Branching out: ExchangeTree links people, needs in WNC

Julie Osburne gathered her inspiration for ExchangeTree from her time spent traveling and busking around the U.S. and Canada. Photo courtesy of Julie Osburne.
Julie Osburne gathered her inspiration for ExchangeTree from her time spent traveling and busking around the U.S. and Canada. Photo courtesy of Julie Osburne.

All over the country, collaborative economies are sprouting like dandelions. From online communities offering travelers a couch for the night to those seeking a safe car pool to work, the concept of “sharing economies” aims to help individuals link up based on their respective needs and wants.

And variations on these economies are popping up in Western North Carolina.

Popular sites like couchsurfing.org sprang up as a way to help foster relationships between individuals who might otherwise never have met, enabling them to share unique experiences all across the globe. Traveling through town and need a place to stay? Check out a number of couch surfers’ profiles, read about their interests, find a local who knows where to get the best burger in town — and, in the process, score a cozy, free place to stay. Live like a local, everywhere you go. Make a new friend in the process.

And that’s just one example. Service-based sites like TaskRabbit offer background-checked individuals to do jobs as simple as grocery shopping or as complex as website-building. Meanwhile, somewhat more controversial sites like Airbnb offer short-term rental accommodations for travelers — kind of like a pop-up hotel (though it may conflict with zoning requirements).

ExchangeTree was envisioned as a way to help connect like-minded Ashevilleans to foster a prospering barter-centric community.
ExchangeTree was envisioned as a way to help connect like-minded Ashevilleans to foster a prospering barter-centric community.

In the last few months, though, something uniquely Asheville has blossomed. And though ExchangeTree is still in its “training wheels” phase, the site (which, at this point, is operating only in Asheville and Boston) is fully operational. Rather than couch-to-couch traveling or currency-based exchanges, however, it works via barter.

Suppose you play guitar, but you want to learn Spanish. Maybe there’s someone in Asheville who’s a good match. ExchangeTree seeks to help locals leverage their unique skills or possessions to learn new things, obtain new goods or build new friendships.

“People, in my experience, tend to be a little more generous with what they’re giving when they’re not thinking about it so numerically,” says ExchangeTree.org founder Julie Osburne.

“Before I came to Asheville, I was traveling around the U.S. and Canada for 14 and a half months, busking and couch surfing and hitchhiking and writing about my experience,” she continues. “I found a lot of things from this, but one of the main things is that people had so many cool things they could do. There are a lot of eccentric people out there. I learned about things that I would never have encountered otherwise. There were a lot of people who were looking to reach out — meet other people and help other people. And I was just struck by how many people were kind of lonely, even — and just looking for ways to connect with each other.”

Out of those experiences with kind-hearted strangers around the continent, ExchangeTree.org was born.

“Asheville, in my travels, stood out from anywhere else,” says Osburne, citing her first trip here last fall. “It’s a unique place, for sure. In my brief time when I was traveling, I saw that people [in Asheville] were doing this kind of stuff a lot, so I actually moved [from Boston] to start ExchangeTree here. Everywhere you look, people are more open-minded about this stuff.

“Where I’m from, in Boston, there’s a lot more division of groups. There’s people with money and people without — people who have homes and people who are homeless. Here, things kind of blur together — students, homeless folks, people recovering from addiction, people who have jobs and are doing fine. It’s like we can’t just look at someone and tell what they’re all about. People seem to interact a lot more.”

So Osburne decided Asheville would be the perfect place to test her vision of a more connected community.

More than 200 Ashevilleans have signed up since the website’s March 10 debut, enabling locals to trade for things like fresh honey and produce, guitar lessons, bicycle maintenance, handmade jewelry, custom tailoring and photography. While many offerings are very Asheville-arts-centric, there are also listings for things like language lessons, resumé/essay editing and tutoring, as well as services such as baby-sitting, pet sitting and housecleaning.

The offerings are grouped under four categories: goods, services, teach and lend/share. And each user profile includes the person’s wish list. See an interesting offering? Check the wish list to see if they want something you can provide.

Osburne, for example, offers voice and guitar lessons, among other goods and skills. “Without that sort of professional barrier, I think you can connect with the person you’re working with a lot more, and be more real with each other,” she explains. “And that can often translate into learning more or getting more out of it — again, people being a little bit more generous with what they’re offering. And if you don’t have money, you can still do stuff.

“Because we’re new, things are a little clunky sometimes,” says ExchangeTree founder Julie Osburne. “We ask for patience from people because we’re doing our best, and we really care about it.”

“Our society values people based on how much they make and what they do for a living.” Through barter, however, those who don’t make a lot of money “get a chance to shine and to get the things they want in return.”

The day after Xpress spoke with Osburne, she was planning to head back to Boston for the summer. But first, she had work to do: babysitting in exchange for a handmade necklace and a place to stay for the night — no money involved.

“Everyone’s talking about the economy and how bad everything is and how nobody has money to do anything,” Osburne explains. “And this is a beautiful alternative that’s not just about getting what you want, but also about connecting with people. People are always talking about making things smaller and more local, and this is a tangible way to do that.”

For more information or to get involved, visit ExchangeTree.org.

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About Hayley Benton
Staff reporter, Clubland editor, coffee drinker, guitar player.

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