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Jammed between a small parking lot and an auto body repair shop on a mostly commercial street in Worcester, you'll find a very unusual store with an unusual business model.
It’s not open much, and there are no price tags on most of the items in the store.
It’s called the Worcester Free Store and, as the name suggests, almost everything is free.
"Ultimately the goal is to give away anything and everything that we can give away for free," says founder Kent Flowers, who says the store takes in items people don’t need anymore and gives them away to others.
"If people need it, if people want it, if it’s something that can be reused or recycled, then that’s something we’re interested in giving away," Flowers says.
The Worcester Free Store is in a small brick building that used to be a post office.
It’s not exactly the prettiest store you’ve been in. The ceilings are gone, exposing electrical conduits. Though there are a couple of new hand-painted murals -- of a jellyfish and a solar system — the rest of the walls look as though they haven't had a paint job since the postal workers shipped out.
It's pretty bare bones, except for rows of used shelving and oversized storage bins, bulging with the inventory being given away. There’s clothes for men, women and children, and lots of housewares.
"So we started building a kitchen section over here and started building some bath sections," Flowers says, as he shows us around. "It’s more organized and it looks more like a store, you know, where the items you’re looking for are in certain areas."
According to Flowers, the store, which opened in March, unlocks its door for just a few hours each week but has served thousands of customers.
We meet shopper Amanda Woodland, of Maynard, who came in to check it out after finding the store’s website.
"I drove about 35 minutes to come here cause I have three kids, I'm a single mom and I need some extra help with clothing items and baby items and children’s items," Woodland says.
In order to serve as many people as possible, each customer is limited to 10 free items per visit.
And just how does a “free” store pay rent and meet overhead? Flowers explains the staff is volunteer, then leads us to the backroom, where donations are sorted and prepped. There we find a half dozen flatscreen TVs upside down, atop makeshift tables, back panels removed, electronics exposed.
"We’re getting ready to fix a whole bunch of TVs," Flowers says. "So we have these six TVs gutted out. We have a guy who's an electrical engineer, he's coming in to train some of the volunteers, and then we’re basically going to be pulling components off, fixing them, and these items we would sell. These were donated to us and we would sell these items and that helps fund the space."
The newly repaired, freshly working flatscreen TVs will sell for $75 a pop.
Getting word out about the store has largely relied on word of mouth, and Flowers says people are talking about it, and also connecting online.
"We’ve gotten a lot of response through Facebook," he says.
At a time when most nonprofits are being pushed to be more transparent, and many are slow to embrace the concept, the Worcerster Free Store has laid it all out online — corporate and IRS documents, even its financial projections for 2016.
"I think if people see that we’re transparent, and they see this is what we’re doing, we’re just trying to help people, we’re just trying to make the world a little better of a place, that it will resonate more with them," Flowers says.
This is not exactly a big-money venture. The Worcester Free Store’s actual and projected income versus expenses for 2016 call for a net gain of $3,030. But going forward, Flowers hopes other people embrace the idea.
"We’re interested in Worcester County, that’s about as far as we wanna go," he says. "But every county needs this. Every county has people who have stuff that they don’t need, and need to get rid of. Why not have a bunch of these pop up?"
This segment aired on November 23, 2016.
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