Free Box

The Free Box, even while boarded up and graced with local art during the pandemic, has endured acts of vandalism, causing officials to add metal bars to the boards. A public work session on May 11 invites residents to contribute to a conversation about the Free Box's future. (Photo by Bria Light/Telluride Daily Planet)

In November 2010, I arrived in Telluride for the first time, sight unseen, with a tentative job offer and hopes for an adventurous winter as a ski bum. Arriving after dark, I wolfed down some slices of cheese pizza at Brown Dog, and then wandered over to a covered sidewalk where I saw a few people gathered. There, to my great delight, I found the Free Box, and leaning at one end, a pair of decent skis. It felt like a serendipitous welcome gift, and I skied them that whole winter. Throughout the years, I would go on to find a brand new rain jacket that sheltered me during the 500-some miles of the Colorado Trail, a mint condition vintage 1970s ski onesie and, naturally, countless costumes. That’s not to mention the dishes, clothes and other useful daily items that received a new lease on life under my grateful stewardship, before, perhaps, being plopped one day back in the Free Box for the next budget-minded “shopper” to find.

My story is not, of course, unique. Since its inception 45 years ago in 1976, the Free Box has provided thousands of people with free treasures, recirculating perhaps millions of items that may otherwise have died a slow death in a landfill. It has offered a place for residents to pass on items from their spring cleans, and an impromptu gathering place to celebrate good finds and to chat with a neighbor. It’s offered an emblem of the “funky old ski town,” a place where sharing is caring, money doesn’t talk and no gleaming gilding is needed for the lily.

And yet, the Free Box has always had the attendant issues of an unregulated resource offered for free: rule-breakers dumping banned items (Old TVs! Couches!), unsorted cubbyholes overflowing onto the public sidewalk, and broken or unusable items being chucked in with abandon to be dealt with by somebody else.

This, too, is not unique to the present day. In Telluride Town Council meeting minutes from 1977, a council member noted, “the Free Box is often a mess.”

“They were having this same discussion way back then,” Telluride Mayor DeLanie Young said. “It sounds like exactly what we’re facing right now, 40-plus years later, only I'm guessing on a much larger scale now.”

While the Free Box has been closed for over a year due to COVID-19 precautions, a Town of Telluride discussion to explore the Free Box’s future was slated to happen in May of last year, with plans for the discussions laid prior to the pandemic. Of course, once the coronavirus upended normal life last spring, and the Free Box was boarded up to curtail the spread of the virus, the discussion was tabled. Now, officials are proceeding with the first of potentially several public work sessions during which the Free Box and its future will be discussed. The first session will occur on May 11, with community members encouraged to contribute their thoughts and ideas.

Young noted that for those who wish to provide written comment to be included in the meeting packet, comments must be submitted to the town clerk by 4 p.m. on May 7. Comments submitted after that time until noon on May 10 will be made available to council members but not included in the packet. The meeting will be virtual and is open to the public.

At the work session, council members will discuss some basic existential questions about the Free Box.

The overarching question, Young said, is “Should the Free Box survive? And if it does, should it stay where it is, or should it move somewhere else?

My gut tells me that the majority of people are going to want it to survive, but if I’m wrong, and I’ve been wrong before, then we need to pay attention to that.”

Some community members like Sam Siegel, longtime local and owner of the adjacent building, lament the lack of adherence to the Free Box’s posted set of rules, which include leaving only usable clothing and household items, keeping stuff off the sidewalk, and maintaining neatness with a weekly full clean-out on Fridays. These rules, he said, are frequently disregarded, leaving unsightly heaps of junk pouring out of cubbies and clogging the public sidewalk.

He’s in favor of the idea of community recycling and reusing, he said, but noted that with the growth of the town has come problems.

“As defined, it’s a great concept,” Siegel said, adding that he doesn't believe a purely volunteer system of maintenance will provide a stable long-term solution. “The problem is, there’s no control or enforcement.”

According to records from 2008, the last year in which the town held in-depth conversations to address the Free Box’s future, public works spent an estimated sum of $57,750 that year maintaining the Free Box. Young noted that expenses decreased when the Free Box was managed by a local citizens’ group, the Friends of the Free Box, but the Free Box’s organization diminished when key players moved away and expenses likely rose again.

For his part, Siegel has lots of ideas for transforming a future iteration of the Free Box into a tidy public benefit with an “acceptable level of compliance” with the rules. Ideas from community members are exactly what town officials are seeking at the May 11 work session.

“They say a few rotten apples spoil the barrel, and a few people who abuse the Free Box make it difficult to maintain as it currently exists,” Young said. “We want as much public input as possible, because this is a community benefit. We want to reflect the desires of the community.”