The first two questions asked at the Telluride Visitor Information Center are typically about restaurants and lodging. Once the necessities of life are covered, the discussion then heads toward what visitors might enjoy while in Telluride. The free gondola is popular, as are the many summer festivals and recreational opportunities, but there's one common question that chambers of commerce in other towns aren't likely to entertain, which is, "Where's the Free Box?"
While there are a handful of other towns in the U.S. with a free box, Telluride's has garnered national and local attention in recent years. But before discussing the box's fame, allow me to first explain its premise. Here's an except from the introduction I wrote for "The Free Box: A Telluride Tradition" in 2002:
Imagine retail shops without cash registers. Imagine the variety of The Mall of America squeezed into 168 cubic feet. Imagine feeling guilt-free about getting rid of an unwanted holiday gift. The Telluride Free Box offers the lucky browser and dedicated shopper treasures that range from Zojirushi rice cookers to fake suede go-go boots. The principle is simple: Bring what you don't need; take what you want.
There you have it--a public wall of cubbyholes where goods are left and taken 24 hours a day, every day of the year. It's a recycling center in its purest form. (To get the full picture, you can watch this short video.) I wrote that book eight years ago because the Free Box was in danger of being dismantled, and I wanted to remind my neighbors to celebrate this unusual community centerpiece. At its best, the Free Box contains only true treasures, items that someone would want to take home. At worst, it's a eyesore and a dumpster for old cans of paint, mattresses, broken computers and other useless items that cost the taxpayers dearly--an estimated $40,000 to $50,000--to sort, haul and dump. I don't know that my book helped or not. The Free Box prevailed, but by the summer of 2009, its fate was back on Telluride Town Council's agenda.
This time around, I wasn't the only who wrote about it. In August of 2009, Smithsonian magazine ran an article titled "Telluride Thinks Out of the Box." In it, the author, Antonya Nelson, introduces Telluride as "Aspen's younger, less glamorous, not so naughty sister" and describes her days in Telluride from the 1960s to the arrival of the Free Box in the 1970s. She touches on the significance of the box for the community and highlights some great finds: cashmere sweaters, DVDs, typewriters, a hammock and a down sleeping bag. Around the time this article was published, a committee called Friends of the Free Box galvanized to patrol the Free Box and educate users. This group attracted press in the fall of 2009 in a Denver Post article, "Get to Know Telluride's Free Box."
Through education and vigilance, Friends of the Free Box has made an enormous difference. The sidewalk around the cubbyholes is much tidier, and the town staff no longer spends time sifting through and hauling away junk. Someone has even set up a Telluride Free Box Facebook page, and there are almost 2,000 fans.
Perhaps the recession is responsible for saving the Free Box. A tight town budget forced our community to step up. Or maybe it was something less tangible: Many believe that the Free Box can manifest exactly what you need, that all you have to do is visualize it. Inevitably, the wished-for item appears, nested in a cubbyhole and waiting just for you. When this happens, locals nod their heads reverently and say, "The Free Box provides."
Indeed it does. Not only does the Free Box redistribute goods, it also provides a cultural anchor in our community. It's well worth a visit.