesmen donated their time, working after or before work to complete the store. In its entirety the project took a year and a half to complete. In 2014 it opened, and remained open five days a week, closed on the weekends and public holidays.
Currently there are 42 cafés around Wellington that donate their leftover food to the group, and they have about 600 volunteers on their database. The food is varied and constantly changing, from curries and soups to muffins and scones, to wraps, pastries, and slices. You never quite know what you might get. On an average night there are 50 visitors, and about 25,000 items of food pass through in a year.
There are no restrictions on who can receive the food, and no presumptions about who the store caters for. It works on the assumption of the good faith and humanity of the people who visit. There’s an understanding that you won’t take too much, because it’s open every night, and if you need more—come back tomorrow. It’s a simple philosophy.
Food is never stored overnight, and most days it runs out before the container closes. If there are fewer customers than expected, or there was an oversupply of food, leftovers are taken to the Wellington night shelter.
There is a rhythm to the store. Summer is always busier, and things slow down in the winter. Monday is a big night, as people fuel up after the weekend, and Thursdays are the quietest. Fridays are always busy, and people take extra to get them through the weekend.
We met with Benjamin, and over a cup of coffee he told us all about The Free Store. His conversation was thorough and considered. Listening to the stories you get a snapshot of the community that has grown around the store. Benjamin tells us about a customer who came in regularly while he tried to get on top of his finances, living on a low wage, and paying big power bills. This same customer now volunteers. He organises the tea and coffee station that runs from 5:30–6:00pm every night. The stories don’t fit one mould though. Each is individual—like the customer who loves collecting things, veering on hoarding, but also loves taking photos, and often takes photos of his collection.
Benjamin is impassioned and not in an obnoxious way. His energy is intoxicating and makes you wish that you cared about anything as much as he cares about The Free Store. While it started as a sideline project, it became a much larger part of his life than he anticipated. He and his wife run a photography business, one which saw them travelling overseas regularly to shoot weddings and other contracts. Despite their perceived success, Benjamin was aware that it didn’t count for as much on a personal level. “I have found the deepest joy in life in losing my life. It’s hard, but it’s worthwhile… I’ve only truly found life when I lost it.” His sacrifice is not a burden in any sense, in fact, to him as a Christian, living a life that is full of doing things for others is a full and satisfied life. While he loved photography and travelling the world, “when that becomes the focus of everything in my life, my world shrinks to myself and my own desires, and my own needs.”
He sees the inherent value of Wellington, and the people of this place. Benjamin sees that this project has become a vehicle for something bigger. In everyday life people are “naturally segregated through the virtue of social connections.” The Free Store promotes a diverse and inclusive world. In doing so it allows worlds to overlap and barriers to be broken down. Benjamin tells us about throwing birthday celebrations for customers, the creation of a community has had a profound impact on the individuals who attend the store and those who volunteer for it.
As the food lining the shelves reduces, the crowd starts dispersing. The customers have their hands full of food, some take extra, others will take less, because they plan to come back tomorrow. Some of them grab their food and head home, others wait and linger, getting the most out of the crowd of people. Others walk with someone, maybe they even met them here and now always walk back together. Some sit and eat in the carpark. As food runs out, the volunteers close up shop. Their windows are closed, their lights turned off, and the night is done, by about 7.00pm.