How a Dillingham hairstylist turned her salon into a free store

A woman in an apron standing next to a rack full of clothes
Bristy Larsen opened a free shop in her hair salon in 2020. (Tyler Thompson/KDLG)

Bristy Larsen has been styling hair on Dillingham’s Main Street for three years. Her salon sits across from the AC Grocery Store.

In 2020, she transformed part of her salon into a free store.

People can donate anything from clothes to furniture to household appliances and other day-to-day necessities. The shop also serves as a place for anyone to get out of the cold and warm up.

Before there was a free store, Larsen hosted a women’s clothing exchange at her home. But as stuff began to pile up, she decided to consolidate and move it to a more accessible location.

“So I brought it to my shop, which had an empty room,” she said. “And then from the empty room it grew into almost the whole shop.”

A small shop space crowded with racks of clothes and tables and shelves of other second-hand goods
The free store in Dillingham in November 2021. (Tyler Thompson/KDLG)

The idea for the store comes from Lopez Island, Washington, a place Larsen frequently visits. In Lopez, garbage is shipped off the remote island. To save on that cost, Larsen said, the community uses a warehouse for people to drop things off that may be reusable.

“The inspiration is from that,” she said. “Where everything has a use, and everyone has a need. So some things aren’t garbage, but they might be garbage if you look at them that way.”

At the entrance of Larsen’s salon, there’s a pink sign that reads, “All Clothes, Books, Etc. Are Free. Generously Donated by Dillinghamers.”

Clothing racks are filled with shirts, sweaters and coats. There’s a large number of jeans and snow pants, along with shoes and boots. Book shelves have a variety of options for any age, and there are bins with an assortment of DVDs. Daily necessities like toiletries are also available.

“I’ve been trying to get mostly winter stuff because that’s what people need right now,” she said. “Honestly, last year someone donated a bunch of adult diapers and pads, things that they were almost embarrassed to have. But those are the things that went fastest. People were like, ‘I need more of those, where do you get those, I need more.’ Anything you can imagine, I have at least one of it.”

A bookcase filled with books and a calendar
A shelf full of books for the borrowing or taking at the Dillingham free shop in November 2021. (Tyler Thompson/KDLG)

Community members are surveyed by Larsen before they donate. She asks a series of questions to gauge the situation.

“Why do they need to donate stuff? Is it just out of kindness?” Larsen said. “Some people are literally moving and they just need to get stuff out of their home as quickly as possible. That’s when I get 11 huge garbage bags from someone’s garage sale.”

The store is also a way for Larsen to help those who are experiencing homelessness. Folks can go to the store to warm up or use the bathroom. In Dillingham, there are no dedicated services or public facilities for people who experience homelessness.

A local coalition of community volunteers meets on occasion to discuss short and long-term options for shelters.

“There have been so many people who have frozen to death, or just in a hopeless situation where a blanket or a sleeping bag might have made the difference,” Larsen said. “Gregg Marxmiller has actually brought a bunch of little camp stoves and bivy sacks, so if someone did come in here and told me they were living outside, obviously I’m not gonna try to counsel them to not do it. I’m going to try and help them whatever way I can.”

In November 2020, a person living outside was found dead downtown by Dillingham police from hypothermia. In the past, the police department has provided temporary spaces at the police station. According to a safety report from Chief Dan Pasqueriello, an estimated 12 to 20 people in Dillingham are chronically or situationally homeless.

Larsen’s free store is open Monday through Saturday in the afternoons or evenings, unless she closes.

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