Thrift Store With Free Clothing Opens on Campus

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The student-run operation offers affordability while targeting the waste stream.

Student sorts through clothing
Free Market intern Orlando Valladares Fernandez ’26 sorts through clothing at the thrift shop in the basement of North Massachusetts Hall. (Photo by Katie Lenhart)

At the end of spring term, graduating seniors and departing graduate students get ready for their next steps and discarded clothing and other items pile up during move out.

Residential Operations staff are on hand to clean up the unwanted items. But it’s a lot of work for them, and while dorm staples like mini-fridges, shower caddies, and desk lamps are stored for the Sustainable Moving Sale, discarded clothing clogs the trash system and doesn’t store well unless sorted and cleaned.

The solution? A campus-based, student-run clothing thrift store with the additional aim of prompting the Dartmouth community to think critically about their shopping habits. The store is called the Free Market, and it lives up to its name. Everything there is free for Dartmouth students.

Rachel Kent ’21 is the program assistant for the Sustainability Office, which oversees the thrift store. “What we’re trying to do here is take responsibility for our waste, and to return clothing back into the Dartmouth community, while improving access and affordability,” she says.

Located in North Massachusetts Hall, the Free Market formally opened in July, around the start of summer term. It features organized racks of clothing, T-shirts, and jeans. A revolving metal cabinet, which used to hold paper records for campus undergrads, now displays shoes and boots.

“We’re working on separating things by size,” says Kent. “It’s difficult because of how quickly things are flying off the racks and how quickly we need to restock. But that’s a good sign.”

Director of Sustainability Rosi Kerr ’97 reports seeing “a massive uptick in the amount of clothing entering the Dartmouth waste system in one form or another. This is a symptom of a much larger consumption and waste problem in this country.”

Kerr hopes the Free Market, which is open to the Dartmouth community, will provide students with alternatives to the cheap and trendy disposable clothing — sometimes called fast fashion — that’s so easily available online. By making the Free Market look like a real store and providing a fun space, it can provide something the internet doesn’t: a great shopping experience.

“We’re trying to shift consumer culture,” Kerr says. “That’s a big job. But maybe Dartmouth is a small enough microcosm that we can. What if the ‘cool’ thing was thrifting and buying less stuff and it was less cool to buy junky stuff online?”

It’s too early to tell if there’s been any real impact on shopping choices, but Kerr and her team will be watching for a decrease in the amount of discarded clothing at the next spring move out. 

Kerr hears from a lot of students who are feeling despair because of climate change and environmental degradation. Her antidote? Finding a scale, such as this thrift store project, where students can contribute and have a real impact. “Large-scale actions are an accumulation of small ones. And by learning to effect change at a small scale here at Dartmouth, students learn how changemaking works and that they can create impact.”

Studio art major Roan Wade ’25 brought the idea for the Free Market to the Sustainability Office, and now she’s a paid intern helping to run the store. She’d organized winter clothing drives and helped set up racks of free clothing around campus, but she heard the call for a bigger, more permanent space.

“It was clear that the mechanism of temporary pop up thrift stores was not actually meeting the needs of our community,” Wade says.

Orlando Valladares Fernandez and Roan Wade
Orlando Valladares Fernandez ’26, left, and Roan Wade ’25 in the Free Market, which they created last term with the help of the Sustainability Office. (Photo by Katie Lenhart)

Wade, who is also a hub coordinator for Sunrise Dartmouth, an environmental justice group on campus, hopes students get into the “circular economy” of donating and taking clothes. “Our long-term goal is to reduce clothing waste by reducing the initial purchasing of clothing,” she says, as well as to make clothing accessible to those who might not be able to afford it.

The Free Market publicizes itself and its operating hours through the Sustainability Office, the Ruckus Listserv, flyers, and word of mouth. 

Because everything is free, there’s no checkout per se, but shoppers are asked to fill out a survey that asks about demographics — who are the students shopping here? — and whether the store had what they were looking for.

Wade reports great reactions from the 200 or so initial customers, a number which is expected to jump as students return for fall term.

“We’re also hearing a lot of reactions that this feels like a safe space for the queer community, which has been one of our focuses,” Wade says. “This clothing can be a mechanism of receiving gender-affirming care, and so we want to make sure that this space is very welcome and open to the queer community.”

Feminine clothing tends to move fastest, as does Dartmouth-branded apparel, which Wade says is a source of pride for many students. Wade likes that those who can’t easily afford a Dartmouth sweatshirt might find one at the Free Market.

And after President Emeritus Philip J. Hanlon ’77 donated a bunch of clothes to the Free Market, his collection of ties flew off the shelf.

“It’s definitely a conversation starter when you go to an event and you’re like, ‘Oh, this was President Hanlon’s tie,’” Wade says.

Winter is still a few months away, but the Free Market is ready with boxes of winter coats and gear. Dartmouth draws students from all over the world, and not all of them are ready — or able to afford — the kinds of clothing that are vital to surviving an Upper Valley winter. (Donations of winter clothing and gear can be made to the Free Market).

“We want to make sure that you have boots on your feet in the winter, and you have warm socks on,” says Kerr. “You have a jacket that you can walk across campus on the coldest day and be OK in. It’s hard to enjoy Dartmouth’s awesome winter if you’re freezing.” 

Bernard Haskell, who is with Residential Operations, agrees with Kerr about the need for campus access to winter clothing.

“We’ll get international kids or kids who’ve never seen cold weather before, and there is literally nothing for them,” Haskell says.

Kerr, Kent, and Wade all give credit to Residential Operations for helping to make the Free Market a reality. They provided the location for the store, no small trick for a campus tight on space, and they’ve helped collect and manage clothing donations.

“We could not have done this without Residential Operations,” says Kent.

Haskell likes the North Massachusetts Hall location for the Free Market. It’s easily accessible from the nearby student center and dining hall, and residence halls are nearby. “It’s where the traffic flows,” Haskell says. 

“This has been amazing, what they’ve done,” Haskell added.

Matt Golec