On a sunny Saturday in February, a crowd gathered in a large room on the second floor of the 29th Street Community Center in Charles Village: twentysomething girls in boots and scarves, a man pushing a baby stroller, a woman with pink hair, a man in a green tie-dyed tunic and black jeans. Tables throughout the room were piled high with clothes and labeled with poster board signs: Men's Tops, Men's Pants, Men's Coats, Women's Tops, Women's Bottoms, Children's. Dresses hung on a rolling coat rack under a blue cloth banner strung from the ceiling. The banner announced the event in cursive letters: The Clothing Swap.
The Clothing Swap takes place four times each year. People can bring as many clothes as they want to give away and take as many items as they want home. Everything is free. The organizer of the Swap, Anna Grothe, only asks that people not bring accessories, footwear, or undergarments, and that everyone who participates signs out before leaving, declaring the number of items taken.
An early intervention teacher in Baltimore County, Grothe has been hosting The Clothing Swap events since the fall of 2013. "I was inspired by The Book Thing and thought we should have something like that for everything," she said.
The spring, summer, and fall Swaps are held outdoors in public parks, such as the Wyman Park Dell. In the winter, the Swaps are held indoors at a community center. Grothe keeps records of how many items each visitor takes home, in case she wants to apply for grant money in the future to expand the program.
Anna Schauer is a friend of Grothe's and helped set up the February Swap. "It's been cool to see how it's grown from an informal thing to something that's held in the community center and serves the community," she said.
Elyse Preston, program manager at the 29th Street Community Center, said the February clothing Swap has become an annual event at the facility, and due to the success of the previous two winter Swaps, she anticipated hosting it a third year. "The Clothing Swap is a great way to bring people together," she said. "And it's also a very sustainable concept, being able to share resources and to have a space where you're reducing waste and making better use of things that people may just be tossing away."
This is one of those gatherings where "Smalltimore's" reputation comes to life. Visitors run into acquaintances and work colleagues and introduce them to friends while picking through piles of sweaters and skirts. Swappers trying on clothes trade compliments in front of the communal full-length mirror. Someone snaps up a jacket discarded by her friend, or finds a business suit (or three) donated by his body-type doppelganger.
It's social but it's also very practical.
Sheria Prokosa lives near the community center and first discovered the Swaps when she was passing by. Now, she brings her three-year-old daughter each season. She thinks it's cool to discover vintage finds, but the Swap is also a practical way to rotate their wardrobes. "We bring in summer clothes in winter and exchange for winter clothes," she said.
The February Swap was the second event Nisha Ramnath attended. "It's great for people to give their closets to someone else that will really enjoy the clothes," she said. "It helps prevent waste."
The February event, billed a "Cozy Winter Swap," resulted in the swapping of 1,058 items. Grothe donated an additional 20 bags of clothing from the afternoon's activities to Paul's Place and gave monetary donations from the event to the 29th Street Community Center.
Although there are benefits to rotating the locations of the Swaps, such as the many people who discover the events while passing by, Grothe would like to have a permanent space in the future. "Not having a permanent space is nice because we can go to different neighborhoods," she said. "But people not on the internet can't necessarily find us and where our next event is. The toughest thing is people who aren't connected to us through social media." The Clothing Swap gets the word out primarily through Facebook and email.
Grothe enjoys seeing a wide variety of people come together in the same space each season. And it's a joy to see passersby discover the events. She said her favorite part is "seeing people be surprised when they walk by—'It's free? Really free?'—and seeing them come back and get excited about it."
The Clothing Swap will be held on June 11, at Roosevelt Park (at the corner of 36th Street and Falls Road in Hampden) from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. For more information, visit The Clothing Swap on Facebook: facebook.com/TheClothingSwap.