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Benefield: West Sonoma County exchange post promotes trade and trust

It’s a tiny, open air market of a unique variety.

It had an early life as a milking stanchion for cows. Then it was converted into an honor-system farm stand with fresh vegetables and flowers.

Its latest iteration is something a little harder to define. And there is no one here to explain it.

But don’t take that as a sign to stay away. All are welcome here, but this is a self-guided operation.

The sign calls it an Exchange Post. What that means, exactly, might be found in what a visitor is looking for.

Is it a lending library? A clothing cooperative?

Located on Highway 116 a little closer to Guerneville than Forestville, this hands-off market of trades is hosted by Pam and Steve Fitch, who run the 25-acre Pocket Creek Farm that stretches west from the road.

It’s on their property, but Steve Fitch insists it is a community resource. He relies on its users to honor the basic tenets of its operation: Don’t dump junk, don’t take more than you need.

On a post is tacked an 8-by-11 sheet of paper with “rules” for trade, but there is no one there to monitor. It’s a system built on trust.

There is a blue “karma box” for payment should someone feel inclined, but it’s tucked away and hard to find. That feels almost purposeful.

The Fitches ask participants in the system to leave only things that have a good chance of being picked up and reused.

Don’t leave giant bags of clothes, that someone will be tasked with sorting. Don’t leave perishables. Also, please no used underwear. Please.

The idea is to prevent waste, not create it. It’s to give useful, interesting things a shot at a second life in a new home.

It’s like those free little lending libraries that one finds on neighborhood streets that operate under the “take one, leave one” rule.

This is a take something, leave something outpost of the more eclectic variety.

On Thursday morning, there was a perfectly serviceable baby stroller along with some other infant items: a prop-up seat and a pillow that looked to have gotten a little dirty in the overnight moisture.

Inside the structure there were scores of books. On cooking: “The Ex-Boyfriend Cook Book” and “Tapas.”

There was a big box of kids’ books not far from a tome: “Christianity in the Twentieth Century.”

There were jigsaw puzzles (hot commodities in the pandemic), a Connect 4 game, a sketchbook, packets of dried pasta, a zoology coloring book, and a box of 24 cartons of Nestle Isosource High Nitrogen Complete Nutrition drinks.

And there were clothes. Some in bins on the ground, but others hung up on a rod for better access. Kids’ clothes, women’s sandals, an Ace Hardware shirt and a red T-shirt that read: “Warning: Selective Hearing.”

The Fitches have been on the farm eight years and have seen the milking stanchion have a couple of different lives. All useful, Steve said.

“It’s evolved a little bit over time,” he said.

It’s a real resource for some, and a place to find the occasional oddity or treasure for others, he said.

He’s mindful that it could become an eyesore or a magnet for junk. But that hasn’t happened.

Neighbors Carly and Joegh Bullock love the stand. They believe the care that the Fitches have put into creating it keeps folks from taking advantage — either by dumping large items or taking more than their fair share.

“The post is like a symbol of connection, the thing that brings everybody together,” Joegh Bullock said.

And that connection means people watch over it, Fitch said.

Fitch said he got a call once from someone concerned “tweakers” were rummaging through the stand.

He showed up to find two people — not tweakers to his way of thinking — sorting, tidying and generally lending a hand.

“They were cleaning up and organizing,” he said. “They were happy as can be, trying on jackets. I chatted for a while and said, ‘Take as much as you can carry.’ It’s overstocked because people leave an awful lot of stuff.”

He’s also come to know a man who regularly drives two women out to the stand to see if they could use an item or two.

“They don’t have transportation,” he said. “His contribution was giving them a ride out here.”

As might be expected with any system built solely on trust, some people don’t honor it. People have, indeed, left couches. Or bags of clothes. Or broken into the “karma box.”

But they are few, Fitch said.

“I think 95% of people do the right thing,” he said.

“We have had garbage and junk dropped off and that’s discouraging, but a large percentage of people who love it take care of it. We actually have a large number of patrons who spend some time in their day neatening up the space and organizing it.”

And even the not-so-good in some brings out the very good in others.

He knows of two regulars who will, without any fanfare, cart away obvious refuse or large items to the nearby dump to keep the post area tidy and to prevent junk from attracting the dumping of more junk.

Neighbors like the Bullocks view the operation as a boon, not a burden.

They live close enough that they see the exchange post out their window. They see as items come and go and see folks stop, look and leave.

Once someone left a water heater. Carly Bullock worried it would be an eyesore. It was gone in a day.

The Bullocks loved the farm stand. But as it evolved, they have loved the exchange post, too. And the aim, to reduce waste and reuse items, is respected, Carly said.

“I would like to chalk it up to the community nature of the post and maybe because it is something official and kind of quaint,” she said. “That people have taken the time to create a community offering. Maybe there is a sense of respect.”

The Fitches’ reputation for generosity and trust may play a part, too, she said.

“I like it being here,” she said. “It’s a community treasure.”

Steve Fitch also likes it being here. And as long as it is used as intended, he’s game to keep it there.

It’s a signal to a higher standard of values — of reducing waste, of reuse, of sharing. And of trust.

“It’s drop in the bucket, but it’s the thought that counts,” he said.

“And, hey, it’s free. It’s a gift.”

You can reach Staff Columnist Kerry Benefield at 707-526-8671 or kerry.benefield@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @benefield.

Kerry Benefield

Columnist, The Press Democrat

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