Lily Perry was a broke college student completing her capstone project at CSU Monterey Bay when she found herself in a bind: She had a printer, but no paper. She posted on a Facebook group called Buy Nothing, asking if anyone had paper to spare. “People just gave me reams and reams of paper,” she says. “That really warmed my heart.”
The idea of a virtual venue that invites people to give and receive stuff for free came naturally to Perry. “I’m originally from Santa Cruz, we love that kind of hippie-dippy stuff. I was like, this is great – it’s sustainable, reusing things.” But her commitment to the concept took off after she befriended Linda Dale-Donofrio, who took Perry thrifting and helped her fall in love with Persian rugs and ceramics. Together they would acquire beautiful things, then give them away from Dale-Donofrio’s Pacific Grove garage during what she called Operation Holiday Cheer.
Then the duo found a bigger platform to share the spirit of giving: Buy Nothing, which launched on Bainbridge Island, Washington, in 2013 as a Facebook group to support a hyper-local gifting economy. No selling, no bartering – just asking and gifting. You have baby clothes that don’t fit your kid anymore? Post them on Buy Nothing, and someone will stop by to pick them up from the front porch. Looking for wine glasses? Post a request, and someone who has a good-as-new box sitting in their garage will send a message. (The founders have since written a book, The Buy Nothing, Get Everything Plan, published in 2020.)
Buy Nothing now has 1.2 million participants in at least 25 countries. But under the master Buy Nothing group rules, Monterey County’s group size maxed out, leading to a Balkanized system of smaller groups – there’s one for Pacific Grove/Pebble Beach, another for Marina, and so on. “Linda and I said, we are all neighbors, we don’t think it’s right that you divided up Pebble Beach and Salinas. We felt that was reinforcing both classist and racist lines,” Perry says.
So in July 2019, they broke off and started a new group called “Buy Nothing, Give Something,” which now counts about 2,300 members giving each other everything from cutlery and appliances to house plants and food.
Jamaica Chaney moved to Monterey a year ago when her husband enrolled at the Defense Language Institute. “Two weeks after we got here, Covid started. I was like, well I have nothing to do,” Chaney says. So she started cooking and baking – a lot.
She and her small family couldn’t eat it all, so she posts it to Buy Nothing. She’s gifted gyoza, noodles, pandesal (Filipino rolls). She gifted a croquembouche, a tower of puff pastries wrapped in caramel, that Bon Appetit calls a “major-league project.” She made her daughter a 3rd birthday cake – and gave it away, all to strangers. “I just really enjoy it,” Chaney says.
Perry and other group administrators spend 10-plus hours per week volunteering to monitor communications on the page, ensuring it stays civil and no one tries to sell anything. (Although after someone receives an item, they’re free to do what they want with it – cherish it, resell it, regift it.) “The concept is, we don’t want people to say, ‘gimme gimme.’ We want it to be conversational and kind,” says fellow administrator Koly McBride. “You can pretty much ask for and find anything,” she adds. “This is how we should all be striving to live, because you find anything secondhand.”
Giving a second life to what might otherwise be trash is part of what Perry and Dale-Donofrio set out to do. “We are coming from a place of surplus, not a place of false scarcity,” Perry says. “We wanted people to be able to share resources, including knowledge or a ride – even if you don’t have money, there are things you can do for other people.”
Dale-Donofrio died in September. Her obituary mentioned her love of giving gifts to people, including strangers. Perry has a new friend – someone who she gave vintage Pyrex too, and who in turn became a collector. Now they go thrifting together. “It inspired a love of vintage with her, just like Linda had with me.”