On Howard Avenue in Ocean Hill, Brooklyn, local residents know 90-year-old Ethel Bruce simply as ‘Nana.’

Sometimes seen perched on a chair at the top of her stoop at 188 Howard Avenue, Bruce is the woman behind “Nana Free Things,” a family-run free stand serving the neighborhood on a hyperlocal level.

Anyone who lives on or around Howard Avenue will know the spot well: It’s a constantly restocking stand of clothes, shoes and children’s items that operates rain or shine on a help-yourself model.

All of the items at the stand are donated by other neighbors or by Bruce’s friends and family.

Ethel Bruce shows a free jacket at her stand. Photo: Jessy Edwards for BK Reader.

“A lot of the the time the tags still be on– new things,” Bruce said. “It’s something I just started doing. And it seems like the more I do it, the more people enjoy getting it.”

The idea sparked for the senior when she decided to clear out her wardrobe in 2019. Initially, she and her daughter, Vanessa Blutcher, planned to donate the clothes to a church.

But when they discovered the church was going to sell the clothes, they decided to put them outside for anyone who might need them.

“When I came back outside, they were gone,” Bruce said. “So I told my daughter, ‘Can we get more things together?’ And she said, ‘Go ahead momma, if you wanna do that.'”

Bruce and her family went back to their closets and started clearing them out: shoes, clothes, children’s items. Whatever they put, people took it.

A sign carved by Bruce’s son. Photo: Jessy Edwards for BK Reader.

Others in the neighborhood took note and started bringing by their own unwanted clothing and donations.

Soon, Bruce’s son made the store official, by hand-carving a sign: “Nana Free Things.”

The store grew, and these days, features a large, outdoor clothes rack stuffed with items—a soft maroon winter coat, blazers, dresses— a five-story shelving unit piled high with t-shirts, pants and more, and a fence hung with shoes. Absolutely everything is free.

“I put out stuff and somedays everything goes,” Bruce said. “And then the next couple of days it be loaded again. People need, they really need,” she said.

Born in South Carolina, Bruce is the second-to-youngest of 22 children. Bruce says her mother always inspired her to care for others.

“My mother always liked to give back, and give things, so I guess that where it comes from for me.”

Bruce has lived in the neighborhood for about 45 years. She raised nine children in Bed-Stuy, four of her own and five who she fostered and adopted. Caring for her neighborhood is in her bones.

Ethel Bruce will turn 91 in December. Photo: Jessy Edwards for BK Reader.

During the pandemic, Bruce was sick with COVID-19, so her and other family members kept the free store going, in an act of hyperlocal mutual aid.

“It makes me feel good,” said her daughter, Vanessa. “We never went without food, or without clothes, so we were always taught, if you can help somebody, help them.”

The term “mutual aid” became part of the national lexicon during the pandemic, when people throughout the country began establishing informal networks to meet the new needs of those around them, especially where government assistance fell short.

In Brooklyn, a man bought a fridge and filled it with free food for neighbors, sparking the city-wide—and now international—free fridge movement. A mutual aid network was founded to crowdsource donations in order to provide no-contact grocery deliveries for vulnerable members of the Bed-Stuy community.

And Nana Free Things gave free clothes and canned food to residents living around Howard Avenue and Chauncey Street.

There is a need for more men’s clothes. Photo: Jessy Edwards for BK Reader.

In Bruce’s and her daughter’s corner of Ocean Hill, the neighborhood is changing rapidly due to gentrification. Long-term residents are now living next door to high-rise luxury condos.

Despite this, the women hope that everyone can be respectful of each other, and said everyone is welcome to call Bruce, “Nana.”

“When you walk past, say hello,” Blutcher said. “It costs nothing to say hello. You never know, one day we might need each other.”

Bruce and her family accept donations. If she is not home, she advises neighbors to leave their donations in the front yard. She accepts clothes (men’s and and baby’s clothes are particularly needed), shoes and canned food, but not furniture.

Everything is free at Nana’s Free Things. Photo: Jessy Edwards for BK Reader.

For more places to pick up free clothes, food and other items in Brooklyn, read on:

St. John the Baptist Church
333 Hart St, Brooklyn, NY 11206
Call (718) 455-6864 for hours (usually Monday, Wednesday, Thursday, 9am to 12pm)
Low income Brooklyn families, including immigrants and Spanish speakers, may get assistance. Vouchers may be offered too.

Help USA
515 Blake Ave, Brooklyn, NY 11207
(718) 922-0783
Offers assistance to low income families and the homeless. Programs include job training and domestic violence shelters, book, backpacks and other free school supplies. This location sells items to the general public. Beds, kitchen tables, electronics, TVs, and much more as far as furniture is offered.

The Salvation Army
22 Quincy St, Brooklyn, NY 11238
(718) 622-7166
The center has a clothing closet and thrift store. Other services include a food pantry, limited financial help for energy bills, holiday meals, and aid for low income families and seniors. Single moms may get free school supplies, they have furniture for the poor or immigrants as well as free medical equipment for senior citizens.

Jessy Edwards

Jessy Edwards is a writer based in Bushwick. Originally from New Zealand, she has written for the BBC, Rolling Stone, NBC New York, CNBC and her hometown newspaper, The Dominion Post, among others.

Join the Conversation

7

    1. I know Nana, she is a part of my extended family and is a total sweetheart! This news article reminded me to drop off a bag of clothes. 🙂

  1. Wow such a caring and giving person. Her and her family care about their neighbors and neighborhood. Paying it forward, that’s what it’s all about. I love this! She’s my Aunt and I love her and my cousins dearly.

  2. This is a beautiful article. Ethel Bruce is my aunt. She has been a giver all of her life. I was so happy to see her being recognized for service she gives. ❤️

  3. This is great, I love to read about stories like this, there is so much negative news, it’s great to see an uplifting story like this. God bless Nana! 💕

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