When we first moved to town there were two places people repeatedly asked us if we had visited: Kimball Farm’s Ice Cream or the Swap Shed. We were quick to say that we had visited Kimball’s numerous times and indulged in their mouth wateringly delicious ice cream. The lines never seemed to slow as we stood under the glow of dim and yellow bug lamps waiting for our turn to order obscenely large portions scooped by teenagers with the forearms of a gender neutral Popeye. In no time we learned that in a town of less than five thousand people, a good old-fashioned ice cream stand could become a major social event. As it turns out so can the dump, the location of the Swap Shed, and a place we had wondered about for months before visiting given how many times it was mentioned in conversation.
Other than police and an all call fire department there are not a lot of other services in town. There is no town water or sewer, for example. Each of the 1700 or so houses – on mandated two-acre minimum lots – has individual wells and septic systems. Trash service is also left up to the individual homeowner or renter. Like we did for two months, you can hire an out of town vendor to come and pick up curbside trash and recycling each week for upwards of $40 per month, or you can finally register your car in state, pony up twenty five dollars, go to the police station, and purchase a golden ticket to the dump or, as it is called here, the transfer station. The annual trash sticker gives you and yours a place to dispose of trash, all the recycling you can obsessively sort and organize, and a place for Lactose intolerant residents to meet and mingle.
Three days a week residents stream into the station with their cars full of trash bags and recycling. All manner of vehicle and owner are represented: weathered sedans and SUVs, shiny new minivans, and luxury sedans – the latter sometimes towing rickety little trailers overflowing with trash and recyclables and providing a weird, but entertaining, juxtaposition. I like to think of it as the three Rs of environmentalism acting as the great social equalizer. I have learned, since my return to Massachusetts, that recycling is taken very seriously. Above one of the trash containers is a sign stating that it is against the law to throw out recyclables as trash. The neighboring town of Concord recently became the first in the country to ban individual sized water bottles in an attempt to cut down on refuse.
Unlike its dirty and socially maligned counterpart the landfill, the transfer station is devoid of mud and grime, aerial rodents, and the all-permeating ever-present stench of trash. Aside from a few errant and perpetually soggy magazine inserts stuck to the pavement, the facilities are very clean and organized. There area a number of large metal containers that hold household trash or corrugated cardboard and a large recycling area where you can sort paper, newspaper, aluminum, tin, plastics, Styrofoam, clear glass and colored glass, and other more specific categories into a fleet of additional large metal containers.
Once at the transfer station, the trash is quickly disposed of and then people begin the task of meticulously sorting their recyclables, walking back and forth between containers while navigating parked cars and fellow recyclers. This is also where a lot of conversations are held and greetings take place. Because the town is so rural and sidewalks are scarce, it is difficult to get groups of people together by chance. But since everyone has to visit the dump, and you have to take some time to dispose of things properly (and legally it would seem), people get a chance to actually run into each other without it being pre-planned.
And yet it would seem this is still not the highlight of the trip. For when everyone has rid their vehicle of trash and recycling, and greeted familiar faces, it is time for the main event and the reason they are actually excited to be here – a trip to the swap shed, located next to the recycling area. The purpose of the Swap Shed is to provide a final resting place for household goods that are no longer wanted. The intent is that you leave items that are still in good working order for others to take and reuse or repurpose. It is understood that things must be somewhat functional and clean otherwise they would be considered trash. Large items may be left outside an actual green shed while inside you can leave smaller, more fragile items that may be sensitive to the elements.
On a busy Saturday there will be a large gathering of cars in this area both unloading and loading items: TVs; large mirrors; chairs; couches; dishwashers; hot water heaters; bicycles; picnic tables; outdoor play equipment; rugs; HVAC equipment; basketball systems; patio furniture; coffee tables; filing cabinets; stoves; and more. People politely and thoughtfully peruse the pile of items, making mental note of their condition and likelihood of repair. They step over and around large piles, poking here and there. Inside the shed more people are doing the same with shelves piled high with smaller items: toys; stuffed animals; board games; puzzles; shoes and boots; planters; small (and always outdated) electronics; books; lamps; kitchen appliances; dishes and glass; decorations; vases; etc. Children and adults mill about looking for items of interest as other residents place items that have lost their interest.
The magic of the Swap Shed is that you never know what you might find or if you’ll find anything at all. I have had acquaintances tell me of great luck in finding full patio sets for their unfurnished patio or finding a mid-century modern entry table. I’ve read of local bloggers and designers who upholster and recreate wonderful chairs. I have met women who live in grand homes proudly show me their “great find” from the Swap Shed. My neighbor and landlord will fondly recollect her late husband coming home from the dump with more than he brought. Some people just visit the Swap Shed without needing to throw out trash or recycling at all, and will visit multiple times a day. And I’m not talking just about me.
It took me two months to get there, but I was sold from my first visit when I found a tall Portuguese blue and white vase that I now use as an umbrella holder. I have since found crystal glasses, a collection of kid made pottery (that I can’t bear to think of ending up in the trash), a hand woven basket, and a decorative and tiny arbor I put in the yard. The kids are always eager to take a look and sometimes walk away with small plastic animals. My youngest will often say, “Can we go to the dump and buy some toys?” None of these things are really needed of course, but the fun is in finding things you could use and enjoy regardless.
It is the Yankee Swap of waste removal.
UPDATE: Here is a link the a feature article I wrote for the local paper about the Swap Shed: The Swap Shed: “toy store, compulsion, book store or bone of contention.