Trading designer dresses for toilet paper and portraits for groceries

When Dalia MacPhee, a fashion designer based in Los Angeles, returned home from a trip to Canada last week, she discovered she was down to her last two rolls of toilet paper.

“I went to one store, then two, then 20,” she said. “I even went to liquor and hardware stores. Nobody had toilet paper.”

Desperate, MacPhee called friends.

“Nobody wanted to give up their toilet paper,” she said. “They were coveting their toilet paper like it was water in a desert.”

Eventually, MacPhee came up with an idea: She offered to swap one of her original designs, a dress that ordinarily retails for more than $100, for rolls of TP. She found a taker.

“I got 12 rolls of three-ply toilet paper in exchange for a new dress,” she told NBC News. “It was a really nice dress, too.”

MacPhee is doing what a growing number of people are resorting to in the age of coronavirus: working out trades on social media and among friends in order to secure hard-to-find “survival” staples, ranging from cleaning supplies to groceries.

Kate Janse Van Rensburg, a professional dog trainer who lives in Houston, said she turned to Facebook to score toilet paper. “Will trade Purell for toilet paper at this point,” her post read.

Van Rensburg said a neighbor saw her social media plea and bought several rolls for her while out shopping.

She happily offered up hard-to-find hand sanitizer in return.

“All of us neighbors are sticking together, trying to trade and help each other,” Van Rensburg said.

Van Rensburg’s husband recently underwent a kidney transplant, so the couple has plenty of surgical gloves and masks.

“We’re prepared to help neighbors out with those items, especially people with health problems who really need them,” she said.

Van Rensburg notes her tight-knit neighborhood tries to keep one another’s needs in mind when out shopping, while also respecting social distancing. “We let each other know what we’re looking for. One of our neighbors needed distilled water for his coffee maker, and I found that when I was out.”

For people with underlying health conditions, working out trades with friends and neighbors has become a necessity.

“I have asthma, so I don’t want to go to the grocery store and put myself at increased risk of catching something right now,” explained Edyta Pachowicz, a single mom and professional artist from Hollywood. “Trading is helping me get things I can’t go out to find.”

“I traded some of my coffee for some coconut oil a friend had.” Pachowicz said. “I offered to make a portrait of my friend’s child in exchange for groceries.”

And just as some people are working out trades for goods, others are working out trades for services and acts in kind.

Representatives of the Nextdoor neighborhood site say they’ve seen an uptick in parents and neighbors offering to help with one another’s child care needs at a time in which numerous schools have unexpectedly closed.

Private Facebook groups devoted to moms are also littered with posts from parents offering to swap homeschooling tips and resources.

“We’re going to see people get to know one another in a way that they haven’t done before,” said MacPhee.

“It’s kind of a time to say, “I have your back and you have mine.’ We have to pool the resources. ‘Who has batteries? Who has coffee?’ We’re all in this together.”

McPhee said a newly popular item being traded within her circle of friends is alcohol.

“One person had a lot of vodka and another had a lot of red wine. They made a trade and everyone was happy,” she said.

“That’s the time we’re in now. The only way we’re going to get through this is by helping each other” while staying safe.

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