Republished from WSJ, December 5, 2014, article by Anne Kadet, photos by Andrew Lamberson:
Ask Here and Ye Shall (Often) Receive
Attendees Request Anything From Furniture to Fridge Cleaning
Rebecca Lurie, left, Margaret Rose de Cruz, center, and Helen Zuman share a chocolate treat at a Brooklyn Gift Circle meeting, where attendees offer up—and ask for—services and goods.
Dec. 5, 2014 1:24 p.m. ET
When it was my turn to address the roomful of strangers, I was ready with my wish list.
I wanted an agent for my novel. I wanted a tech wiz to help me sync my iPhone. And I wanted a music expert to recommend a playlist of wonderful tunes perfectly tailored to my taste.
In most circumstances, it’s bad form to just show up at a gathering and make demands.
But that’s the raison d’être of the Brooklyn Gift Circle, a monthly gathering in Park Slope. Anyone who attends the public meeting can request any sort of gift—from furniture and electronics to help cleaning the fridge. In many cases, their wishes are granted.
Yes, participants usually offer gifts as well—anything from editing expertise to home-brewed beer. But no one who receives is expected to reciprocate.
“It’s not about sacrifice and being good,” says founder Helen Zuman, a Brooklyn writer. “It’s about tapping into the joyful flow.”
“If that sounds a little woo-woo,” she adds, “I’m sorry.”
The night I attended, nine men and women sat in a circle of folding chairs in the cozy upstairs library of the Brooklyn Society for Ethical Culture.
Ms. Zuman opened the meeting by explaining the protocol: Everyone gets one chance to make requests and offer gifts.
“The more things you mention, the more likely matches will be made,” she said.
Artwork created by Brooklyn artist Vincent Downing at the Brooklyn Society of Ethical Culture during the Gift Circle.
Margaret Rose de Cruz, a Long Island body-mind therapist who volunteered to serve as group secretary and record everyone’s list, had a suggestion: “Could we acknowledge there’s a sacred space here?”
Everyone took a deep breath and sat in silence.
Rebecca Lurie, a workforce-development manager and Society for Ethical Culture president, was the first to jump in. She had lost weight and was giving away her XL wardrobe. Her request: help weeding out her closet.
Photographer Farrah Chamseddine, who had traveled all the way from Inwood on the northern tip of Manhattan, offered free consultations in feng shui, a method of arranging décor to improve the energy flow of a space. She wanted art supplies and help with her website.
Eco Lake, visiting from the commune he founded upstate, made a lengthy presentation touching on the “ancient future,” legal loopholes in the post-capitalist world, Occupy Wall Street, earth homes, freeganism and atheism as a spiritual tradition.
“I’m a website person, and a healer and all these other things,” he said. “So if you want some muscles relieved or archives delved into, I’m a Luddite technocrat so I’m willing to work with people’s stuff, and I’m interested in the evolution of language so I have some very dense writing that’s trying to emerge itself, so those of you who have the patience to deal with such density.…”
Martha Elliot, a stay-at-home mom living in Prospect Heights, had a more straightforward request: “I need a pair of sneakers, size 8.”
To close the meeting, we held hands and hummed.
“Healthy flow within and through,” said Mr. Lake.
The humming felt a little goofy, but my participation paid off—the circle filled half my requests.
Several members promised to send playlists. And while no one found me an agent, Ms. Zuman sent a nine-page critique of my agent query with a ton of helpful suggestions.
This experience was typical.
Since the circle held its first meeting in October 2013, participants have requested and received power tools, clothing, a backpack, housecleaning, a computer, plants, job counseling, paintings, massage, furniture, cat-sitting, books and hallucinogenic mushrooms.
One member requested overnight stays with other participants so she could rent out her apartment on Airbnb. She earned enough—$5,000—to pay off her rent debt.
Bushwick artist Angela Greco was a struggling freelancer when she attended a meeting last spring. When one attendee offered a job installing rooftop gardens, her response was immediate: “I want it!”
She’s still working as an arborist.
“It’s the best job I’ve ever had,” she said.
Eco Lake at the Brooklyn Society of Ethical Culture in November during the Gift Circle.
The circle attracts its share of anarcho-socialists and curiosity seekers, but most say they simply enjoy the sharing community. The act of giving and receiving creates bonds you can’t buy at the store.
Kyle and Alexis Kleinbeck, a Red Hook couple who help organize the gatherings, said that before they buy anything, they put it on their gift circle wish list.
They can afford to buy new.
“But that’s not the point,” said Mr. Kleinbeck, a pharmaceutical chemist. “It’s to see how much of my wants and needs I can fulfill with the gift circle. Theoretically, I think it’s possible to have all our needs met that way.”
Curious to see how others had fared, I followed up with my fellow attendees.
So far, Mr. Lake had helped Ms. Chamseddine build her website. Ms. Chamseddine received a gift certificate for art supplies from Ms. Elliot. And Ms. Elliot had just picked up a pair of size eight sneakers from Ms. Zuman.
“They fit good,” she reported.
Ms. Elliot, a former Wall Street worker, said she’ll return for another Gift Circle session for sure.
“It’s hard to find people looking for ways to make money less the be-all, end-all,” she said.
Her next request? A curtain rod.