Swap shop

Published in Collective Hub issue 33, May 2016.

A loaf of bread for a bunch of FLOWERS. Wedding PHOTOS for a place to stay. Money might make the world go round, but entrepreneurs are now turning to BARTERING as an EXPERIMENT – or a way of life.

Whether they deal with small-scale exchanges or try to go cashless by trading everything they can, savvy swappers everywhere are discovering the benefits of bartering. For cash-strapped start-ups, bartering is often the thing that gets their fledgling businesses off the ground without incurring burdensome debts. For individuals, it can deliver rewards that go well beyond reimbursement, from fostering a sense of community and helping forge new connections to stimulating creativity.

It’s for these reasons that creative professionals are increasingly adding a bartering component to their list of services, offered on a limited basis to keep it manageable. New York-based graphic designer Lauren Hom started one such project, Will Letter For Lunch, in September 2014. In exchange for her hand-lettering the menu board at a cafe or restaurant, the typography-obsessed Lauren gets to eat one of every item she letters. Often it’s an A-frame board outside advertising a special, and in these cases she gets a free meal. But sometimes Lauren heads inside to chalk up the entire menu, and negotiates for credit or brings a gang of friends to share the spoils.

“Typically, I’d charge US$125 an hour for this kind of work,” says Lauren. “But I love that there’s no money involved. It feels very sweet and honest. The restaurant and I both have things of value, and if we can work out a deal to use our skills to make each other happy, I think that’s beautiful!”

Sometimes it’s a crazy idea that just happens to take off. Writers Penny Chai and Jane Dickenson were half-joking when they launched their bartering project, Clothing for Correspondence, in 2009. Figuring there must be a way to get people to give them free clothes, the pair set up a letter-writing service in exchange for hand-me-downs. Friends and family were sceptical, but at one stage they were so inundated with requests that they didn’t have to go shopping for a year. Plus as writers, getting to peek into the lives of strangers was a major bonus.

“The clothes are great, but the best bit is hearing all these great stories and having hilarious interactions with people,” says Penny.

“There would have been easier ways for us to get clothing,” adds Jane.

While many barterers treat their trading as a side project, for others it becomes a way of life. Lentil and Matt Purbrick of Grown and Gathered farm their own vegetables, fruits, flowers, eggs and dairy on their property less than two hours north of Melbourne, as well as running workshops on sustainable living. After hosting globetrotting photographer and bartering king Shantanu Starick as a house guest in exchange for him shooting their wedding, the Purbricks were inspired by Shantanu’s experience of travelling the world for three-and-a-half years without using cash (he plied his photography skills in exchange for shelter, food and transport to the next stop) and decided to introduce an element of bartering into their business. At first the couple offered their flowers for trade at weekend farmer’s markets, letting customers decide on an appropriate swap – a jar of pickles, a physio treatment, or tickets to an event. They found that trading created a vastly different experience to buying and selling.

“We can exchange our abundance for someone else’s, and it gives both people a new experience,” says Lentil. “It’s something you kind of can’t explain until you do it. You don’t know what’s going to happen each time you trade because it’s a different experience. It’s so much bigger than if we used money.”

Encouraged by the success of their flower trade project, Matt and Lentil now try to barter wherever possible. “Things that we can’t grow or make ourselves, we love to trade,” says Lentil. They now exchange their own veggies, flowers and homemade wine and cheese for meat, coffee, sugar and chocolate. “Trade fills the gaps of the things we can’t produce. Our life is made up of things we’ve grown, or hunted, or gathered, or traded.”

One of the benefits of bartering (although not necessarily the most important) is that it can lead to paid work. An intriguing public project can act as a quirky calling card that draws attention to your other services.

“It was a way to get my work out there, and it worked,” says Lauren. “I’ve landed many paid jobs from the exposure.”

For Penny and Jane, Clothing For Correspondence has helped them stand out from the crowd.

“We’ve used it as part of our folio for different things,” says Jane.

“It’s been a really good talking point over the years,” continues Penny. “At meetings for other projects or jobs, people will look at our CVs and say, ‘Okay, before we get started, what is Clothing For Correspondence?’ It’s a great conversation starter.”

If you’re keen to set up your own bartering experiment, the most important thing is to set clear expectations around what is or is not up for grabs, and to make sure everyone involved feels like they’re getting a fair deal. “Make sure to be clear about what you’re offering and willing to barter for. Don’t settle for less than you want!” says Lauren.

Penny and Jane learned this lesson early on after fielding a few requests to write website copy and grant proposals – things they would normally charge for. “It was like, ‘We don’t have time to do our own arts grant requests,’” says Jane. “There were a few blurred lines.”

Since then they did find some time for grant writing, because the duo have received funding from Screen Australia to turn the story of Clothing for Correspondence into a web series. While the main character will be a fictional letter-writer, each episode will be based on a real letter request Penny and Jane have received over the years, like the one they wrote reminding someone’s housemate that they had to move out, the one inviting Matt Damon on a tour of Queensland’s coal seam gas industry or the one asking someone’s local IGA to please stock more free range eggs. Viewers will then be able to visit the Clothing for Correspondence website to read the letters and submit their own letter requests – which might even end up on the series.

That’s the nature of experimental projects – you never know where they’ll lead. So if you’re inspired to try out bartering, leave the wallet at home in favour of a good swap.