The Thrift Store Where (Almost) Everything Is Free

At Free Oakland UP, money is no object and you never know what you’ll find.

By Jessie Schiewe

What do camel-shaped teapots, wooden stilts, doggy diapers, and vintage Playboy magazines have in common? They’re all items from Free Oakland UP, a free thrift store in the San Francisco Bay Area where (almost) everything can be bought for $0. Whether you need a tennis racket or a new backpack, you’ll likely find it here, where new and pre-owned items are donated daily.

“It handles all the desires for shopping without going into your pocket book,” a bespectacled customer named Thomas told OK Whatever. “It’s like a bazaar here. You really have to search through it all because it’s always changing. And then, every couple of years, after you donate something, you find it again. Things have many lives here.”

Free Oakland UP is also the place to go when you need just a little bit of something, but not the whole thing: a lamp shade but not a lamp base, a chess piece but not a full set, a bit of paint, or just one earring.   

“It always solves my problems for me — my household problems, that is,” said a woman named Dawnelle who was at the free thrift store because she needed “some hair” for a tiny, yet bald, Viking figurine. She found an auburn-colored wig that worked nicely, and after asking permission to do so, snipped a few inches off of it. Later, she’d glue it on to the doll’s head, giving him a full head of hair — at no cost.

A customer sifts through a rack of postcards at Free Oakland UP.

A customer sifts through a rack of postcards at Free Oakland UP.

Wedged between a real estate office and a picture framing store in an East Oakland mini mall, Free Oakland UP is run by a Canadian artist named Jocelyn Meggait, who is the store’s sole employee. It’s one of a handful of free thrift stores in North America — with others located in Vancouver, New York, Iowa, Oregon, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maine, Alaska, and Southern California — and it’s been open every Thursday through Sunday for the last five years.

While other businesses in the neighborhood — most recently a BBQ restaurant across the street — have shuttered after mere months, Free Oakland UP has soldiered on, thanks largely to the kindness and generosity of its patrons and Meggait’s dogged efforts.

“I know it’s not a normal paradigm, but it’s working,” Meggait said. “Most people get that this place is different and want to see it succeed.”

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In order to keep the shop open, Meggait must earn enough each month to cover the space’s $900 rent and utilities bills, meaning that yes, this so-called free store is not entirely free. It does make a small trickle of money.

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Here’s how it works: Each person gets to pick one free item a day. If you want to take more than one free item, you offer Meggait “a fair donation” for it, which she can either reject or accept.

One corner of the free thrift shop is also stocked with for-sale items that are more valuable and have fixed costs. On any given day, you’re likely to find wire bird cages, pink Bahamian conch shells, antique globes, or Chinese cork carvings in that section. Since December 2014, Meggait has also been selling potted plants at the store, many with cuttings she grew in her home garden.

Selling things for money was not always part of the plan. Meggait, who is in her mid-50s, with long, poofy gray hair that she often coils into a bun with a paint brush, has been giving things away for decades. In fact, she’s always had an aversion to money.

“This project kind of started as a response to the stock market crash — how everybody was so obsessed with money, how people were suicidal when it crashed, how they would screw each other to get it,” she said. “So this came out of the idea of ‘What if everything was free?’”

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As an installation artist in college, Meggait would frequently accumulate items, build things with them, and then leave them on the street for others to take home. While pursuing her MFA, she got involved in hosting “curated free piles,” using Craiglist’s free section to find cool and quirky things, like bidet toilets and pianos, to give away. Even though it involved frequent scouring of the internet and a lot of driving to pick the items up, Meggait discovered a passion for throwing free events, holding them at South By Southwest and San Francisco’s Yerba Buena Center for the Arts.

It was during these formative years that she began devising the rules that would later apply to her free thrift store. For one, she decided to nix clothing and shoes from her wares because they can be hard to clean and keep tidy.

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“There are so many other places where you can get really cheap-to-free clothing. And there are so many other things I’d rather focus on,” she said.

But the biggest issue she encountered was people’s greed. With no parameters and no prices, Meggait saw firsthand the chaos that can ensue when you give things away for nothing.

“It was like a feeding frenzy,” she said. “One time, in San Francisco, people brought their own bags and were just scooping things. They didn’t even care what they were taking. They were just taking for the sake of taking. And it was gross. It was such a bummer to witness.”

Jocelyn Meggait, the benevolent leader behind Free Oakland UP.

Jocelyn Meggait, the benevolent leader behind Free Oakland UP.

Over the years, and through running Free Oakland UP, she’s adapted by amending her rules and becoming a bit of a stickler. She’s had to learn how to say “no” to low ballers and stand up to what she considers to be bullying; how to delicately but firmly turn down donations of junk and keep certain customers, like a local bookseller who would take her free books and then resell them at his store, out of her shop. And, after getting her credit card stolen and $800 charged at the GAP, she’s also learned to wear a purse when she works.

“I’ve had to become a hard ass. People call it a bitch, but I prefer to call it assertive, because when a man is assertive, you don’t call him an asshole,” Meggait said. “That’s what I’ve learned to do here. I’ve learned to be more confrontational.”

But if there’s one thing you can confidently say about Meggait, it’s that she loves what she does and the things she puts in her store. She hand-cleans the donations herself, testing the electronics to make sure they still work, that the markers haven’t run dry. With each item she stocks, Meggait tries to subvert the notion that just because it’s free, doesn’t mean it’s junk.

“I’m a caretaker of stuff, which makes me completely different from other thrift shops,” she said. “They’re just in it to make money. They don’t care about the next life of each item. I do.”

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