There’s a new store in Pulaski where everything is free
Hazel Wines, Sabrina Davidson-Ratcliffe and Terry Ratcliffe are storekeepers, but they are more than that. They might also be called a bit radical, because they are spending money rather than earning it, as they fund a store where anyone can come in and take what they need or want for free. As they describe their mission, the exchange here is more valuable than a monetary one. They are helping Virginians with real needs to make their ends meet a little better. But they are also reminding people how essential it is to take care of each other.
Their adventure in generosity and community renewal started several years ago when Davidson-Ratcliffe and her daughter visited New York City. She says they saw a woman, homeless and lying on the street. “And it just broke my heart because that was at one time somebody's mother, grandmother, friend, co-worker. And I knew at that time that something needed to be done.”
Davidson-Ratcliffe said she made a promise that day to do something meaningful in response to what she saw. Soon after, a mutual friend introduced Davidson-Ratcliffe to Wines, who was already active in the community. Wines signed on immediately. "There's a really high rate of poverty in Pulaski County in a lot of Southwest Virginia,” Wines says. "And it's really common for a lot of places that do offer help to do a lot of means testing and put other barriers in between people and help and we wanted to remove as many of those barriers and just kind of be a place where people could help each other.” Wines says it’s been beautiful to see how the community has come forward to help contribute to the store’s success.
The proprietors have made a significant investment with their own funds. They started in a storage unit last year, but within two months, Terry Ratcliffe used his retirement savings to purchase a building. He also built storage space in the back and a roof over the front porch to protect the refrigerators that serve as community food pantries. They say their nonprofit now serves hundreds of families every month. “Well, there's a lot of people in the community that need help," Ratcliffe says. "There's some that's ashamed to ask. There's a lot of people that don't want to be seen and they'll show up when we're not here. … the refrigerator is open 24/7. We come by every day and put something in there. And the community does, too. It’s not just us.”
Ratcliffe says that getting a little help with groceries allows those living on tight budgets to stretch their dollars to purchase other necessities. He also says that community giving is crucial to making this work.
Shoppers line up by the dozens on Sundays when the store is open. The partners estimate they serve more than 100 families in a three-hour time frame. Shoppers, like Melinda Williams, give the Free Store high praise.
“We have a lot of things that we donate, and we love to shop and we love to bring the stuff and donate it back. It makes us feel like we're contributing to other people that need stuff and we get the stuff we need as well. So we love it.”
The Free Store is currently negotiating with the nonprofit Feeding America to lower their costs and improve delivery of nutritious food for those who need it. The founders emphasize that while donations of food and other essential items sustain them, they also have monetary costs which are not covered by those donations. Ratcliffe is transparent about this, and now welcomes financial contributions.
“We pulled our retirement out and bought the building. And then all the maintenance, the additions, the upkeep, the taxes...the insurance, and the electric bill, things we pay out of our pocket,” says Ratcliffe. “Now if we get any donations, we'll put them to it. But other than that, we fund the building.”
The Free Store founders and volunteers say they spend about three days a week working in the store, including going through donations, sorting and stocking items. Davidson-Ratcliffe acknowledges that it’s difficult but says it is worth it. “When we go out in public, I actually run into people that know us from here, and they are like ... thank you so much for doing this. You have no idea what this has done for our family. … And they're like, I'll see you next Sunday. ... It's a community thing. It's built that with people in this area. And I think that's great. I think more places should follow suit.”
For giving people the means to live with more economic security, greater dignity and a little more joy, proprietors of the Free Store hope to keep it going for a long time. They say if they can manage it, they’d like to open a second store. They also hope to become a hub for the community, where people can meet for substance abuse meetings or other civic events, and where members of the transgender community might come for private shopping times, so they feel more comfortable shopping without a crowd. Ratcliffe, Davidson-Ratcliffe and Wines say there’s so much potential in how this effort can be a gift to others and they hope it is a catalyst for like-minded communities all over America.
To learn more about the Pulaski County Free Store visit www.pulaskifreestoreva.org.