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The Best Things in Life are Free: Scoping Out the 'Really Free Market'


[Photos by Brady Gross]

“You know how they always say, ‘nothing in life is free’, well, this really is free,” said UAF Wood Center Director, Lydia Anderson.

Earlier this month, a group of community organizers tested that saying with the celebration of an informal community swap event known as the Really Free Market. There is no cost and no soliciti event attendees are just encouraged to donate what they don’t want and to take what they do.
The event took place in the University of Alaska Fairbanks Patty Center parking lot from 10 a.m. to noon on May 18, 2013. Approximately 250 people attended the event, despite the cool temperature of 26 degrees. This year was the fifth year the Really Free Market has taken place in Fairbanks.
Director of UAF Summer Sessions Michelle Bartlett, got the idea while listening to NPR in the shower in 2009.
The story, which aired as a part of NPR’s Morning Edition, discussed the rise of the Really Free Market movement in 2004, describing it “as a way to create something positive beyond protests.” According to NPR, the movement was anti-globalization, and was taking place in states such as California and New York.

“It was in the middle of the recession, and I thought, ‘Fairbanks is the Golden Heart City— surely we can do it,’” Bartlett said.

Magazine, folders and office supplies all up for the taking at the Really Free Maket. April 18, 2013. Photo by Brady Gross.
Bartlett talked to different community organizations. Since none of the organizations were interested, Bartlett decided to lead the project herself. Once a week, for four weeks, she bought university officials who had active roles on campus, lunch to discuss creating a Really Free Market.
Communications Manager for the Cooperative Extension Service, Juella Sparks is one of the main organizers for the event.

“There was a real push for sustainability on campus then and we all agreed this would be a great project to promote it and bring the community to campus,” Sparks said in an email.

Anderson and Bartlett agree, saying that the market is an example of continuous recycling and exemplifies UAF Chancellor Brian Rogers’ goals for sustainability on campus.

“It’s not that we don’t have enough in this community, it’s just in the wrong houses,” said Bartlett.

The first Really Free Market took place in the early summer of 2009 and was a big success, according to Bartlett.
Since then, the organizers have held the Really Free Market every summer. For some years, they have held a market at the beginning of the summer and the end. They have also created a Really Free Market aimed at university students that takes place in the early fall semester.

“The coolest thing I remember about the first couple of markets is the number of people that approached me and asked if everything really was free,” Sparks said.

The planning for the summer market begins in January, according to Anderson. Bartlett, Sparks, Anderson and other event organizers plan the size of the event and how to advertise and receive donations. For donations, the organizers send out flyers to non-profits. They also work with Facilities Services, which provides the majority of labor and is responsible for the event setup.
This year, Facilities Services provided 20 volunteers, 80 tables, chairs, tarps and barricades, according to Facilities Services Equipment Operator, Paul Dick, in an email.
Although the event begins at 10 a.m., the event organizers and volunteers begin setting up at 7 a.m. The 80 tables are used to sort out the donations, ranging from electronics to kitchen ware. Approximately 45 volunteers also helped set up and sort the donations when people drop them off from 8 a.m. until 10 a.m.
The market receives donations from not only the community but also UAF’s Residence Life department. Residence Life takes all of the clothes that students leave behind after the semester and items left in Lost and Found, and donate them to the market. NANA Management provides a small breakfast and a BBQ for the event. Local Ester band, the Ester Jelly Jam, volunteer each year to provide live-music during the event.
As a thank-you for volunteering, volunteers are allowed to “pre-shop” before the market opens to the public.

“I am often surprised at the amount and the quality of the items that are dropped off,” Dick said. “Without the donations the market simply would not exist.”

“I found a typewriter but it wasn’t for me. But I thought that was kind of cool how people were looking around,” said 19-year-old pre-med student and event volunteer Shelby Loftine. Loftine decided to volunteer after her mother told her about the market.
For many event attendees, this year was their first time attending the Really Free Market.
“I’ve always walked past and heard about it but I never went,” said 21-year-old Joy Ceanastacio, who attended the market with her 22-year-old friend Iza Miguel.
“I haven’t been able to come to the market since I got up here four years ago and god damn it I’m making it to this one,” said 22-year-old wildlife biology and conservation student Issac Firesmith, who was trying on shoes with his friend.
However, some attendees were market veterans. For 30-year-old graduate northern studies student, David Kreiss-Tomkins, this was his third time attending the market.
Kreiss-Tomkins said he enjoyed attending “to see all of the amazing people and to look for some things I might have use of.”
While speaking, Kreiss-Tomkins held a bright yellow enamelware bowl that he found in the kitchen section of the market.
Twenty-year-old linguistics student Tegan White-Nesbitt decided to take her excess belongings to the market since she is going on a yearlong exchange to Germany.
Items that are not taken during the event are sorted and donated to other places in town. Electronic items are given to the Interior Alaska Green Star for electronic recycling. Value Village and the Street Outreach and Advocacy Program will receive leftover clothes and other items.

“I pretty much came to dump all of my worldly possessions and just observe the chaos that is the Really Free Market,” said White-Nesbitt.

UAF's Really Free Market attendees crowd the Patty Center parking lot. Photo by /Brady Gross
UAF’s Really Free Market attendees crowd the Patty Center parking lot. Photo by Brady Gross


  1. Wish I lived in Fairbanks. This sounds like would have been a good thing to donate some of my stuff to!