Darien Swap Shop: a green initiative for the people, by the people

DARIEN — As the weather warms up and spring cleaning kicks in, more and more residents of Darien will be making their way down to the Darien Recycling and Refuse Center.

In a lot slightly off to the side is the Darien Swap Shop, a white semi-circular building shaped like a cave. Like a cave, the swap shop is full of hidden treasures: toys for parents to trade, books for local teachers to grab for their classroom, even wild-card items like an antique dress form.

Since 2009, the swap shop has been where Darien residents have been able to come for all their niche needs while helping reduce waste in town.

The idea for the swap shop was born at the Sugar Bowl Luncheonette. Susan Cameron was talking with her soon-to-be Swap Shop co-founders, including former Darien resident Dot Kelly, about how much she hated spring cleanup, a time of year where Darien residents left their unwanted items curbside to be taken to the town recycling and refuse center or picked up by people passing by.

“If you’re going to do it right, you need a swap shop,” Cameron recalls saying. “We just saw people throw away stuff. It made me sick.”

In format, the Swap Shop resembles a shopper’s dreams, where items can be donated and picked up for free by anyone with a sticker for the Darien Recycling and Refuse Center. But it really is a way to reduce the amount of waste disposed of in town and allow people to find items to reuse.

The town, including Bob Steeger, then director of the Department of Public Works, was behind Cameron and her cofounders’ idea. For $8,000, the town bought the structure currently serving as the Swap Shop, which was assembled by Pat D’Arinzo of the DPW. In a year, the town was able to make back what they spent by people putting in the Swap Shop what they’d put in the town dump to be disposed of instead.

“It’s what I call the bee hive,” said Dan Dolcetti, a Darien resident who also helped start the Swap Shop. “Bees will go in and out and then come back.”

It’s hard to determine how many people will come to the Swap Shop in a day. Saturdays in the spring and post-holiday season are more popular, but the shop has seen as many as 1,600 people in a day. Exact numbers are tricky to track because volunteers work in the Swap Shop as they please.

That the shop is run and organized by residents, rather than the town government, is amazing, said Reese Hutchison, another Swap Shop co-founder.

“We had no idea how big it’d get,” Hutchison added.

Every Monday, volunteers clean out donations people have brought throughout the week. Things like a scratched desk or moldy board games might get the boot. But volunteers at the shop said they’ve seen people breath new life into seemingly useless objects. A rocking chair with a broken slate might be picked up for the woodwork class at the senior center.

“They will overwhelm you,” Cameron said. “People like to feel good about getting rid of stuff.”

Kathy Dobbins of Rowayton, who volunteers at the shop six days a week, said she once took a power washer someone donated for its engine so she could replace the one in her power washer back home.

“You could probably furnish a whole house with the things here,” she said.

Dan Poccia, another Swap Shop volunteer of several years, said he swaps on a regular basis, bringing items in or picking up objects that catch his eye.

“I swap once every couple of weeks,” he said. “All of a sudden, you see, like, a beautiful lamp stand, and you take it home.”

Dobbins said she often sees college-bound students coming in looking for apartment furniture or adults looking to furnish room for home aides. Some people come to the shop to browse, but others come in with a purpose.

And the items available are as varied as the reasons people stop by the Swap Shop. Dolcetti once picked up a decorative Santa sleigh with three reindeer — valued at $8,000 on eBay — and he gave it to the Darien Thrift Shop. It’s been part of their Christmas display ever since.

While the initial structure has served the shop well, the Swap Shop will be getting a makeover in a few months. A new building with a floor better equipped to accommodate rain will be purchased with a grant thanks to the current director of DPW, Ed Gentile. The center is also going to add more parking for the shop to accommodate the influx in visitors dropping off and picking up during the warmer months.

Other than the problem of people without recycling center stickers parking on the street to sneak in to use the shop, all founders and volunteers said the Swap Shop has run very smoothly and successfully over the past eight years, even inspiring other communities to create centers like it.

“There’s very few issues, I think because everyone believes in it,” Hutchison said.

ekayata@hearstmediact.com; @erin_kayata