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Jocelyn Meggait was about to close the door of her shop behind her when a customer walked up to the entrance. “Are you open?” the person asked. “I’d like to drop off this rug.”
Meggait didn’t hesitate to take the used rug. Her shop in the Dimond district, Free Oakland UP, exists to give old, donated items new life—by giving them away for free. Meggait’s intention? To play a small part in reducing excessive consumerism, encourage upcycling, and limit the number of discarded items that end up in landfills.
None of these concepts are new to Meggait, who explored them for years as an artist prior to opening the shop. In her first art installation, 2011’s Cashing Out at the Kala Art Institute in Berkeley, Meggait offered an alternative vision to our current, money-based financial system by setting up a pile of “stuff” and inviting visitors to take the items until nothing was left.
The following year, she took that same concept and turned it into her master’s thesis at Mills College, titled Utopian Projects—hence the “UP” in Free Oakland UP.
At the center of it all is one question, said Meggait: “What if everything was free?”
Equipped with that vision, Meggait opened her storefront in 2014 using her own personal funds and relying on credit cards. Until the pandemic, customers could peruse inside the store and “shop” for all sorts of miscellaneous, donated items: paint and brushes for an art project, houseware items, vinyl records, black and white photographs, and even love letters written during World War II. At the time, Meggait was heavily involved in writing grant proposals to sustain her business model.
“Once, someone wanted a whole bunch of different door knobs for a dresser. Oh, I got that,” Meggait said of helping one particular customer find what they needed among all of the store’s many items. Teachers looking for classroom supplies—anything from paper and crayons, to items for art projects—are frequent customers, said Meggait.
People who know about the shop often stop by to drop off items. Others learn about Free Oakland UP through word of mouth. Meggait also finds items through friends in the estate sale business. When an estate sale wraps up, Meggait often stops by to see what’s left that can be “sold” at her shop.
Dropping off loads of items outside the shop’s door is discouraged. Instead, Meggait said people interested in donating should email her at Jocelyn@freeup.us to confirm whether or not she has the space, and that she’s interested in the items.
Clothing, shoes, large furniture, and appliances of any kind are just a few of the types of items that Meggait will not accept. “I had someone donate a microwave and I said, ‘Does it work?’ And she said, ‘Yes.’ After she left, I plugged it in, and sparks were flying everywhere,” Meggait said. “So, you know, this is now hazardous waste that I now have to dispose of myself.”
Ever since the pandemic began last spring, Meggait has kept the store closed to indoor shoppers, opting instead to host an outdoor market every Sunday and a plant sale—a fundraiser to help her cover the rent and other business costs—every second Sunday of the month, in the parking lot outside the shop. At the small commercial plaza where Free Oakland UP is located, only one business shuttered for good: Loard’s Ice Cream.
When businesses were allowed to reopen earlier this year, Meggait decided to continue with only the outdoor market. This was partly due to wanting to keep her patrons safe, and because the inside of the shop was stacked high with items donated during the pandemic.
As people work from home, their desire to purge and acquire plants has kept Meggait busy.
“It takes a lot to get everything out and organized for the outdoor free market,” she said. “I don’t really organize anymore. I just put the boxes out.” But, for her customers, digging through boxes is their own treasure hunt.
Meggait has not applied for grants in several years. Besides being time-consuming, she said the process involves a lot of rejection. “I have to explain why this is an art project,” she said. Her installation at the Kala Art Institute helped her secure grants back then. “This project is helping to educate people on Social Practice as an art form,” she said. “A lot of juries don’t recognize Social Practice as Art so when a major gallery exhibits Social Practice artists it broadens the definition of art. Rather than just being an object you can put on your wall, Art can be an experience…and it’s free.”
So instead, the monthly plant fundraising and donations have kept her afloat financially to maintain her storefront. “So far, so good,” she said.
In the shop’s early years Meggait might get around a dozen or so people looking for plants at the monthly sale. When the pandemic started, that number skyrocketed to the hundreds, she said, and it has only recently begun to slow. “The pandemic plant craze is starting to fade now that people are starting to go back to the office.”
But for fervent plant parents, the monthly fundraiser is still an opportunity to stroll through rows of green foliage from pileas, pothos, spider plants, monsteras, succulents, and air plants of every size. Meggait is adamant about keeping her customers as safe as possible even though the market is outdoors, so those who want to purchase plants have to add their names to a sign-up sheet. Once their name is called, they can walk around in pairs to shop.
Recently, Meggait decided to give the outdoor market more of a community feel by inviting a pottery vendor to set up shop along with the Rock Paper Scissors Collective, which is selling grilled cheese sandwiches.
The plants she sells come chiefly from her own garden and laborious work of caring for, tending, propagating, and repotting them. Sometimes, she gets plant cuttings (a piece of the stem or root of the source plant that grows roots and is used for propagation). She also visits people’s homes to help tend to their plants and get cuttings. Like other shops, she also gets some from local nurseries.
Both the free outdoor market and the monthly plant fundraiser have allowed Meggait to continue working towards her vision.
“The point is a utopian society where everything is free. It would be fabulous if our vehicles, education, medical care, everything were free,” Meggait said. “It’s not going to happen in our generation, unfortunately. I’m just doing my part.”
The Free Oakland UP outdoor market takes place every Sunday from 12 p.m to 3 p.m. at 2809 MacArthur Blvd. The plant fundraiser is every second Sunday of the month from 12 p.m to 4 p.m.