Lemons for Yeast for Flour: The Bartering Economy Explodes on Nextdoor

Nextdoor suddenly looks like Oregon Trail 2.0

Michael Brill of San Francisco needed lemons.

He was going to pick up some 15-year-old sourdough starter that a neighbor had offered on Nextdoor, and he wanted to bring something in return. The lemons from another neighbor’s lemon tree might work, he thought, but then he’d need to offer that neighbor something, too. He came up with a plan: He’d give his neighbor some of the finished bread in exchange for the lemons in exchange for the sourdough starter.

Only one problem — he was out of flour.

Long story short, he traded a drip irrigation hose for some flour so he could make the bread to exchange for the lemons, which he had exchanged for the 15-year-old sourdough starter he’d wanted in the first place.

A simple trade, really.

“Like a week ago, even, I would go up to the grocery store and now I’m just making decisions to not do it,” he said. “I would say the past week or so — I’m now making conscious decisions to not go.”

Brill is part of a social media trend becoming increasingly common during the coronavirus outbreak that has forced millions into isolation: bartering.

Sugar for hand sanitizer. Toilet paper for russet potatoes. Kids’ activity books for frozen vegetables. Clorox wipes for a whole ham. Across the country, residents like Brill must find creative ways to procure the items they need or risk exposure to the virus that is tearing through communities at an alarming rate. Faced with that choice, many are turning to their friends and neighbors online to exchange items directly, limiting contact and using goods instead of money.

Nextdoor, an app that connects users within the same neighborhood, is a natural platform for this practice. While people bartered on the app before the pandemic, some users are noticing a large increase of trade requests on the site. Nextdoor pages across the country are becoming de facto trading posts — like an Oregon Trail 2.0. Some of the trades are for basic items that have been sold out at stores for weeks. Common swaps include toilet paper, hand sanitizer, distilled water, and cleaning supplies. Others are using the platform to exchange non-essential items that help build community and maintain sanity.

Kids’ activity books for frozen vegetables. Clorox wipes for a whole ham.

When Katie Leclair found herself homebound by the coronavirus a few weeks ago, she initiated a board game swap on Nextdoor. Leclair, who lives in Minneapolis, arranged porch pickups for the participating neighbors to ensure germ-free transactions.

“The game swap helped me settle into the home-stay [even before it was] mandated,” she said. “It helped me see neighbors are committed to staying home to help other neighbors.”

Some, like Leclair, have taken to Nextdoor to do other exchanges with a similar aim, like book and puzzle swaps.

The proverbial cup of sugar is still alive and well too. Many propose deals in search of baking supplies, which have become scarce on grocery store shelves across the country.

Sourdough starters are commonly requested, as well, just like the 15-year-old starter Brill was after.

“Bread making is wonderful if you have anxiety about something. It forces you to slow down and wait,” said Gail, a Nextdoor user in Meridian, Idaho who recently took to the platform to barter her own goods for baker’s yeast.

“People see this as an opportunity to want to connect and help people, even in kind of these trivial ways.”

Nextdoor did not respond to a request for comment by deadline, but the service promotes bartering indirectly in its “About” section, describing itself as “the neighborhood hub for trusted connections and the exchange of helpful information, goods, and services.”

Aside from mitigating risk and securing in-demand items, many who have bartered with neighbors on Nextdoor notice another benefit: building a sense of community in an otherwise uncertain and isolating time. Many exchanges aren’t planned “barters,” but happen as spontaneous expressions of gratitude.

Mona Nicoara had that experience recently in her Brooklyn, New York neighborhood. Though she hadn’t used Nextdoor much since installing the app a few years back, she has been checking it more frequently during the crisis. So when someone requested sourdough starter on her Nextdoor page, she was quick to offer some of her own. When her neighbor came to pick it up, he brought her a bottle of hand sanitizer as a token of thanks. For Nicoara, the moment hit home.

“This kind of interplay between closeness and…distancing was quite poignant at the time,” she said. “It’s like this tiny little neighborly interaction that encapsulates all of our anxieties and all of our solutions to the anxieties in one little exchange.”

Brill, for his part, thinks the trend is more about connection than anything else. Although he had to do some complicated acrobatics to make his trades, it wasn’t really out of necessity. He says he could have gotten the lemons — or even the sourdough starter for that matter — for nothing in return.

“People see this as an opportunity to want to connect and help people, even in kind of these trivial ways,” he said. “It’s not bartering in a classic sense, maybe just sort of a network of giving.”

Meanwhile in Idaho, Gail is still waiting on her baker’s yeast. But she’s optimistic.

“We have extra flour so I have hopes that a trade can happen,” she said. “No luck yet, but I still have some hope.”

Writer based in Baltimore, MD

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