Mass redundancies: Are ‘shops that are not shops’ the future?

This week many of my friends, former colleagues and clients work their final week within Queensland Government. Yesterday Fairfax announced that they are calling for 1900 voluntary redundancies. Recently the media informed us that Toyota in Melbourne had made retrenchments and that Qantas have said maintenance jobs will go.

In the wake of mass redundancies are ‘shops that are not shops’ the future in our cities?

I studied economics at college but I’m certainly not a fiscal expert. What I do know however is that mass job losses in the public and the private sectors across Australia will inevitably result in devastating repercussions on our consumer economy and that’s why I’ve just visited a “shop that’s not a shop’ in Berlin.

Leila opened in Prenzlauer Berg, just across the park from the BMW Guggenheim Lab, two weeks ago and is already attracting large crowds. The shop is divided into two parts; things that are ‘free’ and things that you can ‘borrow’.

Nikolai Wolfert the project initiator and ‘shop keeper’ gave me a tour of the store. According to Nikolai the average western home has more than 10,000 items of ‘stuff’!  Nikolai is passionate about sharing, trust and creating good relationships in our communities. Ultimately he wants to help change our consumer behaviour. He is also a huge fan of Sydney’s Rachel Botsman, the leading advocate in ‘collaborative consumption’, who’s book I recently borrowed from my friend Bronwyn’s friend Sam.

The ‘free’ section of the shops is filled with things or ‘stuff’ that people in the neighbourhood no longer need or don’t really have space for. Books, CD’s, DVD’s, china, cutlery, trinkets, clothes, shoes, bags, garden seeds and even welly boots adorn homemade shelves. You name it it’s there! You basically go in and take it, but only if you need it.

The second section is dedicated to ‘borrowing’. Two whole rooms of amazing ‘stuff’ that you can use free of charge and then give back. People in the community have donated their things for other people to use. It’s the ultimate in creating a resilient community and being ‘good neighbours’. You can borrow almost anything: musical instruments, dining room chairs, camping equipment, gardening tools, outdoor furniture, yoga mats, skateboards, children’s toys, kids books, cookery books, suitcases, hairdryers, irons and ironing boards, cots, baby change tables, rice cookers, blenders, saucepans, blankets, children’s car seats, bikes, cycle helmets, BBQ’s, picnic baskets, car tools and DIY books. You can even borrow gardening overalls!

I’ll confess I felt a fraud. After several hours trawling around the second hand stores and the flea market without success, I had had to go and buy a clothes airer from a department store in Alexanderplatz. Whilst at first I felt a bit embarrassed and ashamed of my shiny, plastic wrapped, new purchase I left the ‘shop’ feeling happy…  I’ll be ‘donating’ my airer (when I leave Berlin in August) to Leila for people to ‘borrow’ because that’s what ‘community collaborative consumption’ is all about.

Normalising and popularising ‘borrowing’ is going to be a long journey.  When Prince Charles recently talked of his environmentally friendly lifestyle, recycling old curtains into cushion covers, it was scoffed by the media as ‘penny pinching’.

In Australia lots of people use green bags at the supermarket, grow their own veggies, fill their recycling bins, use solar power and have water tanks. When it comes to altering our lifestyles (car pooling, car sharing and the like) many of us are not so motivated probably because of the stigma associated with self-sacrifice. It’s not our fault, for years the marketing, advertising and PR agencies have told us we can “Have it all” and so now most of us “Want it all”.

Most of us have spare rooms, garages, back yards, sheds, cupboards, wardrobes and attics full of ‘stuff’ and ‘junk’ we don’t use and most of us would openly admit to spending masses of money on ‘things’ and ‘stuff’ we don’t really need. We are addicted to stuff. I’ll be the first to admit that only yesterday another handbag, that I don’t need and I can’t afford, caught my eye! (BTW I didn’t buy it)

But things really are changing. British chain Marks & Spencer now offers customers discounts in exchange for unwanted clothes, which are then donated to Oxfam and last month in Sydney more than 7500 sellers took part in the ‘Garage Sale Trail’ an event to promote ‘community recycling’ of unwanted ‘stuff’… and yes, most people took part because they wanted to ‘de-clutter’ their homes!

These stories, and from what I’ve just seen at Leila, show that sharing, borrowing, lending, making and mending might just be the future of ‘shopping’ in our cities in these times of global austerity. I reckon Mrs Merkel would agree!

Check out the Leila ‘shop’  at

If you are interested in forming a collective to establish a ‘shop that’s not a shop’ in Brisbane please drop me a line at: rachel (at) cyclingrachelsmith (dot) com


DARE TO SHARE at the BMW Guggenheim Lab

The Lab is dedicated to sharing, collaborative consumption and new economics on Wednesday 4th July. We have some amazing things planned including a swap shop, a tour to Leila’s and a future of shopping experiment. We also have a special event/talk from Heidemarie Schwermer. Heidemarie lives in Germany without money. I can’t wait to meet her.


The BMW Guggenheim Lab opens for another action packed week. Jose is back enabling everyday citizens with technology to hack the city and make their own solutions to day-to-day problems and I’ll be blogging about that tomorrow. Stay tuned!