Free Store Ideology

As Expounded by an Itinerant Visitor

In the late summer of 1967, Jeff Berner, the sometime publisher and underground diarist, wrote the following article in the S.F. Chronicle (Sunday, Aug. 13, 1967). It talks about the Free Store ideology that had evolved into a form of Digger street theater as propounded by Peter Berg in his essay “Trip Without A Ticket” the previous year. Berner had an ascerbic view of the cultural landscape but seems taken by Berg’s theories of social action.

I offer this as another in the series of sources documenting the Free Store concept that the Diggers innovated and which can be seen throughout the counterculture of the 1960s up to and including the present in certain communities.

Astronauts of Inner Space

By Jeff Berner
(August 13, 1967)

ONE-HUNDRED PERCENT DISCOUNT ON ALL MERCHANDISE is policy at The Free Store, 901 Cole street. This Digger boutique is a clearing house for all sorts of goods, from food to clothes and furniture to posters, books and services. A principle of ”take according to your conscience, give according to your conscience” is the basic credo.

A visitor to this underground mart thinks first of Goodwill and Salvation Army. But one big difference is that goods sent to The Free Store don’t create jobs for anyone. They create a supply of goods free for the taking. The “management” of the place doesn’t believe for a minute that jobs help anyone. It believes that only help helps people.

* * *

This is one way the revolution of mind and matter lets the nation know that liberal talk and humanitarian legislation mean nothing any more. As one Digger spokesman told me, “I believe only in now, only in action!” If a man is hungry, giving him a job to dignify his image isn’t as good as giving him food now. When a profit-oriented shopper goes into this “store,” he’s awkward and suspicious. Suddenly faced with no money and no barter, how can an upstanding citizen judge the value of anything? What strings are attached? None.

“Give up your resources, give up power-games, share and give,” is the message, in this really super market.

If everything is free and you can take as much as you want, won’t people turn around and sell these goods elsewhere, or worse yet, hoard stuff? That happens a lot, but sooner or later even the self-destructive urge to hoard will be transformed; society will become an overindulgent eater with cramps.

The Maitre d’ here is Peter Berg, who lets it be known that his project is not “store” but “theater.” The building becomes a stage, and the merchandise is just a pretext for challenging everyone’s values all the time. The rich and the poor can take from the place.

* * *

It makes sense that if every thing is free, people can break their terrible belief in material acquisition, and get down to the nobler “business” of being people.

(A few months ago I got a letter from a friend on the East Coast. She said, “I’m giving away most of my possessions. I finally know that things will go on existing in the world even if I don’t own them. They’ll still be there in the world.”)

The whole question of ownership over objects, wives, pets, children, ideas, is being reshaped on the boards at The Free Store.

* * *

Some bitter ironies have come up:

Although a Black free store exists on McAllister Street, many black people visit the Digger store, and of these quite a few believe that the “good stuff” is hidden in the basement, and ask to see it. There’s no truth to the fear, but it persists.

The store itself has a fear or two, as shown in a tiny sign an the pay phone: “Don’t say anything on this phone you wouldn’t say to a cop!”

A widespread belief in the Hippidrome is that the very existence of a community which mocks traditional ideas of materialism is scary to government and business; the government and business which depends upon profit-lust for its very life. Fear of spying is so big, and so realistic, it’s thought that the San Francisco Police Community Relations team is actually a group of smiling informers.

What is so threatening about free? Americans give lip-service to freedom as an ideal. Now we have the roots of super-free enterprise.

I suggest a visit to 901 Cole street.

Clouds are free. Sunsets are free. Birds. Mountains. Rivers are free.

Why not objects and people?


Column that appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle (8/13/1967)
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