One day in September, Dawn Bland met a stranger in the dimly lit back room of James Joyce Irish Pub to talk about a mistake she felt that she’d made. 

The woman she was meeting with, Shannon McCabe, had left a particularly thoughtful comment critiquing a post that Bland had made in the Facebook group Bull City Swap. Bland wanted to hear more. 

Bland is the founder of BCS, which has thirty-seven hundred members and has, for the last five years, served as a sort of medieval outpost for small, congenial transactions: a futon for a bottle of wine, a box of Christmas lights for a stack of egg cartons. Since its founding in 2014, BCS has functioned as a kind of alternate economy predicated on small exchanges—post something you’re getting rid of, ask for something you need in return—and fueled by a DIY, low-waste ethos. 

 If you were respectful, resourceful, and not terribly greedy, you could furnish your entire house, outfit a wardrobe, and maybe get a haircut. More important, you could help someone else do the same thing. 

But Bland had started to wonder if the rapidly expanding group might be better served if it was restricted to members with a Durham zip code. When she posted the idea, however, it was met with fierce pushback from members who felt that it would exclude people in outlying communities from Durham’s resources. 

Chief among them: Shannon McCabe. Bland arranged a meeting with her, and after listening to her concerns, she posted an apology and asked McCabe to join her as a group moderator. 

“I was impressed with her ability to call me out,” Bland says.

This spirit—positive and eager to facilitate respectful discussions—feels antithetical to most things you find on Facebook. But BCS represents much more than a bunch of transactions: posts are full of affirmations and non-traditional offers. 

Recently, for instance, Ali Rudel, the owner of East Durham Bake Shop, posted that her porch was a high-traffic zone for trick-or-treaters and that she would be gone for Halloween; she did, however, want to offer her porch as a space for people who wanted to hand out candy (the post received 35 comments and 101 likes). Other instances of goodwill are more expansive: After the April 10 gas explosion in the Brightleaf District that left two dead and two dozen injured, BCS served as a platform for a whirlwind of relief efforts. 

Feel-good corners of the internet can sometimes seem limited to the empty calories of thirty-second puppy videos, but the BCS page curbs any notion that it’s impossible to have a positive, tangible experience online. Numerous offshoots have sprung up, including a plant swap group (gather ye succulent cuttings while ye may), a food swap group, and a mobile clothing swap.

All of this chaos is maintained by Bland and seven others who find time to moderate amid busy lives. Most are parents; one moderator teaches at Duke, another is a social worker. The quality they all share, according to Bland, is that each is a caretaker. 

Bland, who is forty-one and is a mother of two, has a penchant for getting to the heart of places: When she moved to North Carolina from Texas in 2000, she worked as a cashier at Carrboro’s Weaver Street Market, ostensibly one of the most neighborly jobs you could have. Upon moving to Durham, she bartended at James Joyce, a place that she likes because it’s full of regulars, most of whom are working-class. In Texas, she was briefly homeless, an experience that has since spurred her involvement in affordable housing issues. (She also co-runs a competitive arm-wrestling league for women.) 

Running BCS is almost like another full-time job; tasks involve vetting the group for trolls and monitoring Craigslist to make sure that items aren’t being sold for a profit. Moderating is invisible labor, but Bland speaks about it with straight-shooting empathy: “It fills my gas tank.” 

In the end, Bland kept the group open to people outside of Durham. 

It has, however, undergone one significant change. 

Last week, Bland posted a new set of rules, one of them prohibiting the transaction-based exchanges on which Bull City Swaps was based. 

As the group had grown from a few friends and neighbors to a few thousand friends and neighbors, Bland says she realized that it didn’t feel right for exchanges to be tit-for-tat. 

Swapping, Bland says, “creates a more marketplace feel, like a Facebook marketplace group. It’s not the vibe that I was going for. I wanted to build community, and I want to build this new idea of asking for what you need when you need it: putting out and expecting it to be taken care of.” 

A few weeks ago, when Bland first hinted that moderators were working on the rule change, she asked for suggestions for a new name for the group. A flood of positive comments followed; members settled on Bull City Shares—something more active and outward-looking, and that kept the BCS acronym. 

As one put it, “I love positioning it as a sharing group. Bull City Shares is beautiful. Don’t let Wall Street own the term ‘shares.’ …  It’s a great term for our group and what we stand for.” 

Flipping the script on consumerism, it turns out, can be as easy as being a good neighbor.

Contact associate arts and culture editor Sarah Edwards at 

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