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Karen Stabiner

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Small Good News: The Price Is Right When Everything's Free

Posted: 05/18/09 11:45 AM ET

All over the country, parents are moving kids out of their college dorm rooms, and at some point, as the car or the suitcases or the storage unit start to fill, we ask the inevitable question: Do you really use all this stuff?

The answer, just as inevitably, is no, which leads to the next question: What are we going to do with it?

The "it" that got me thinking is my daughter's pair of fashion-error pink plaid rain boots. They have since been replaced by a plain black pair, but they have less than a thunderstorm's worth of mileage on them. She won't wear them, I won't wear them, I can't fit them into my suitcase, and I'm certainly not going to throw them away.

I can give them to a charity if I can find one in a city I don't live in, on a trip when I don't have the time.

Or I can do what Janice Williams did and give them away.

Janis lives with her husband, Bernell, in Picayune, Mississippi -- who came up with that name? -- and last month she found that her unused clothing had reached critical mass. She could donate the duds to a charity that would sell them in a thrift shop, but times are tight, and she imagined that some people would have trouble with even a thrift-store price tag. So she decided to hold the equivalent of a yard sale, except that she would not charge a penny for anything. Essentially, she invented the yard giveaway.

She made flyers, informed her local radio station, put a free ad in the local newspaper, and set the stuff out in the driveway of her home: Clothing for men, women, and boys, some toiletries, toys, and shoes, and a few household items. The recipients included a young mother of four and the secretary at a local daycare center, who found clothing for herself and for her new-mom of a daughter. When it was over, Janis had found her calling; she's getting ready to donate her grandson's outgrown school uniforms to the school board uniform drive, and after that she'll start planning for a fall giveaway of warmer stuff.

Granted, it's a concept with built-in limitations. First, there's the question of size: If you're offloading a bunch of old furniture and electronics, thrift store showrooms are bigger than most front yards. Next, there's the issue of support: If you have a favorite charity that manages a thrift shop, it's nice to provide inventory. And people who live in cities where elevators outnumber front yards face a logistical challenge; where, exactly, can they put the stuff?

I've noticed this week that Manhattanites solve the problem by putting useable goods in prominent places -- in the alcove near the dorm elevator, adjacent to but not commingled with the apartment building's bagged garbage -- knowing that someone will come along to claim and recycle useable goods.

But I live in that most horizontal of cities, Los Angeles, where some people's idea of a fun Sunday afternoon is driving the yard-sale circuit, and there are plenty of other cities and towns that are laid out side to side, not top to bottom. Sure, some of the shoppers have watched too many episodes of Antiques Roadshow, and are on the lookout for a half-million-dollar set of bookends, but many of them just need a break. If the opportunity presents itself, it wouldn't hurt any of us to do what Janis does, and give a little something away.