Equal Voice

The Culture of Less: Where Community Can Grow

February 9, 2009

By Alison Stine | Special to Equal Voice News

ATHENS, Ohio – The hottest ticket in my town, the most eagerly awaited event of the season, is the Cat’s Pajamas Clothing Exchange in the basement of a former church, where people hold up sparkly and striped fabrics, eye dresses and try on coats.

Alison Stine

Alison Stine

A few years ago, when I lifted up a red shirt with a Spirograph pattern from one pile, a stranger across the room shouted, “I got that last time! It brought me luck. You should take it.” I did.

This exchange at ARTS/West in Southeastern Ohio is a larger version of the semi-annual swap my friends and I have in our own homes every season. We eat a potluck supper and shop each others’ closets.

At the end of the night, we have gotten rid of several bags of items we no longer need, and we are taking home needed things, from sweaters to books to coffeemakers, new to us, without spending any money.

Photo by Alison Stine for Equal Voice News

Photo by Alison Stine for Equal Voice News

I live in a culture of less. In my town, it’s typical to see people sporting used clothing because roughly 1 out of 3 families exist below the poverty line. It is out of necessity that jeans get patched and shoes get re-soled, or duct-taped.

Buying used is also becoming popular nationally, as more and more people see thrifting as a chance to score something unique or classic. But, my town in the Appalachian foothills takes it a step further.

ReUse, one of the local, nonprofit thrift stores, is home to a Community Tool Library. For an annual fee of $50 (for individuals) or $100 (for families), members can borrow from a garage full of equipment, ranging from tillers to table saws.

It’s helpful for renters like me who can’t afford household tools or don’t have the space for lawn mowers or leaf blowers.

At the local public library, you can check out bikes for free, or bring broken things, such as lamps, printers and clocks, to its regular Fix-It Workshops. The library hosts a technology expert, who holds office hours for troubleshooting laptops, phones and other electronic devices.

It is privileged to get rid of household items without at least trying to fix them (not to mention bad for the planet), and some have criticized downsize or de-cluttering movements for failing to address class.

Photo by Alison Stine for Equal Voice News

Photo by Alison Stine for Equal Voice News

Chipped plates work just as well as whole and even moth-snagged sweaters can keep you warm. Though they may not look pretty or make you feel special, you need functional things like dinnerware and winter clothes.

A culture of less runs on trust. It involves not only buying used, but bartering. One of the things you barter for is friendship, love and loyalty. You are banking on your history with a person.

You are trading respect for respect. You trust they will hold up their end of the bargain. I traded a camera for babysitting, a chair for art supplies. A friend helped me hem a dress in return for coffee.

In a culture of less, you need not only to work with what you have instead of replacing it, you also need to need less.

In my community, it’s fairly easy not to shop too much: Walmart is the biggest store and it’s almost an hour to the Target in West Virginia.

Photo by Alison Stine for Equal Voice News

Photo by Alison Stine for Equal Voice News

A couple of local clothing shops exist, but they cater to college students and teenagers. The biggest draw at the very small mall is the farmers’ market, held inside the atrium in winter.

Wanting less and not shopping become more difficult when I travel to the closest city, or any place with more stores. I have trained myself not to go in them.

I have to force myself not to compare how I look (haircut overdue, cardigan with a tear), and the condition of my things (furniture hand-painted by me, dented car) to people who live in more prosperous places with more updated possessions.

Living simply doesn’t always mean sacrifice because learning to live with less is also learning to live. I don’t miss television, for example.

My son largely ignores his toys in favor of playing outside, often with a kingdom he has constructed himself with sticks and rocks and fall leaves. Though I haven’t stepped foot in a Whole Foods in years, a great deal of what we eat is organic, grown by farmers we know.

My favorite things have always been used, more than a little because they remind me of my friends: the leopard print dress that Patti wore first; the curtain that hung in Maggie’s house, the site of so many good memories.

The past lives of our things echo. And in a world ravaged by climate change, with cheap items made by sweatshop labor, with landfills overcrowded with cast-off stuff, we need to want less to appreciate more.

Alison Stine, who earned her PhD, is a writer, visual artist and author, most recently of the novel, “Supervision.” She is a writing fellow at the Center for Community Change. Her work has appeared in The Atlantic, The Nation, The Paris Review and Jezebel.

The Culture of Less: Where Community Can Grow