Vicki Rovere’s ‘Free Store’ Still a Late-Night Attraction on Ludlow Street After 15 Years

Posted on: May 21st, 2015 at 9:27 am by
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The long arm of gentrification and its army of boutique hotels and lux living is quietly squeezing another longtime Lower East Side tradition. That of the “Free Store” on the northern fringe of Ludlow Street.

Thirty-seven-year Ludlow resident and self-proclaimed “environmental scavenger” Vicki Rovere has been running the show for a decade, constantly hauling suitcases and bags of junk to the block during evening hours.  These goods – everything from dresses to sneakers and vinyl – are always free for the taking. First come, first served. Neighbors would also contribute to the pool, channeling that leave-a-penny-take-a-penny aesthetic.  We’ve scored numerous sundries in the past, including old books, utensils, and a Polaroid camera.

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Photo: The Villager

Upper Ludlow has been in flux for a decade, thanks in large part to the infamous Orchard Hell Building (aka Hotel Indigo). Nevertheless, Ms. Rovere’s roving trading post continues to roll with the punches, despite several “evictions” from property owners. The latter usually a result of Sanitation-issued tickets.

These days, the semi-permanent trellis outside 151 Ludlow (between Rivington and Stanton) is the proverbial retail floor, offering better protection from the elements and easy hanging from the bars and shuttered security gates.  The operation will live on the block likely until landlords and/or businesses start complaining. Hence, the after-hours nature of the operation.  And if all else fails, there remains an “ultimate” plan B – the fences along the Allen Street Mall.

The Free Store, sometimes referred to as “the fence” or “the wall” began in the winter of 2000 after a pair of mittens were spotted in the East Houston median. Interest in whether these were free sparked Rovere’s collection spree of hats and scarves found on the street (in fact, the items were part of a public art project and not intended for giveaway). Scavenged items were hung on storefront security gates at night, and removed before business began the next day.  An accompanying sign urged, “Please take what you need and leave the rest.”  When shutters weren’t available, the vacant parking lot to the north was often utilized and eventually became a semi-permanent home. By 2005, Rovere began “year-round full service” of her sidewalk thrift store.

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Free Store evicted from Orchard Hell Building , December 2011

But why do all this? Here’s Vicki Revere in her own words during a conversation not too long ago:

Many of my neighbors seem to think that I do this because I I’m a nice person and want to help them. In fact, my primary motivation is environmental:  I want to keep stuff out of the landfill. Of course this requires me find good homes for the items, but that’s secondary. As I’ve done the work, I’ve found so many interesting aspects of it. It’s a thumb in the eye to the developers and the consumer culture. It builds community–my customers are immigrant families, homeless people, artists, young people who come to the clubs, other political activists, etc. It serves as an exhibit of how wasteful or society is, as well as offering an alternative to it. Because it’s brought me into contact with all these different categories of folks that I otherwise wouldn’t mix with much, it makes me feel much more a part of the larger community and even a bit more, well, spiritual.

And it’s been so interesting to me as an activist and an organizer to explore this very low-key model of organizing, where nobody’s being asked to do anything, to make any kind of investment, where (because there’s usually no sign) they have to figure out what’s going on. It seems to me that what I’ve developed is fantastically replicable–no need for rent, transportation, equipment, etc.–just one or more obsessed people. Three people have told me they want to start one in their own neighborhoods, although I haven’t heard that anyone actually has.

Rovere is also the author of Where to Go: A Guide to Manhattan’s Toilets.

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