Paul Hernandez rolls up in a late-model truck, steps out and pulls several packages of brand-new changing pads and a plastic lawn bag filled with barely used nightgowns into the airy store. He is greeted by store manager Debbie and tells her he has a few donations. Hernandez is running-back big, a snow-white Fu Manchu facial hair against brown skin, extraordinary forearm tattoos show sacraments and saints on flames. I’d call this guy a gentle giant, eyes peaceful, sad.
“These were my wife’s,” he says, words efforted. “Someone can use these things.”
Debbie hauls the donations into the next attached warehouse, to be sorted and shelved.
“She,” Hernandez tells me, “died last week. Her name was Juanita.”
What does one say to a hurting stranger whose wife just died, who donated a few of her things? Just listen.
Juanita, a woman to whom he was married more than 40 years, a caretaker for the elderly, died in a place with a view of beautiful pines near Prescott, Arizona. “She had that,” Hernandez says. It is one comfort for him among precious few, a barrier against lonely last days of summer. “I just try to stay busy.”
Debbie returns, gives a mindful nod to Hernandez, now in his truck, motoring off into the Friday noontime heat. Her ease is enviable, a surety of where she is and what she does is not lost on anyone, her absence here would be a loss to a large number of people. She meets the best, the worst and the hurting among us daily. Befriends them, because, as one volunteer here says, “her personality is magnetic.”
Another donation arrives, and she moves.
We are inside The Free Store, a concrete-block corner structure—the store and its adjacent warehouse—in an aged strip on Flowing Wells Road. One of those sullied white storefronts in a sea of asphalt, like it sprung from the earth in 1965 fully intact as a thrift store. The heavy air inside blows with the familiar desert whoosh of a giant evap cooler, the slight sweet tang of damp woodcuts. Roll-up and double door opened wide. The geometric layouts of goods on shelves and racks—life “necessities”—jeans, shoes, shirts, lamps, toys, bedding, music, glassware, all arranged in pleasing groupings. Could be any thrift store except nothing is priced, save for a corner in the store where a curious juxtaposition of things, hand-woven Native bowls, silver trays, vintage knickknacks, are actually priced, for little. Some things can’t be given away. There is overhead, and they do accept private donations.
Debbie Mitchell is a volunteer in that she receives no paycheck and lives rent-free nearby in an RV owned by the company. That’s it. William, a lanky, quiet gent, is the only fulltime paid employee. The handful of others are volunteers, they jest and laugh and know each other well, and it feels like a family of misfits: retirees, artists, the big-hearted, the inscrutable.
The store is a non-profit, launched mid-2019, under the guise and funding of like-minded Suburban Miners, a Tucson electronics recycling company, and that store’s owner Aaron Polley. Aaron and Debbie had known each other from working with another non-profit and he hit her up with the idea of a donation-only store where everything is free. The idea suited Debbie’s serve-the-greater-good philosophies, she admired the environmental aspects of his store and work.
The Free Store landed in this location on Flowing Wells in Northwest Tucson last year, just as COVID hit.
“More people were struggling,” Debbie says, “losing their jobs, becoming homeless; in a way, COVID actually helped our business.”
It’s five free items per customer, $1 donation after that, a limit set after so many showed greed, or took to resell at yard sales. She instilled an estate-sale number system at one point to organize pandemic crowds. “People were showing up at four in the morning.” She slumps at the memory. “People were fighting. I said, you know what, folks? When you graduate kindergarten, let me know.”
It is open three days a week for shopping and six days for donations, furniture pickup and for caseworkers and their clients. There is a waiting list for large items, and organizations phone to shore up help for the displaced, to even furnish whole apartments.
Debbie works with many community services and caseworkers, a client list she rattles off, La Frontera, S.A.A.F., Recovery in Motion, nursery schools, even the V.A., and others. She works with More Than a Bed, providing for foster kids. Mentions Treasures for Teachers, an outfit providing teacher items, those otherwise severed by education budget cuts. She’s a conduit, connects services and folks to needed things.
“I’ve been in this town awhile and I know people,” Debbie says, “I’ve worked with really remarkable people in many areas.”
Why here, why now?
She laughs. “Because I’m crazy.”
