Several years ago, a friend living in San Francisco mentioned, “I have to pick up a Pack-and-Play I got from my Buy Nothing Group.” Back then, Buy Nothing Groups had not yet made it to my corner of the Midwest, so I had to research. I couldn’t have predicted how important these groups would become in my own life.
The Buy Nothing Project was founded in 2013; the idea was to provide a place to give and trade without currency. These communities, primarily organized through Facebook groups, are built on dialogue and a lack of obligations. When you post something you are giving away, you aren’t duty-bound to gift your item to the first person who responds. You can also request items based on what you may be needing at the moment. These groups are hyper-local (mine is focused on a zip code), so that when you participate, you get to know your immediate community pretty well.
When our first local Buy Nothing Group popped up on Facebook, I was surprised by how attached I became to the group. It was predominantly made up of moms, and the items listed were always fascinating: baby bottle drying racks, plantar fasciitis splints, rows of play shoes, and little red wagons, paint rubbed away, but still completely usable. Once I received an oversized bag of onions delivered mistakenly in a grocery order and made a delicious French onion soup that night (but not before stopping to chat with the giver about her son’s ESL courses and my daughter’s obsession with My Little Pony). Some items offered were tiny (a Ziplock full of unused stickers) and some were quite large (bunk beds with a ladder), but they were all gifted in the hope that the items could live on in another home.
I gifted a handful of board books to someone newly pregnant. She responded by sending a proud photo of her nursery. This fall, I made reusable fabric snack bags and gave them away before our kids began school, and one of the recipients happened to be a classmate of my daughter’s. Once, I gifted a large print I made of a gull soaring over an ocean. It was from one of my favorite trips to Charleston. When I asked members to tell me their favorite beach memories to receive the print, I was flooded with stories of honeymoons and hometowns, of family vacations where kids toddled into the surf. After the chosen recipient picked up the painting, she told me it was going in her aging parents’ newly downsized home, as a reminder of all the travel they had left to experience. In return, she left me a surprise package of brownies on my porch.
I’ve received numerous things through my Buy Nothing Group, too. There’s the old electronic jump rope that kept us sane through the long winters and the matching ceramic fox mugs my daughter likes to use for hot chocolate. A member dropped off a playhouse that became one of my daughter’s favorite pretend spots. And one evening, I picked up cookies from a professional baker in the neighborhood, who made too many batches of tulip-shaped snickerdoodles for an event. She and her kids sat in their front yard playing, while the community streamed in and grabbed gorgeous, individually wrapped cookies for their families. It was at the height of the pandemic, and that tiny interaction made us feel just a bit more connected.
Sometimes, when I’m out and about, I’ll run into another parent who’ll smile and say, “Oh, yes — you gave us the dot markers my son uses every day.” We track each other’s names; we learn details about one another’s lives and keep them close. I once posted an ISO (in search of) for Descendants decorations, which I had a tough time finding for my daughter’s birthday party. No one had any, but a few days later, someone tagged me in another post with a red Descendants sweatshirt. “Didn’t you say your daughter liked Descendants?” That shirt is now among my daughter’s very favorite items in her closet.
The most touching posts I found were ones of loss. Occasionally, someone posted with a gift of unused dog food, or a heated light bulb for a chameleon, mourning the pets that suddenly passed away, while hoping to also make another member’s life easier. These posts would be flooded with comments full of sympathy. Sometimes, a new mother would post an ISO for a sleepsuit, and other parents chimed in with their tricks for newborn sleep. Occasionally, mothers with grown children would post truck-printed bedsheets or a vinyl princess lunchbox, sighing, “I guess we don’t need these anymore.”
One thing that separates a Buy Nothing Group from Facebook Marketplace or any number of other exchange groups is that the admins request all members leave their requests and gifts up on the feed, even after the exchange is over. The group, then, is intended to be a living document, a way of tracking all the ways we have cared for each other over the years. And when I scroll through the old posts, I see how many things have changed hands. I imagine kids playing with toys that others have loved, then passing them along again. It’s a new kind of inheritance, one that moves not through a single family, but through an entire community.
The internet is not always a pretty place. A Buy Nothing Group reminds me that, alongside the tangible items that make life easier and more delightful, we all have something to give, even if it’s just a few words of solace. We need the care of others, especially as parents, and sometimes, we can find that support in very unexpected places.
Thao Thai is a writer and editor based out of Ohio, where she lives with her husband and daughter. Her work has been published in Cup of Jo, Kitchn, Eater, Cubby, The Everymom, cupcakes and cashmere, and other publications. Her debut novel, Banyan Moon, comes out in 2023 from HarperCollins.