Umsonstladens have spread for over 13 years. An Umsonstladen is not really a store. It is a place of mutual help: Anyone anywhere who has useful things, which he or she may carry herself, may bring it to the Umsonstladen. Anyone who needs something, may take it from these things for their personal use. Three items may be taken per session. This reinforces that nothing is taken at random just because it is free, but that you start thinking about what you need now and what you really do not.
The Umsonstladen is not a barter store. Items must neither be paid for nor replaced immediately. Give and take here are decoupled. One may only bring things, one may only take things, or both. The Umsonstladen is not a welfare center for people in need. It is a place of active self-help and mutual aid for all. No one needs to only serve or only be served. Everyone has skills and abilities.
The users will therefore be requested for a voluntary donation (along with a low monthly membership fee) to finance the rental. Asking for a donation it is not tied to whether one takes things or brings, because all benefit a little from such a self-directed project, developing free from public or private assistance.
There are now in Germany, Austria and the Netherlands nearly 100 Umsonstladens. Thousands of people use these "un-stores" every week. Useful things are not just thrown in the trash, but recycled in actual use. Everywhere on Earth many things that are still usable are thrown into the trash and pollute the environment. Meanwhile new things are constantly being made, even though older things are still useful. With us it is different: Through the careful management of the objects, we change some Umsonstladen users' relation to property. Some things that can be found in Umsonstladen, they take because they are needed only for a limited time. For example, they take individual pieces of clothing in order to dress for a certain occasion, or take a tool to perform a trade, etc. These are things that they can bring back when the task is over.
The Umsonstladen as part of a growing community project Experience shows that a Umsonstladen is good in itself. In Hamburg, it was, however, from the beginning in 1998, intended as part of a wider concept of mutual aid and practical critique of conventional employment. We have since developed projects that focus on the activity preferences of individuals who have connected with each other and with the project Umsonstladen. The Umsonstladen has thus become part of a growing community project.
The purpose of this community project is to gradually reduce dependence on goods and money and of paid work, and to gain experience in a self-determined, direct, community economy. We now include a small furniture store, a bike self-help workshop, a textile workshop, art exhibitions, and the “Free University of Hamburg”, a mutual educational project without money. In the context of the project community all sorts of other projects are feasible, if anyone has specific activities they want to share with the community. Once a year we celebrate with users and other projects the Umsonstfest, a non-commercial street festival. All projects independently decide what they do. They also have an obligation to contact and consult with each other. This joint agreement for activists from the various projects is coordinated in the monthly meetings of the Arbeitskreises Lokale Ökonomie e.V..
The group aims to, regardless of the market, democratically economize project community building: It attempts to coordinate between the projects to improve the quality of life of the participants, regardless of possession of money. It is a consolidation of the mutual aid for those who want that. Each member - voluntarily, of course - may declare his or her capabilities and offer them to the others. Everyone should bring what he or she wants and ask for or what he or she needs.
Joint tasks of the project community are taken on by mutual agreement. Moreover, assets are distributed still more effectively. The assets of the various projects are available for free to benefit the other projects. The Umsonstladen and small furniture store carry a list of needs of the community project. There, each active project community in these lists can add things that he needs. If such an object comes into the Umsonstladen, this is held for them. The project is an open community. Anyone interested can join a group or create their own project idea proposal. Part of the project community has started to work systematically with each other.
The Arbeitskreises Lokale Ökonomie in Hamburg and several other Umsonstladens are not state support-oriented, but self-organized. The project is funded through community donations from users of the Umsonstladen, on the contributions of users of all other projects and by the monthly premiums of active members, so 100 percent self-powered.
We strive for international cooperation of the various Umsonstladens and local project communities. If you want more information, or perhaps are considering developing a similar project, contact us any time by e-mail.