FAIRBANKS — The anticipation was palpable but the mood jovial Saturday morning as the clock ticked down to the opening of the Really Free Market on the University of Alaska campus.
“Seven minutes until the market opens!” volunteer coordinator Teal Rogers announced over a megaphone to the hundreds of eager shoppers who lined the perimeter of the Lola Tilly Commons parking lot.
“What do we want?” Rogers asked the crowd.
“Free stuff,” the crowd answered back.
“When do we want it?” Rogers asked.
“Right now,” the crowd shouted as many cheered and laughed.
The event, which is in its eighth year, is similar to a huge garage sale, except all items are free. Donation drop-offs began at 8 a.m., and volunteers hurried to place items at the appropriate stations or tables before the 10 a.m. start time.
Some shoppers jockeyed for position close to items they were hoping to nab before somebody else did while others took a more sanguine approach.
Josh Buza said he was “definitely scoping out the furniture,” which was located across the parking lot.
“I’ll be making a beeline for it. I can sprint,” he said, smiling.
With a final exhortation to be careful of tripping hazards and considerate of small children and the elderly, Rogers declared the market open and let the mad rush begin.
A table filled with dishes and kitchen appliances quickly emptied, and a large tarp piled high with clothing became an impromptu dressing room.
One man loaded a pile of tires into his vehicle, while across the parking lot Pamela Nelson stood guard over a huge, pristine cat condo while the rest of her family continued shopping.
Jenelle Merrifield beamed as she carried her items back to her car.
“I came looking for flower pots and something to put books on, and I was able to get exactly what I wanted. I’m done!” Merrifield said as she hoisted a bookshelf and a stack of terra cotta pots.
Joe Wittenkeller and his sister-in-law, Jacqueline Esai, originally said they were there as spectators, but 15 minutes later were happily showing off a suitcase, a cooler and two boogie boards.
The market is hosted and organized by the UAF Summer Sessions and Lifelong Learning program and is done entirely with the help of volunteers, program director Michelle Bartlett said.
Bartlett said she created the first Really Free Market after hearing about the concept on NPR.
“It was 2009 and Fairbanks was in the middle of the recession,” Bartlett said. “I looked it up online, and it turned out there were 35 communities around the country that do it. One of them had only 19,000 people, and I thought, ‘If they can do that in North Carolina, we can do that here.’”
The market was a success from the beginning, and even though the original focus was to provide items to people who “really needed it,” people of all income levels are welcome.
“If people want it, they can take it. It seems to work really well and we just feel good about it. We all have stuff in our homes that needs to be in somebody else’s house,” Bartlett said.
Items are snapped up so quickly that the market is only open for an hour, after which the few remaining items are given to local charities. Leftover books are picked up by the Literacy Council, electronics are recycled by Green Star of Interior Alaska and the Fairbanks Resource Agency takes the rest.
“We like to call it a ‘free-cycling event,’” Bartlett said.
Contact staff writer Dorothy Chomicz at 459-7582. Follow her on Twitter: @FDNMcrime.