The Ashland Historic Armory will be stocked with toys, housewares and jewelry this Sunday, all available for keeps not with cash, but with compassion.

The Ashland Historic Armory will be stocked with toys, housewares and jewelry this Sunday, all available for keeps not with cash, but with compassion.

Ten years ago, a handful of Ashland residents decided to trade gifts rather than buy new items for the holidays. Since then, the Abundance Swap has moved locations, grown to more than 450 participants and extended its intentions. Today, says organizer Jeff Golden, the exchange stretches the way attendees think, act, give.

"We want people to reflect on the idea of gift giving and receiving," says Golden, an Ashland author and activist, "to check in with our feelings and to stretch beyond our normal way of thinking about material things, the holidays and generosity."

Over the years, Abundance Swap creators redesigned the event and accidentally tapped into deep feelings Americans have about giving. The event is a chance, says Golden, to let go of nice possessions no longer needed, worries that we might not get back "our fair share" and the idea that it's not a real gift if it's not shiny and new from the store.

A bigger stretch for some is to accept a gift.

"We are a culture that wants to help people," says Echo Fields, a sociology professor at Southern Oregon University. "It makes us feel powerful, useful. But we are uncomfortable receiving."

People are reluctant to ask for help, she says, and she applauds the swap's focus. "It's a powerful statement when an event like the Abundance Swap directly addresses the part of Americans to be recipients and to complete the circle of compassion."

Organizers expect more people to attend the free event this year because of the hard economic times and a growing feeling that the race to the cash register isn't satisfying.

"The people who come here share the desire to have an alternative gifting tradition and that feeling is spreading," says Golden. "Consumption can leave you feeling empty."

Since the Abundance Swap began in 2002, about 20 other communities across the country have started a similar event, including one new this year in Bellingham, Wash.

People are asked to bring three to five well-made, beautiful or interesting items to exchange. There is no bargaining, no paying for items and no dropping off donations.

"It's a completely cashless, volunteer event," says Golden.

The format has changed since the original swap. At first, some children and adults who were, says Golden, "ravenous for gifts," would nab the most valuable items and, in a whirl, the event was over. To make it more meaningful, there is now a paced program.

Armory doors open at 1 p.m. and everyone finds a table to lay out the items they are offering.

"Some of the items are jaw-dropping gorgeous," says Golden. "There is a variety of personal, spiritual and artistic things and those that are highly useful."

Announcers on stage ask people to stand by their items. Then small groups, selected by the color of their badges, wander the large room, ask owners the stories behind their items and take what they'd like.

"Taking turns is really hard for kids, but they do it," says Golden. "Kids who have had to wait were really sad when they didn't get the thing they wanted, but by the end of the event, they seem to always end up with it."

Tom and Kelly Shelstad of Ashland volunteer to put on the Abundance Swap.

"I give my time," says Tom Shelstad, "because each of us looks for ways to feel that we belong to something greater than ourselves. As the swap happens, I watch people connect as they give with passion and receive with gratitude."

In between shopping sessions, people go to the stage and read poetry or prose, talk about past experiences or make surprise announcements.

Two years ago, a woman told the crowd that she'd just been reunited with a college friend after 30 years. Another year, a man said he realized he didn't need the car he drove to the Armory in and, holding the car keys in his hand, he offered his 1989 Chevy Malibu to anyone in need.

"The holidays are an official invitation to be generous," says Golden. "Some people live that every day and some people forget about it. The Abundance Swap offers the opportunity to focus on gift giving, not as an obligation but a practice, and it connects us to people and puts us in touch with our natural generosity."

Reach reporter Janet Eastman at 541-776-4465 or email jeastman@ashlandtidings.com.