It may not be your typical setting for a bartering get-together but on Tuesday evening, a trendy town centre bar in Bury St Edmunds played host to what must be one of the oldest surviving LETS groups in the UK.
With cool music filling the softly lit room, the activities began under the watchful eye of the Mona Lisa, raising her enigmatic smile almost in approval of the goings-on.
A lively banter kept the atmosphere alive, with a group of folk who were as eclectic as the venue itself, ten people in total, including an IT professional, a lettings manager, a teaching assistant, a broadcasting producer, and a talented crafts tutor. Different backgrounds and a variety of motives drawn together through a shared belief in an alternative economy which is as old as the hills themselves - the idea of bartering skills and products.
When I blogged about the event as it was happening on Tuesday, I hadn't quite expected the level of interest and the questions that followed. I suppose after being a LETS member for around seven years, I now take it for granted, so I am pleased to have the opportunity to offer an insider's view of this little known activity and hopefully inspire others to join one of the 300 or so groups that are currently active around the UK.
Unsurprisingly the first hurdle is that LETS is not the most sexy sounding phenomenon to hit the streets, especially when you expand the term to its full description Local Exchange Trading System. For many, an early morning car boot sale in the rain offers far more appeal and for others a swish party provides much more glamour.
However, if you forget the name and focus on its function, a LETS group can provide far more benefits than any of the above. For one, you won't need the cash required by a car boot sale and as far as opportunities go, you'll find much more variety at a successful LETS event than at a swish party, where the only things you get to swap are clothes and accessories.
A LETS group allows almost anything to be swapped and members regularly experience the flow of fresh produce, plants, preserves , cakes and second-hand goods, right through to favours such as help with the garden, computer training, hair cuts and even holiday accommodation.
The practical operation is very simple. As a member, you earn points or credits every time you give something away and then you spend your credits when someone does you a favour. This means that you don't have to do a direct swap with one particular person, which is the clever bit, offering members the flexibility that is needed for the system to work and the freedom to enjoy whatever opportunities come their way, with the only obligation to make a contribution on some other occasion in the near future.
At first glance, it might seem that the chance to save money is what attracts people to the LETS economy.
However, there are many other reasons that motivate people to join. For some it offers a chance to find new friendships and to learn new skills, whether they want to be better at gardening, become more adventurous with their cooking or study a new language. For others it is the search for sustainability within the community, for example offering knowledge and skills in repairing items, thus preventing junk heading towards landfill. So the benefits and opportunities are almost endless and are only limited by the talents of the members themselves.
A personal experience.
I joined my first LETS group seven years ago, when I found myself home alone with my new baby, then in Hemel Hempstead, a long way away from my social circle in London where I spent much of my career in the music copyright sector. As an information professional I felt I had nothing practical to offer but very soon I found myself training older members in how to use email to keep in touch with their families and offering marketing advice to small businesses. In return my family benefited from a regular supply of fresh eggs and garden produce as well as jams, pickles and delicious cakes.
The scheme was so beneficial that when we moved to Bury St Edmunds, I became involved in relaunching the Bury LETS scheme, a formerly active group, which had fallen into early retirement. The community was soon reinvigorated and my reward was a set of fabulous new friends, who were able to help develop my gardening knowledge and assist with childcare. For people like me who are far removed from their families, a support system such as this can be crucial.
Of course a system like this does need a lot of organisation, especially in managing members' accounts, but it's not a huge task for members with book-keeping skills and can even offer practical experience for people who are looking for work in this area. Other essential functions include events management, newsletter development and marketing activities, all of which enable members to earn credits or points whenever they help out.
And as good old Bruce Forsyth used to say....
"What do points make?"
Prizes of course!
So, after earning my credits through various writing projects, running occasional workshops, repairing jewellery and offering up a whole range of pre-loved items, I am now able to enjoy a seasonal supply of fresh produce, home-made cards, books, DVDs and clothes, all in excellent condition and without the surplus packaging. Given that Bury LETS is such a small group, this is a truly remarkable outcome and a fabulous foundation for sustainable living.
Relevance to 21st Century Society
LETS schemes are not particularly new. With a history that stretches back to the 1980s, research has shown that these grassroots systems have been most successful at times of economic difficulty. Through the creation of extended communities and enabling the sharing of knowledge, where the only cost is time, LETS schemes offer people a valuable lifeline at such times of need.
Whether it's an opportunity to support frugal living, the desire to feel valued or a chance to learn new skills, LETS schemes have a positive role to play in a current society that is being bruised by job losses and and knocked by a depressed economy.
But yet we have to be realistic, Earning credits through a LETS scheme will never pay the bills, the mortgage or the council tax. Well not yet. But you never know what's on the horizon. Just take a look at this article on Times Online for a glimpse of what can be achieved: Money is dead - long live bartering.
Now that's left me wondering what I could barter to get the Mona Lisa. If it's the fake one in the photo above, a pair of old boots should do it! And if it's the original, perhaps I'd have to offer my soul! Now I know I have ambition, but not even I could stretch to that.
For more information visit:
Bury LETS: www.burylets.org.uk
SoBar: The place where we meet - 1st Tuesday each month www.so-bar.net
This post was written in reply to the queries from interested readers and as a contribution to the Buddy's group, launched by blogger Margaret at margarets-ramblings.blogspot.com, to promote the sharing of knowledge in tackling the effects of local job losses. To see Margaret's contribution and how other bloggers are contributing positive stories, visit margarets-ramblings.blogspot.com/2009/02/buddys_05.html