Free Store Wilkinsburg founders: Marita Garrett, Mary Anne Pavlakovich Sickles, Marlee Ann Gallagher and Kristen Maser Michaels. Photo by Greg Sciulli.

Last Saturday morning, Wilkinsburg saw the biggest crowd for a store opening that the borough had seen in a long time. About 250 people lined the block at 619 Penn Avenue for the opening of Wilkinsburg’s Free Store—a store where everything is free.

The Free Store Wilkinsburg, a concept originally founded in Braddock by Gisele Fetterman, was launched by four local women: Marita Garrett, Kristen Michaels, Marlee Gallagher and Mary Ann Sickles.

“I’ve been wanting to open The Free Store in Wilkinsburg ever since the one in Braddock opened,” says Michaels. “I read an article about it and thought—how can I do this in Wilkinsburg?”

Free Store Wilkinsburg. Photo by Greg Sciulli.

But the idea took a back seat as Michaels navigated major life changes, until six months ago when she met Wilkinsburg Council member Marita Garrett and the pair talked about bringing the Free Store to town.

Garrett and Michaels approached Fetterman to ask for her own store’s surplus to help stock the store in Wilkinsburg. Fetterman agreed and connected them to two other Wilkinsburg women, Gallagher and Sickles, who had also wanted to bring the store to the borough.

“I’ve always dreamed of this idea existing in every community and when Kristen first approached me about a Wilkinsburg location, I was more than happy to help make it happen,” says Fetterman. “I couldn’t imagine a more amazing group of women to expand The Free Store.”

After they met, the women immediately went to work.

“We sat down for coffee, made a list of things we needed to do to get the store off the ground, divided it and the rest is history,” says Garrett. “With four people working on it, it happened really quickly. We all brought something to the table.”

“In Wilkinsburg, we have a lot of great organizations that serve those who are in need—like Hosanna House—but we really don’t have anything to fulfill immediate needs,” shares Garrett. “We really don’t have a place to direct people where they can avail of simple yet necessary things—like formula, diapers, coats—within 24 hours. They can get it, but they have to get into the system first.”

Garrett continues, “As soon as we opened the store, as we saw the people and how valuable the items were, we thought, why wasn’t this done sooner?”

“People came from everywhere and received everything from basic needs to nice little extras,” adds Michaels. “Shoppers were able to provide Christmas gifts for their kids or grandchildren and clothing for the winter time. I feel like every neighborhood or community should have a Free Store.”

On opening day, The Free Store Wilkinsburg had donated items from retailers like Rue 21, Toys R Us, and H&M to clothing from the film American Pastoral, which was shot in Pittsburgh, to local business Lovett Sundries, which donated their homemade soaps and shampoos to share with patrons. Even Calvary Episcopal Church donated surplus household items from a bazaar recently held there.

Students from the Art Institute styled the store, making it a more inviting retail establishment.

Chris Miller, the owner of 619 Penn Avenue, lent the space to The Free Store—free of charge. Currently, the store is operating as a pop-up until the group announces a regular schedule and location in 2016.

The Free Store Wilkinsburg will be open again on December 19 from 11 am to 2 pm. More information and updates on The Free Store in Wilkinsburg is available on their Facebook page.

Leah Lizarondo

Leah Lizarondo is a food advocate, writer and speaker. She is also the co-founder of 412 Food Rescue, an organization that seeks to eliminate food waste to make an impact on hunger and the environment. She is the Chief Veghacker, recipe creator and curator at The Brazen Kitchen, where she writes about food and food policy. She writes about the intersection of food, health, innovation and policy.