Neighbors share, trade in leaner times

CHICAGO — Twice a year, in the spring and again in the autumn, six families on Vicki Matranga's tree-lined Oak Park block go to one neighbor's garage and bring out the $1,200 woodchipper they all pitched in to buy. Then they gather around and feed it dead branches gathered from their yards.

"We chip up our branches and make our own mulch out of it," Matranga said. "There are a couple of passionate gardeners on our block. Many of us who contributed to this machine, we've lived on this street together for 20 years."

Financially, it was worth it for Matranga and her neighbors to pool their dollars and buy a big-ticket item that none would use regularly but all still needed yearly, she said.

"We were happy to share the cost and storage of the machine," Matranga said. "We all made photocopies of the warranty and the instruction manual. It resides in somebody's garage."

This one small example of neighbors sharing an item is part of a trend as the economy worsens, experts say. People are turning to sharing and trading — using community toy, bicycle and tool libraries, swapping vegetables online or checking out exotic cake pans from libraries, instead of buying their own.

"With the economy tanking, there are even more people doing it now, and it's more visible," said Jeff Ferrell, a sociology professor at Texas Christian University in Fort Worth, Texas, who studies sharing networks.

Rob Anderson in Portland launched the Web site, which allows registered users to sell, buy or trade fresh produce. Users punch in their ZIP code to find other local gardeners. More than 2,400 people have signed up since the site was launched in March. (As of Thursday, there were only two listings within 400 miles of Medford; one in Auburn, Wash., and the other in Milwaukie.)

"People are looking for ways to save money. If you have too many tomatoes and you have too many oranges, wouldn't it be great if we can meet each other?" Anderson said.

At the library in Galesburg, Ill., a dozen cake pans shaped like hearts, dinosaurs or footballs sit behind the counter, available for checkout. Karen Marple, the children's librarian, keeps track of the pans, which she buys on sale or at yard sales for library cardholders to share.

"They don't want to spend so much money on a cake pan that they're going to use one time," Marple said. "It's free. It's economics."

Elsewhere around the country, dozens of municipalities and nonprofit groups have community tool sheds, where citizens can borrow hand or power tools for projects.

Individualistic attitudes worked fine until the economic downturn, Ferrell said. Now, he said, "the stigma you might have witnessed for reusing things has been reimagined as a rediscovery of American values."

"Sharing only means that you have to buy less and I have to buy less," Ferrell said. "Sharing also knits communities together. Sharing is good for social life."

On the Net: Veggie Trader:

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