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Free Store in flux

The take-what-you-need NoDa staple is moving

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The most important thing to know about George Hunt is that he's an artist.

The Lumberton native escaped homelessness, learned to read in his 50s, enrolled at Central Piedmont Community College, and eventually reconnected with family that thought he was dead for 15 years. But as he leans across a chipped and peeling picnic table at the corner of 15th and North Caldwell streets, shyly raising his voice just enough to be heard over the staccato pop of police sirens and the dull thud of Nelly's "Country Grammar" drifting from across the block, what he wants to talk about is painting.

"See his shirt?" He gestures to the T-shirt of the bespectacled man standing beside him, emblazoned with the silhouette of a lone wolf howling at the moon. "I made that. I did that." The lines of Hunt's stoic face rearrange themselves as he breaks into a boyish grin.

The man in the T-shirt is Jack Ritterskamp. Ritterskamp and his wife Julie met Hunt while volunteering at the Free Store, which is based out of a small teal house on North Caldwell Street. Julie tutored Hunt until he was ready to pursue his GED, Jack helped him rediscover his love of art, and the three still meet regularly at the weathered picnic table out front. Their efforts helped Hunt find a job and a home.

Part mission, part movement, the Free Store is a place where people give what they can, take what they need and form friendships often unheard of in a neighborhood marked by the tensions of gentrification. And now the Free Store is in flux.

The concept for the Free Store began with a small group of volunteers working out of a house on Parkwood Avenue in 2010. Though hindered by disorganization and problems with neighborhood theft, the idea piqued the interest of Charlotte attorney Robert Forquer. "It was the community coming together, exchanging things and ideas to build people's lives," he says. People with unwanted clothing and household items brought donations and others simply took what they needed — no money exchanged, no questions asked.

Forquer stepped in to organize — maintaining the original concept but replacing the "piles of stuff" with seasonally appropriate donations on tidy shelves — and soon moved it to its current location: the teal house adjacent to, but owned by, the hodgepodge of art studios and small businesses known as Area 15. In September, Area 15's owner made the decision to lease the Free Store's building to a pizza restaurant, so Forquer decided to relocate the store to another space within the Area 15 warehouse.

The new tenant is sensitive to displacing the Free Store, and Forquer says that the locally sourced, farm-to-table pizzeria will have a positive impact on Area 15. But some of its regulars are still apprehensive.

"It's kind of hard," Hunt says, watching a volunteer help a young mother down the painted brick steps with a box of children's clothes and diapers. "It feels like home here."

In its new space — slated to open once Pure Pizza begins moving into the North Caldwell Street house this month — the Free Store will add hours of operation, relying on volunteers of Charlotte 24-7, the neighboring "urban prayer room," to keep the doors open Monday through Saturday, 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. As the nights grow colder, Charlotte 24-7 staff hopes to add evening hours for both the prayer room and the Free Store.

The tenet of the Free Store — come as you are, take what you need, sit down and stay awhile — is unconventional and, at times, baffling. Would-be volunteers regularly email Forquer looking for lists of specific needs, only to be told to "just come and be." But it's working. Jack Ritterskamp estimates that since the Free Store opened two years ago, 10 of its homeless customers, including Hunt, are no longer homeless.

"It's actually not about the stuff," Forquer says. "People are important. Things aren't. We want for people who have little to realize that their value is not based on how little they have and for people with a lot to realize that their value is not based on how much they have."

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