New London’s community treasure chest

“Buried treasure” is a myth that saw its origins in delightful old tales of pirates hoarding stolen fortunes for safekeeping, then coming back at some later date to recover their booty.

Robert Louis Stevenson certainly helped perpetuate that myth with his beloved classic, “Treasure Island,” and before long myth grew into legend, which eventually got reinterpreted as “history.” Great stuff, but most of those supposed chests of ancient treasures have yet to be unearthed.

And what exactly is meant by “buried treasure” — a term that can be answered in a variety of ways, depending on whom you’re asking. Always it is a concept that implies value: basically whatever has been discarded, yet still holds worth for someone.

A cozy café in New London, the Washington Street Coffee House, harbors such treasures. Walk in the front door at 13 Washington St., and there on your immediate right you will behold a huge black chest that is usually brimming with an array of engaging items ranging from secondhand clothes to household items like lamps, coffee makers, DVD players, vintage vinyl record albums, old cassette players, utensils, notepads, children’s toys, canned food, and books: novels, historical chronicles, math & science texts, there’s no telling what you’ll find in there.

Those who have combed the chest in search of items containing value have discovered that, and much more. Simply put, they find treasure.

Of note was a recent collection of discarded drawings and paintings of extraordinary creative design; but with no signatures on any to identify the artists. But there they lie — face down, no longer viewed by anyone, forgotten, no longer appreciated. That is, until finally finding a new home: the walls of a creative writing class in Groton.

Now those same drawings not only hang in plain sight for others to behold and praise, but have also been utilized as sources of inspiration for imaginative short stories. Just like that old buried treasure — value in something just waiting to be rediscovered.

And wherein lies the origin of this prized treasure chest where anyone who walks in the café door may pluck items from it, free of charge? Enter Jason Curland (“J” to his friends, of which there are a good many) whose educational background and work history runs a gamut as diverse as the many items in the café’s “Free Box.”

He is the one responsible for the presence of Washington Street Coffee House’s big black box, as well as the bulk of treasures inside it.

Five years ago, Curland broached the idea of a “Free Box” to coffee house owner Chris Sherman, who welcomed it immediately, feeling it fit in with the café’s overall atmosphere and philosophy.

“It’s great ... everyone benefits from it,” said Sherman. “You want people enjoying the time they spend in your place of business. And if something like this adds to their feeling of comfort in coming here, then I’m all for it.”

Curland refers to Sherman’s café as the “Social Nexus of New London.” It opens in the early morning hours and doesn’t close till evening, sometimes even later if special events are running. And nearly everyone from the Whaling City drops by there at some point, the café’s conspicuous Free Box adding to the overall charm.

A spry and vivacious fellow, Curland’s formal introduction to the free-box concept germinated while living and working on the West Coast, where he saw many of them on display. But the fascination came much earlier to this native of Norwich.

“The very first place where I actually saw a free box of sorts was at the dentist’s office when I was around 6. Even at that age, I found it hard to conceive I could just take something without paying for it.”

That memory would never fade in the mind of Jason Curland — not through all his years in the Norwich Public School system, graduating from Norwich Free Academy in 1993, while also having done educational stints at the Pomfret Boarding School and at Ledyard High School; then attending Avery Point UCONN, Three Rivers Community College, and also Eastern Connecticut State University up through 2005.

His studies in the arts of lithography and printmaking earned him a bachelor’s degree in visual arts, with a specialization in intaglio.

Much of Curland’s early professional life was as an educational interventionist … which meant guiding struggling students through the rigors of adapting to the academic and social demands that persist within public and private schools. It also included traveling across the world to teach English in Japan. His constant interaction with students who are too often swept under the rug would reinforce in him an outlook on life that would transcend the regimentation of the system: “As a human being, you are far more than a ‘work-in-progress,’” he said.

That outlook is much akin to the deep feelings he would develop on community sharing. Curland’s first glimpse of public free boxes while working in Portland, Oregon, in 2009 reinforced that.

“You’d see all these big boxes right out on sidewalks, or in little vestibules filled with giveaway items — some of them even built right into stone walls, while others were just cardboard boxes.”

The notion of such community exchange appealed enormously to him, and it fit snugly into his personal philosophy of finding value in places least expected.

Curland’s initiation into the free box culture began rather unexpectedly.

“A friend of mine from back when I was teaching in Japan was visiting, and also doing some work here in the States — part of it being the caretaking of an elderly man’s yard. When my friend went back to Japan, I was asked to take over his job.”

Curland’s new employment entailed a good deal more than expected, though: “The elder’s relatives were all living down south and he was no longer able to do the demanding work himself, so the house itself was really cluttered. He was an incredibly nice man, but also quite the pack rat,” Curland explained.

“He was pretty much unable to function on his own anymore. And after he died, his family came up from Virginia and kept me on as a retainer to restructure and prepare his property for sale.”

It was to be the first of many major cleanups he would do. “Much of this work entails taking the residue of someone else’s life and recycling it back into the world,” he said.

Curland’s past academic and work experiences, and his treks across the country and into foreign lands, would amalgamate into a philosophy of redistributing the mounds of merchandise he uncovered via his estate cleanups, all as treasures for others to rediscover.

“There’s something gained in seeing people benefitting from the gifts provided through the free box. I knew the Washington Street Coffee House would be the ideal location for it,” beamed Curland. “It’s been roughly five years now, and I hope to keep it going.

“I also monitor the box for any items left in it by others — just to be certain whatever gets added is of a healthy and sanitary nature. That includes vacuuming it and also making sure there are no items tossed in there that can be construed as harmful or negative in any way. The free box is a positive addition to the community, so I do exercise a ‘censorship’ of sorts to assure it stays that way.”

Popular café barista Pat Canaroli witnesses a lot of the traffic in and out of the coffee house and agrees with Curland’s outlook on the premise.

“I can’t help smiling whenever I notice someone coming up with an item from the box and seeing what it means to them,” he reflected.

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