Bill Totten's Weblog

Monday, June 15, 2009

As economy worsens, neighbors buy and share gear

by Caryn Rousseau (May 19 2009)

Twice a year, in the spring and again in the autumn, six families on Vicki Matranga's tree-lined Oak Park block go to one neighbor's garage and bring out the $1,200 woodchipper they all pitched in to buy. Then they gather around and feed it dead branches gathered from their yards.

"We chip up our branches and make our own mulch out of it", Matranga said. "There are a couple of passionate gardeners on our block. Many of us who contributed to this machine, we've lived on this street together for twenty years."

Financially, it was worth it for Matranga and her neighbors to pool their dollars and buy a big-ticket item that none would use regularly but all still needed yearly, she said.

"We were happy to share the cost and storage of the machine", Matranga said. "We all made photocopies of the warranty and the instruction manual. It resides in somebody's garage."

This one small example of neighbors sharing an item is part of a trend as the economy worsens, experts say. People are turning to sharing and trading - using community toy, bicycle and tool libraries, swapping vegetables online or checking out exotic cake pans from libraries, instead of buying their own.

"With the economy tanking, there are even more people doing it now, and it's more visible", said Jeff Ferrell, a sociology professor at Texas Christian University in Fort Worth, Texas, who studies sharing networks.

Rob Anderson in Portland, Oregon, launched the Web site , which allows registered users to sell, buy or trade fresh produce. Users punch in their ZIP code to find other local gardeners. More than 1,000 people have signed up since the site was launched in March.

"People are looking for ways to save money. If you have too many tomatoes and I have too many oranges, wouldn't it be great if we can meet each other?" Anderson said.

At the library in Galesburg, Illinois., a dozen cake pans shaped like hearts, dinosaurs or footballs sit behind the counter, available for checkout. Karen Marple, the children's librarian, keeps track of the pans, which she buys on sale or at yard sales for library cardholders to share.

"They don't want to spend so much money on a cake pan that they're going to use one time", Marple said. "It's free. It's economics."

Elsewhere around the country, dozens of municipalities and nonprofit groups have community tool sheds, where citizens can borrow hand or power tools for projects.

These types of sharing and swapping systems aren't all that different from the way society worked through the mid-twentieth century, when family members lived near one another, said Rosemary Hornak, a psychology professor at Meredith University in Raleigh, North Carolina.

"It wasn't uncommon that Aunt Jane is the one who has the good mixer and someone else has the lasagna pan", Hornak said. But once we became a more mobile society, "the idea of sharing the lasagna pan - you weren't going to ship it across the country. It was cheaper to buy your own."

That individualistic attitude worked fine until the economic downturn, Ferrell said. Now, he said, "the stigma you might have witnessed for reusing things has been reimagined as a rediscovery of American values".

"Sharing only means that you have to buy less and I have to buy less", Ferrell said. "Sharing also knits communities together. Sharing is good for social life."

Jessica Jurca, 22, an industrial design major at the Cleveland Institute of Art, joined the trend by designing a communal bread maker. It won a prize from the International Housewares Association this spring.

The bread maker has a digital screen that displays recipes other bakers have downloaded into the machine. It also has special handles to make it easier to pass the machine from one person to another. Jurca envisions a line of similar kitchen appliances.

Bread makers are "so expensive, but you don't use them every day", she said. "When the economy started falling apart, I thought, 'This is necessary'".

Sharing household items requires a level of trust that many Americans aren't used to anymore, said Robin Avni of the cultural-trend research firm Iconoculture, based in Minneapolis.

"I'm going to go back and I'm going to trust the community", she said. "I'm going to trust the people who touch my life everyday. I can count on that."

While the economy may improve in the coming months, such cultural changes are likely to remain, experts say.

"A lot of what you're seeing is being driven by the economy, but there are social changes", said Susan Yashinsky, marketing vice president at the consulting firm Sphere Trending, in Waterford, Michigan. "A lot of these DIY trends or community trends, we think are going to have long-term impact".


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