She laughs often. She’s sprightly and spindly, almost tiny, hyper-intelligent, organized, always with direct eye contact. She carries herself more like the kooky middle-school hot-lunch lady kids love and remember, and whimsey informs her dress, the neon splashes and gray hair pulled into long pigtails. She easily invokes a kind of den-mother feel in the place.
She arrived in Tucson more than 30 years ago, “with a cat and a computer,” stayed on and off. Discovered she couldn’t live in Tucson without a car and rode her bike to a Ford dealership to trade it in for a Subaru, with no air. “I kept that car for 16 years without air-conditioning.”
Several marriages under her belt, she chuckles, “I’m not marriage material, took me decades to find out.” Her last, to career radio DJ and author Tim (Bud) McKay, ended in divorce but they stayed close and she moved back in to care for him until his 2018 death.
Her steel-worker dad retired and worked in flowers, died after suffering a stroke in his New Jersey garden. Her stay-at-home mother, who volunteered her time to help others for 30 years, cared for Debbie’s disabled brother. That brother died recently, cancer, and she is the last standing of her immediate family. The 66-year-old lives alone with her cat, spends nights writing.
At 5 years old she was literally devouring books, “I would tear off pages from the encyclopedia and eat it, thinking that was a good way to get the knowledge,” she laughs.
Only later, when pressed, does she mention she’s “written some books.” She survived quietly on her writing and editing. As an author, the animal-crusading vegan is accomplished. Debbie, or Deborah, is a regarded health and well-being journalist whose work has been published in myriad go-to medical journals and elsewhere. The woman has authored or coauthored with doctors dozens of books on major publishers (Simon & Schuster, MacMillian, HarperCollins etc.) on disparate health topics, titles include The Essential Guide to Children’s Vaccines, The Complete Book of Nutritional Healing, Growing Up Godless and The Complete Book of Home Remedies for Your Cat, and so on. What I’ve read, her books are expertly sourced, researched, and highly readable tomes.
She half-laughs. “I quit counting after writing 50, and I don’t even have copies of my books. They would arrive and I’d give them away."
She gave up books six or seven years ago (“I was too busy!”). One can find many of her recent health-related pieces, informative and thoughtful, tight and focused, at naturallysavvy.com.
Debbie is The Free Store, and she does not need to be here. Face to face, hand to hand, sweat drop after sweat drop, she serves a community, oversees needs, mostly when no one is watching. She’s all action. She gets a few backslaps from volunteers and folks who know her but she is rare to talk about herself. (“I’m just a child of the universe, a minimalist.”). Debbie gets tired, fatigue fills her eyes today; the work is endless.
She made a career, like her mother, of volunteering outside her work, especially for critters. Though, “I get so emotionally involved with the animals. These are helpless creatures, so I had to step away.”
Besides, she’d rather talk reuse.
“Did you know you can recycle cigarette butts?” She tells of a New Jersey company, TerraCycle, which reutilizes hard-to-recycle waste. It’s free. “They recycle everything, dirty diapers, chewing gum. They pay for the postage. So everybody should be doing that. One month last year we were the top recyclers for toys in the country.”
Lazy dumpers sometimes deposit trash in front of The Free Store, in the middle of the night. “One morning we had six dirty, I mean filthy, mattresses piled up. It costs a lot of money to haul those away, which we hate to do.”
One ethical underpinning here shows a kind of exchange-based, barter-system community—take what you need, give what you don’t if you can—a version of money when money is scarce.
The following day, the store is open to the public for free stuff. The place bustles, customers of various colors and sizes, aisle dawdlers with sun-crevassed faces and women carrying found items as gently as puppies. There’s communal verve inside, the clings and clangs of baubles and pandemic-masked murmurs in Spanish and English. Big things like bookcases and mattresses cart in and out, a microcosm of supply-and-demand.
A 3-year-old boy, Lucas, in a yellow dinosaur T-shirt floats about with his young mother, ecstatic, zooming a toy car he mined from a kid bin.
Debbie floats around in a top hat decorated with thin multicolored tubes. A suitable couture. “All of October last year I wore a bee outfit,” she grins. “The wings were a problem getting through a doorway.”
