NEW YORK — The turtleneck from designer Marc Jacobs costs hundreds of dollars at Neiman Marcus or Saks Fifth Avenue. But at one Brooklyn bar, the charcoal-gray sweater was free for the taking — along with jeans, belts and shoes.
The neighborhood watering hole called Sycamore will never be mistaken for a department store, but for some recession-battered consumers, it's serving a similar purpose. It's a chance to update their wardrobes and capture the adventure of shopping without having to open their wallets.
"It's guilt-free shopping," said Shannon McDowell, a bartender and swapper.
Friends have been trading among themselves as long as parents have been handing down outgrown baby clothes. Now, with some help from the Internet, swaps among strangers are cropping up in bars, schools, garages and churches across the United States.
The rules are simple: You bring something before you take something, and money never changes hands.
Some swaps are formal affairs, where items are passed along and tried on. If more than one participant is interested, the group votes on whom it looks best. Others, like the one at the Sycamore, are more casual: Everyone just digs through piles for what they want. Leftovers are generally donated to charity.
The popularity comes as Americans from every tax bracket are cutting back how much they spend at stores. Apparel sales declined 10.1 percent in the first three months of the year. Impulse buying, which represents more than a quarter of the fashion business, "is just not there at all," said Marshal Cohen, chief industry analyst at market researcher NPD Group.
Swapping, it turns out, is one substitute for shopping. And it's not just clothes. People are trading DVDs books, toys and even house plants and garden seeds.
"People are naturally resourceful," said Anneli Rufus, co-author of the book "The Scavengers' Manifesto," a guide to acquiring things for less. "At first, they are scared and shocked. But then, thank gosh, people are getting less ashamed in doing this."
Put another way, the newly frugal are turning to a "basic, pre-money way of commerce," she said.
Though the bartering has been around forever, many events are being organized with help from modern technology.
Meetup.com, a Web site that helps users organize local groups for people with common interests, has 42 clothing swap groups, up from 13 a year ago. The groups, which cost organizers $12 a month to maintain, have more than 4,500 members, up from 1,200 a year ago.
While many swaps are organized between friends and neighbors, Web sites like Swaptree.com and Paperbackswap.com help people trade old CDs, books and video games online. Totsswapshop.com, meanwhile, connects people who want to trade kids' items from clothes to nursery furniture.
Aimee Gallagher, a mother of three young children, turned to Swaptree after cutting back on frivolous spending.
"I used to take the kids just to entertain them to Borders, let them walk around, (and) I'd get a coffee, buy a couple of books," she said, speaking from her home in Rosemont, Pa. "I don't do that any more."
Instead, she lists on Swaptree the items she wants to give away, and the things she wants. Two or even three-way swaps are created. She pays for shipping the items she sends.
Swaps that take place over the Web and mail lose some of the fun of the real thing.
At a swap organized by the Brooklyn Clothing Exchange, Frances Wood likened the experience to a treasure hunt as she sorted through a pile of folded clothes with about two dozen other swappers on a rainy Sunday afternoon. She found and took home items she'd never buy at a store.
"When you are not paying for something, you are a little more free," Wood, the administrator of a non-profit said.
Odette Pollar, a professional organizer and garden enthusiast in Oakland, Calif., organizes plant swaps twice a year. She said about 95 people showed up to the first one she held, back in October 2007. Now, it's up to 300, and the Lakeshore Neighborhood Plant Exchange is about to outgrow the neighborhood. It's not just plants people are swapping, but tools, gardening equipment, even koi and goldfish.
"People bring 8-foot trees, literally," she said.
Bars can provide a practical and social setting for clothing swaps. As patrons sipped beer and Mint Juleps at Sycamore, the Brooklyn bar that also doubles as a flower shop during the day, some browsed clothes draped on seats and hung over walls. Lacking a fitting room, women pulled skirts over pants and cardigans over T-shirts in front of a full-length mirror.
"Who wants a Marc Jacobs turtleneck?" asked Tory Giardina, a 22-year-old student behind this and about 15 other swaps. She held up the thin sweater, which had no takers despite the pricey brand name because of a large, somewhat suggestive circular opening on the back.
"It's difficult to wear," said Ashley Lahoud, its previous owner, who had come to her first clothing swap. The turtleneck had been a Christmas gift from an ex-boyfriend.
"I don't think I ever wore it," she said. "I just told him I liked it."
Giardina, who's gotten her mom and her friends in to swaps (even though "none of them ever shop second-hand"), said the swaps feel validating. They are like a common dressing room, she explained, where women compliment each other on the clothes they try on.
Kym O'Neill, a mother of two who bought a few expensive items to the Brooklyn swap, said it was "time to get rid of old things." She is going through a divorce. One particular dress, by Vena Cava that she wore only once, to a wedding, was one such item. She got it after having her second child, and has lost weight since.
"I was like, should I put it on eBay, get money for it?" she said.
In the end she brought it to the swap, hoping somebody would appreciate it. The dress fit McDowell, the bartender, perfectly.
In turn, O'Neill ended up with the gray Marc Jacobs turtleneck. As the afternoon turned chilly, she pulled it on.
"It's a good label, it's soft. If it didn't have a hole in the back the first person would have taken it," she said.
Walking by, its original owner, Lahoud, complimented her.
"I'm glad it found a home," she said. "The sweater looks really good on you."
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