Toronto's Digital Barter Collective Swaps Booze, Pot, and Trinkets

"No money allowed in this zone."

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Apr 29 2015, 11:00am

The cover photo for the Bum's Trading Zone Facebook group. Image: Facebook.​

I'm standing in line at North of Brooklyn pizza in Toronto, carrying a pair of beat up boots I haven't worn in years. A bespectacled dude who looks like Yung Morrissey if Moz was a health goth into rap greets me from behind the counter with a knowing look. "Oh, hey man," he says. "Connor?" I ask in return. I recognize him from his Facebook profile picture.

I pass Connor my old boots over the counter, and in exchange he hands over a six pack of Boneshaker beer and a handful of transit tokens. Both of those fuckers have been killing my budget since moving to Toronto a few weeks prior. "Want some pizza?" Connor asks. Hell yeah, I do. As I'm leaving, piping hot slice of margherita in hand, I hear his similarly garbed coworker ask him what just happened. "Remember that thing I was telling you about?" Connor replies, "Bum's Trading Zone?"

Bum's Trading Zone is a Facebook group, strictly speaking, but it can feel a bit like a secret club that everyone you know or wish you knew is a member of. During my first few months in Toronto, it seemed like almost everyone I met at a show, bar, or record store used it as a conversation piece at least once. Asking, "Where'd you get that?" was often followed by, "Oh, Bum's—have you heard of it?" along with a story about an awesome or weird trade they'd recently locked down.

Bum's Trading Zone is like Craigslist for people who slam perennial Canadian shitbeer Old Style Pilsner.

A closed group containing more than 3000 of Toronto's thriftiest denizens, Bum's Trading Zone, or BTZ, as it's affectionately called by members—who call themselves "bums"—is where you can advertise your unwanted junk and meet up IRL to trade an air conditioner for some records, or an old credenza for booze, or some cardboard boxes containing untold treasures for weed.

Basically, Bum's Trading Zone is kind of like Craigslist for people who slam perennial Canadian shitbeer Old Style Pilsner. And the only rule as far as trades go—established by Emily Bitze, the artist and musician who started it—is: "no money allowed in this zone."

"I started Bums Trading Zone one day because I was hungry," Bitze told me in an email because she was on tour with her band Milk Lines. "I had pasta noodles but nothing to eat it with. I had a lot of stuff I didn't need. I thought there was likely somebody very close to me who was holding and didn't want or need their jar of Ragu and perhaps needed something I had. So, kind of as a joke, I started the zone. I didn't get the sauce, but I did get three cans of heart of palm."

That was back in the summer of 2013. Now, Bitze has enlisted the help of some developer friends and is planning to launch the service as a web-based app, monetized ads and all, that will launch in a few months.

Screenshot: Facebook

The app will solve a number of problems with the zone's current incarnation on Facebook, according to Christopher Barless, who, with his sister Lauren, is designing and building the app. A high post volume means that scrolling through the zone to find something you saw last week can feel like a protracted march through a desert of unwanted heirlooms and troll dolls, for example.

"I guess the final product will probably look like something between a photo sharing app and a dating site, with image feeds of the newest items for trade, and user profiles displaying a person's 'haves and wants,'" Barless told me. "We're relying on familiar and proven user experience paradigms. We are not really trying to start a revolution in terms of our [user interface] goals, our goal is just to facilitate making no-money trades in the spirit of the original group."

The crew have a working prototype of the app, Bitze told me, but an official launch is still months away because they're just three people, after all, and they all have their own jobs and livelihoods to worry about before they take the zone mobile. "Money is definitely an issue," said Bitze, "and it will continue to be an issue."

A monetized app might seem to run counter to the ethos of Bum's Trading Zone. After all, the Facebook group has essentially spawned an entire subculture of "bums" in Toronto who've latched on to the no-money barter life and called it their own. Just last week—on the international stoner holiday of 4/20, to be exact—I observed a young man at a coffee shop trip over his computer cable and ponderously rub his amply bearded chin as he mumbled aloud, "Bum's trades… Got to do some Bum's trades" on his way out the door, his notebook still on the table.

"I think it feels a lot more conducive of a more socialist-centric mindset"

Some bums have even gone so far as to argue that the collective is confronting consumerism. In a now-legendary thread from February of 2015, a woman's activities flipping items she obtained via the zone for cash were outed, leading to reams of comments debating whether or not Bum's Trading Zone is anti-capitalist, or libertarian, or anarchist, with people arguing on both sides.

"I wouldn't necessarily say Bum's Trading Zone is anti-capitalist, as there is a lot of trading—and I am obviously guilty of this—for purchased goods," Amy Blaxland, a frequent Bum's Trading Zone poster, told me when I asked about the Facebook argument. "But it is a very functional system, and I think it feels a lot more conducive of a more socialist-centric mindset."

Connor Crawford—whom I swapped my boots with——saw Bum's Trading Zone as being similar to other so-called sharing economy institutions like Uber and Airbnb, which he described as a "ruse" meant to foster the mere feeling of reaching beyond traditional capitalism.

 Screenshot: Facebook

"Although the original owners of the Bum's Trading Zone group may not be profiting from its existence, I'm sure Facebook is somehow, and the LCBO [where you buy liquor in Ontario]," Crawford told me in a Facebook message. "So while it may have vague anti-capitalist intentions, I don't think it's going to dismantle the system anytime soon. It's interesting though that people seem keen on these ideas though."

Even so, neither Crawford nor Blaxland saw any issue with Bitze and her team turning what was once a Facebook group full of knick knacks and weird jokes into a money-making app. In fact, they supported the zone's creators making a buck off of what they had built. It's not a revolution, it's just cool. And, according to Bitze, the app's launch is just the beginning.

"If Bum's Trading Zone takes over the world, I'll have Bum's safe zones," Bitze told me. "Local meeting hubs in each neighbourhood will be monitored by a local user who is trading his or her security services for a week by week supply of hot Hungry Man dinners."

Correction 04/29: An earlier version of this article stated that the Bums Trading Zone app was being created was for iOS. This is incorrect. The Bums Trading Zone app in development will be a web-based app. We regret the error and have updated this story.