Store organizer Kate Sassoon stands on her porch above the street corner where the free store used to be. She works as a co-op facilitator and anti-oppressive facilitator, and created the store in her free time. Credit: Supriya Yelimeli

A two-year-old neighborhood “store” on the corner of California and 63rd streets in South Berkeley that offered baby clothes, appliances and other goods for free closed down last week following a city violation notice.

Kate Sassoon, who has lived in Berkeley for 20 years, started up the project during the pandemic, and it quickly grew into a vibrant neighborhood watering hole for the California Street border of South Berkeley and North Oakland.

Sassoon lived much of her life in cooperative housing with built-in shared spaces and said it thrived off Berkeley’s existing culture of “street shopping,” while helping neighbors interact with each other in an especially isolated time. It also encouraged upcycling and an anti-capitalist sharing economy, she added.

Most people who live nearby support the project enthusiastically, Sassoon said, but she believes at least one neighbor who doesn’t like “clutter” reported the free store to the city, which served the violation notice on Feb. 7.

Items were placed on shelves built into Sassoon’s fence, but that protruded into public space and items also spilled into the sidewalk, according to the notice. Keeping the store running would have incurred a $100 daily fine if it wasn’t closed by the end of the month, so Sassoon shut the shop.

The free store in July 2021. It offered a range of items, including clothing, appliances, books, baby clothes and food. Credit: Philip Lang

It’s a loss to many neighbors, who have sent dozens of emails to Sassoon in the days since it closed, as well as handwritten messages on a small bulletin on the store’s corner fence.

“So, so, so many people have benefited from this store — people in need, people with something to offer, neighbors who had a chance to help by organizing and tidying,” one neighbor wrote. “This store has created community and a sense of goodwill. I feel sad and angry that someone chose to take this away from so many people.”

“I’ve brought great books from here to my classroom, thanks for being so awesome to all of us,” a teacher added.

Philip Lang, 31, a member of the music group Trey Coastal, lived in the neighborhood for about a year and recently moved to East Oakland. The free store was a boon during his move because he could pass on high-quality items, like a barely used air fryer or portable washing machine, that he wouldn’t just want to leave on a street corner.

Sassoon and her dad, Stephen Leake, who both live in the home on the corner, stand outside the shuttered free store on March 3, 2022. Credit: Supriya Yelimeli

Items never lasted long at the store as neighbors scooped up good finds and gifted other items to the store. Lang and his girlfriend also enjoyed connecting with neighbors in the process.

He was walking past the corner during his move when he discovered the store was gone.

“[A store like this] literally builds community; everyone would gather around there. It’s something that gives a vibration that there’s care in the neighborhood,” Lang said. “Whoever reported it didn’t see it through the lens that I see it.”

Lang has deep ties to California Street and hopes he can return to North Oakland one day. He said the store made a safe, communal space in his former neighborhood.

Sassoon isn’t thrilled the store was reported — especially when it offers an organized alternative to “random crap” dumped at the bollards across the street — but she acknowledges it was violating rules and has plans to reconfigure the project.

The free store in daytime and nighttime. Credit: Kate Sassoon

She said there were also a couple of occasions when someone either dumped trash on the corner, or “someone had a bad night and made a huge mess” of the shop. There’s an inevitable “tragedy of the commons” involved in any project like the free store, Sassoon said, but it’s worth it when people benefit from it — like a neighbor who lost their job and was able to find clothes for their children during the pandemic.

Sassoon, her wife and father are currently working to reopen the shop in a non-hazardous way within their property, and they’ve been compiling a spreadsheet of municipal codes to adhere to in the free store’s next iteration.

Most likely, they’ll push the store into the property’s fence and figure out a way to make sure it doesn’t block anyone with a stroller, wheelchair, or other ADA-friendly sidewalk uses.

“Since we took it all down, nobody has left crap [on the street] since then. People have really respected it,” Sassoon said. “We’ll give it a little bit of a pause, and we’re excited to bring it back with a built-in version of it.”

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Supriya Yelimeli is a housing and homelessness reporter for Berkeleyside and joined the staff in May 2020 after contributing reporting since 2018 as a freelance writer. Yelimeli grew up in Fremont and...