Tales from a modern-day bartering group
To say this pandemic has been disruptive is an understatement. (I know I wasn’t the only one rationing toilet paper squares at the bathroom door.) The supply chains we’d long relied on became unreliable and the stuff of nightmares transitioned from monsters to near-empty, virus-ridden shelves. The fact is the content of our wallets matters less when the cost of participating in our money economy includes exposing our loved ones to contracting a virus at a time when we’re being asked to stay safe at home. It was out of these uncertainties that Ventura’s Free, Barter and Trade group was born. In spring, amidst the depths of the lockdown, fruit trees bloomed at every other house in this Southern California beach town and hundreds of neighbors with more lemons than they knew what to do with were eager to share, if only to avoid letting the season’s yield rot but also with hopes of helping our community grow closer together, apart. At the same time, rare sightings of toilet paper, paper towels, disinfectants, flour, and eggs created scrambles and post-scramble anxieties. There had to be a better way and Tammy found it.
The idea was simple: trade things you don’t need for things you do, a concept first introduced in Mesopotamia in 6000 BC. Friends invited other friends who invited their friends to a group that in less than four months united over 6,000 like-minded members who never cease to amaze. Apples for oranges? How about an old surfboard for a bottle of wine? Yes, Ventura quickly gave the bartering system its own modern-day California twist.
Amanda traded fresh-baked bread for a very special book. Celia traded a bottle of wine for glass end tables for her sister-in-law. Lyndsay traded a homemade wool blanket for homemade brownies. Madison traded a dress-up closet for indoor plants. Laura V traded t-shirts for ice cream. In doing so, all of them contributed to a sense of community, avoided spending at a time when many of us are strapped for cash, and gave life to something that might have otherwise gone unused. It’s a win for our neighbors, our planet, and ourselves.
In asking members why they joined, the words sharing and community stand out the most. Something as simple as not wanting her blossoming grapefruit trees to go to waste led Blair to the group where she shared nearly 250 lbs of fruit. Others have more comical beginnings like Becky who accidentally wound up with a 25 lb bag of flour; “A coworker kindly asked if I needed anything at Costco and I asked for flour (which I didn’t think they’d have). She texted me a photo of the bag and I said, “Get it!” not realizing how much I’d bought until she brought it to my car, carrying it like a 6-year-old! I carted the sack around on a dolly and brought it to various households where people could scoop out what they wanted. I exchanged flour for yeast and a vast variety of fruit including loquats, which I hadn’t had for years.” Stephanie calls it being community-oriented. Yes, she could have gone to the store to buy rhubarb but trading gardening kits for rhubarb grown in a neighbor’s backyard transforms the experience from a transaction into a human moment, and those are priceless, especially these days. “It’s enabling that sense of community that we all want, but don’t necessarily realize is out there,” Candy explains, “The bottom line is this is how we should interact. We all have stuff. While that stuff serves us, when our time is done with it, there is inevitably someone else who now needs it. As we speak, someone is removing my chain link fence in exchange for keeping the fencing material—win/win!”
Most of all, participating is fun. There is a genuine desire to help others because it feels good to trade items knowing they’ll be reused. And how great is it to be part of something where value is subjective and therefore accessible to all. As the saying goes, one man’s trash is another man’s treasure. It must be why something necessitated by the effects of a pandemic on the availability of everyday items became much more.
As the neighborhood became the marketplace, the economy of kindness made gains. It was more than succulents for skeins of yarn. It was a revived community codependence that led us to care for each other. Take Laura C, for instance. Like many of us through challenging times, Laura finds comfort in being able to help others and this group has given her many opportunities to do that. When the aunt of a soon-to-be 18-year-old girl wanted to celebrate her niece’s birthday with a Victorian-themed drive-by, Laura happily donated English teacups and tea. Then when the husband of a soon-to-be 50-year-old wife found himself planning a Hawaiian-themed drive-by celebration, Laura warmly gifted an abalone necklace from Hawaii that her husband had bought her on one of their trips. Though Laura never expected anything in return, when she found herself planning her daughter’s socially-distanced bridal shower, the group stepped up to find her extra patio seating and vases. She was even able to trade homemade plum jam for a very special Better Homes and Gardens Cook Book—the exact same one she received on her wedding day. “This group gave me purpose during a very difficult time in all of our lives,” Laura says, “There are so many no's that have been placed on all of us and this group is a resounding yes.”
One of the best parts is the snowball effect that accompanies kindness. At the end of March, having stayed safer at home for two weeks, Michelle began to run out of avocados. Averse to venturing out to the store with a compromised immune system, she posted a request for avocados to the group and those with trees delivered. “The genuine desire to share what they had inspired me to share what I have!” she says, “As a teacher of 30 years, I felt an urge to put books in the homes of children during the pandemic because I believe if the book is there, it will get read. I went through my classroom library to find duplicate books and traded them for... you guessed it right, avocados!”
With schools closed indefinitely, another post called for preschool materials for 30 families in a migrant head start program. Celia collected donations to ensure that migrant children, many of whose parents are deemed essential workers, could continue to learn and develop with fun and engaging activities at home. “I have received some nice things in return but the best feeling is giving rather than receiving,” she says, “It has been the best group I have ever joined!”
Lucia goes by Knotty Mami on a page featuring her beautiful custom-made macramé pieces. She normally sells them but Ventura’s Free Barter and Trade group has given her the opportunity to trade them for items that facilitate her newfound passion: wildlife rescues. When Lucia started volunteering with the Santa Barbara Wildlife Care Network, she asked the Ventura group for boxes, towels, fishing nets, and crates. They did not disappoint and when she found herself housing two baby parakeets and a cockatiel, she dared to reach out again, this time in search of a dining room hutch that she could convert into a bird enclosure. The next morning, it was hers. She plans to cut out the top and sides, add mesh, sand and paint it, and outfit it with natural branches for the birds. “It’s amazing how we’re able to rely on each other without knowing each other,” she says. She's right, it’s nothing short of magic.
Then there’s Jan. Diann and her husband were sheltered-in-place at a campground near Lake Cachuma when they met Jan who sheltered-in-place beside them. They became friends and found out that Jan was homeless. Having joined the Free, Barter and Trade group, Diann made a plea for a few items on Jan’s behalf. The response left them both grateful beyond words. She received items like a bed and food for her dog, camping equipment, clothing, and baked goods. Diann soon begged Jan to write a second wish list and again, members of the group stepped up to fulfill her wishes because at last there exists a realization that we're only as well off as our neighbors. The generosity of the group and the gratitude on Jan’s face had Diann feeling like Santa Claus but in reality, she feels like she got the greatest gift in Jan, a new lifelong friend whom she describes as humble, sweet, smart, artistic, and strong.
Lifelong friendships. Could there be a better result from this ancient ethos on a modern platform? As communities continue to grapple with the pandemic, the example set in Ventura is worth reflecting on. Kindness is a valuable currency and thanks to this group, I have no doubt that in Ventura, it will transcend the pandemic.
Thank you to those who shared their experiences for this blog including Amanda, Becky, Blair, Candy, Celia, Diann, Eva, Heidi, Kelly, Laura C, Laura V, Lucia, Lyndsay, Madison, Michelle, Stephanie, and Veronica.