When North Carolinian Ben Aubin moved to the West Coast last summer and bought a short schoolbus for $1000 off Craiglist, his plan was to park the bus in Portland and turn it into his home. But when he got to our town and found out it's illegal to park the bus on public streets for days at a time... well, then he was stuck with a bus. Just after Labor Day he got a new idea: turn the bus into Portland's first free store. Now the free store is up and running in a food cart lot on SE 11th and Clay and because the bus gets six miles a gallon, it's probably staying there for the time being. But what remains to be seen is whether Aubin can actually make a living running the entirely-free operation.

"I really wanted to see what kind of free culture existed. Back in North Carolina, I was living what is called the 'freegan lifestyle,'" says Aubin, explaining why he decided to head west six months ago. "I've never seen a city where there's so many things for free, all these freeboxes out on the street." Aubin hopes that people will stop by the colorfully-painted shortbus to drop off items and pick up whatever they want, too.

Creepy dolls? Red lampshade? Yours for free!
  • Creepy dolls? Red lampshade? Yours for free!
As a customer stepped up the bus stairs yesterday afternoon looking for free winter clothes, Aubin explained the moneymaking idea behind the Free Store. Bike messengers will race around town picking up free items from donors and freeboxes and deliver requested items to other peoples' doors, along with a page of ads from local businesses. Messengers work for tips, for now, but Aubin plans to pay the bikers when ad sales pick up. Well, if ad sales pick up. So far it's been a hard sell.

"Many businesses feel that because it's a free business, then our clientele would be low income people who wouldn't patronize them anyway," says Aubin, who estimates he needs about $4000 a month to pay rent on the Free Store's parking spot and keep its fleet of messengers in business. Right now, five bike messengers are delivering for the store, two of them as their only job. Aubin is also asking people to become "Rainmakers" who donate $10 to the store each month. Since the store opened a month ago, 15 people have signed up as Rainmakers. "The free stores I've heard of running on nonprofit models don't last more than six months," says Aubin.

The small bus is packed with an eclectic mix of items. Women's clothes line one wall and assorted dishes cover a table in back, right next to a large and mysterious machine apparently used to enlarge small images. Next to a bookshelf containing worn copies of John Grisham and Twilight, a VHS rack holds a Madonna's Immaculate Collection, The Best of Elmo and a video about Yiddish. Aubin picks over all donations and sends the items he thinks won't "sell" over to Goodwill.

Harry the hot dog vending propert manager (left) and former Freegan Ben Aubin outside the Free Store.
  • Harry the hot dog vending propert manager (left) and former Freegan Ben Aubin outside the Free Store.

So why does Portland need a free store it has Craigslist and the bins? Those aren't reliable, says Aubin, and it still takes time and money to go out and pick up goods while the free store will deliver to your doorstep. His ultimate goal is to open up a string up free stores on the West Coast connected by veggie oil-powered trucks that could deliver goods between cities. Of course, Aubin also sees the Free Store as a way to make the world a better place. "At first I thought Portland was going to be a liberal utopia and now I'm starting to see the duality of Portland, the racism, the objectification of women, the battle that occurs between cyclists and cars," says Aubin.

The property manager, a man named Harry who sells hot dogs from his stand next to the bus, is surprisingly enthusiastic about the store. "This cat is actually giving away stuff for free! And I'm talking about good stuff!" says Harry, who invited the free store to rent part of the lot despite some initial skepticism, "People think if it's free, you're gonna get poor people coming by. But no! You get all kinds of people."

Between 20-50 have stopped by the store every day so far, 90 percent of them women, according to Aubin. This Saturday the store is hosting a grand opening party, with Ninkasi kegs and DJs from 7-11pm at its home on SE 11th and Clay. Check out the free store website to request items for yourself.