Bartering: Done right, it's satisfying for all involved

Posted: October 07, 2012

Lise Funderburg

teaches creative writing at the University of Pennsylvania; her latest book is "Pig Candy: Taking My Father South, Taking My Father Home"

I don't know the exact year I started to barter plants for coffee beans, but I know the exact reason. My pal Meg, who owns Mount Airy's High Point Cafe, wanted more plants for her sloping Roxborough backyard than she had cash for, and I had hundreds of potted-up garden extras crowding my driveway that I wanted gone. In our exchange, she took away a vanful of the perennials I'd been cultivating for the last decade, and I got a generous store credit that kept me in cappuccinos for many months to come.

To barter successfully, to trade goods or services in a way that satisfies both parties, three basic criteria must be met. One, each has to have something the other wants. Two, there has to be a willingness to develop a valuation system both can agree on, and that requires pliant, creative thinking. Three, and this is most critical, the outcome has to be win-win: No one can walk away feeling cheated.

I've seen a rise in bartering lately, which might be a direct outgrowth of the lousy economy. My neighbor Meenal will launch a Time4Time program on Sunday at the Mount Airy Village Fair, in which letter writing, dog walking, and car repairs will all be measured by the same clock. Even Craigslist offers a barter option, and recent posts have proposed swapping electrical work for a canoe, teeth bleaching strips for electronics, and bowling balls for anything at all.

My sister Margaret has been trading fresh vegetables for help with weeding, planting, and myriad other (endless) tasks at her enormous community garden plot that sits on a breezy bluff in Andorra overlooking the Schuylkill. A few weeks back, our cousin Adelaide and her husband carted bags of sweet peppers, eggplants, tomatoes, fingerling potatoes, and a watermelon back to West Philly on the R8 after a Saturday spent preparing beds for fall planting - weeding and wheelbarrowing and mixing in compost. Margaret's friend Marcy often takes vegetables home after a morning at "the farm," but she also gets cool-mom points, because her teenage daughter likes to tell friends her mother is a farmer. And Margaret's neighbor Laura, who grew up on a farm, often goes home empty-handed, happy just to spend time in the fresh air and make that direct connection to the land.

Successful barters can be more satisfying than cash transactions because they engage a mutual humanity: You are connected to one another's personhood. Meg took a piece of my beloved garden with her - the plants I so carefully selected and nurtured and derived pleasure from. "I got a generous wealth of plants that provided me with an instant garden," Meg recalls, "and the vain hope that my garden might someday look like yours."

I, in turn, reaped the benefits of her sophisticated palate, her research trips to Peru, her careful curation of beans from Africa, Indonesia, and Latin America that found their way into the perfumed one-pound bags I would bring home for months afterward. Better still, I felt closer to Meg as a result, as though I were more connected to her life and she to mine.

The first time I bartered was in college, after a friend asked me to cut his hair, which I did in the middle of our student commons. Despite the hatchet job I gave him - the only style I offered was "short" - others saw my work and asked whether I'd cut their hair, too. With an acute awareness of the value I should attach to my skills (somewhere between little and none), I refused to take money, instead asking that they pick something to give me in exchange. I ended up with dinner invitations, bottles of cheap wine, and one pair of handmade, Yeti-size mittens that I treasured for years. I'm not sure whether both sides benefited equally, although no one ever complained, and my skills did improve over time. I can still remember the excitement and pleasure of seeing what the other person came up with as an offering. For me, that was always a win.


E-mail Lise Funderburg at lkfunderburg@gmail.com.

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