Cheri Cordova is a volunteer, young retiree, friendly face, works here on the free days. Sits at the checkout table, minus a cash register, only a tip jar filling up with ones, a couple fives and coins. Customers bearing all manner of essentials step up and Cheri counts their goods. Most tip, others with more than five items pay.
“There is so much gratitude here,” Cheri says. She says it’s been a great day and means lots of people picked up necessary things for their lives.
What of those who run a grift, procuring as much as they can to resell elsewhere?
“It happens,” Cheri says.
“I know who most of them are,” Debbie adds. “I say, please respect our guidelines,” which are posted outside the store. “I gotta choose my battles. The resellers have to make a living too.”
“We have people who come in and socialize,” Cheri adds. “One old lady, Ruby, lives around the corner and we adore her.”
On cue, Ruby Deleeuw arrives, Rod Stewart’s “Young Turks” on the stereo. She moves gently to the song, fingers tracing items on a shelf, she lifts one and examines it with mild curiosity before returning it carefully to its place. Ruby is 86, wears a white brimmed hat, speaks with a Dutch clip of her Netherlands homeland. I learn she speaks four languages, is widowed, and her kids are accomplished, doctors, lawyer, an airline captain. She is alone now. “This is my social scene,” she says, glancing around The Free Store. “This is for my mental health. And I bring more than I take, I don’t take more than I need.” She laughs, “Of course I get irritated by people who take more than they need.”
Over in the side warehouse, volunteer Jules Wood sorts through a plastic container filled with donated dolls. She lifts one, a fat-faced ghoulish thing a rare child might love, and says, “some of these are really creepy. I like to come up with back stories of the people who donate. You can’t believe what they throw away … I’ve learned a lot here, spotting the fake jeans, fake handbags, the antique dolls.”
You’d never know the young-looking 41-year-old with cropped purple hair suffers perpetual back pain, is disabled because of it, and lived in a car for two years, all thanks to an abusive husband. With a kind of tragic pride, she traces a scar around her thumb, nearly severed by her ex. Jules is a painter and learned to brush with her left hand after that damage. She is currently working on a massive desert mural on the wall in a private residence.
Jules drops her shoulders. “If I would’ve known about this place when I was married, my life would’ve been so much easier. I would come here on Saturday mornings with my dog and soon Debbie asked if I would volunteer here. Her presence calmed me, lessened my anger. Debbie gives you a reason to want to help other people.”
Her anger is arrogated by humor now, and a sense of solidarity with her co-volunteers, which extends to her exterior, like the cosplay body-armor breast cups she wears across her overalls.
Customer Richard Smith lives on the Tohono O’odham reservation, he is sturdy, drenched in 11 a.m. sweat of a 104-degree desert morning. He is securing two mattresses and bedframe pieces to the car’s roof with help from two teenage boys. He’s a regular Free Store man and Debbie loves him, says he forever helps those in need on the reservation.
“I help family and friends, and those who don’t have cars,” Richard says, his tone suggesting solicitude of shared experience. Work is scarce, a theft and forgery charge haunt him from a distant past. “What do you think when you hear the word ‘forgery?’” He shakes his head. “Well, I was drunk when I signed the wrong name on a fingerprint card.”
Debbie says Richard can fix and build anything and I believe her. He produces a phone photo to show how he mounted a full-size Free Store couch to the top of a tiny car. A miracle the thing made it.
Richard takes me aside. “Their mother hung herself,” he says, nodding to the boys standing over in the shade. “One of them found her.”
He bursts into tears, what must be the terrifying insides of the kids’ minds. Traffic rises and a vulgar motorcycle roars on the street. Ease returns to his face. He says, “They were taken in by a friend, and they don’t have beds.” He places a hand on the mattresses atop the car, “that’s what these are.”
Visit The Free Store, open Monday-Friday 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. to receive donations, furniture pickup and for caseworkers and their clients. Shopping is Tuesday and Thursday, 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., and Saturday, 8 a.m. to noon. 4650 N. Flowing Wells Road; 520-918-3333.
Brian Smith's collection of essays and stories, Tucson Salvage: Tales and Recollections of La Frontera, based on this column, is available now on Eyewear Press UK. Buy the collection in Tucson at Antigone Books, 411 N. Fourth Ave.