Family uses exchanges to make ends meet

''Barter has literally been our means of survival,'' says Constance Stapleton of Middletown, Md., who some years ago became a single parent with a 14-room Victorian house and five children to support. Her annual income then was $3,000, so the idea of bartering goods and services seemed to be one immediate and possible answer to the family's dilemma.

Mrs. Stapleton and her children first began to barter surplus fresh vegetables from their big garden. Then they restored and furnished their old and rambling house by bartering off the things they didn't need for things they did. They traded extra sinks and windows (the house had once been a nursing home) for plumbing and plowing, and cleaned out barns for neighbors in exchange for useful old tools or furnishings they could use.

When their big old station wagon began to heave and sigh, Connie Stapleton drove it into a garage and asked the owner what she could exchange for a repair job. Could she wait on counter, or clean carburetors? No. Then what did he need doing? Nothing, he replied. Then what did he hate doing? He brightened and said he hated collecting his accounts each month. She took on the job and was 97 percent successful in bringing in what was owing. After that, he kept her car going, and she kept his bills collected.

Gradually, Mrs. Stapleton and her children proved that they could not only keep themselves going, but could get themselves educated and traveled by bartering their services. Son Chris, now moving to New York to go to college, recently had a small card printed with his name, phone number, and message saying, ''Renaissance man will do any kind of restoration work in exchange for free rent.'' He placed it in neighborhoods that looked inviting to him and is now sorting out his offers.

Mrs. Stapleton (who has in the meantime become the author of two books and operates her own public-relations firm) reports that one recent barter involved editing a doctoral dissertation for a young ceramic artist. In return he had given her 12 ceramic plates he had made himself, a large bowl, a silver necklace , and a bag of pears.

A few years ago she and co-author Phyllis C. Richman, a Washington Post columnist, pooled their bartering experiences and produced a book called ''Barter, How To Get Almost Anything Without Money'' (New York: Scribner's, $3. 95 paper). It tells how to get started as a one-to-one barterer.

''In its simplest terms,'' the authors say, ''barter is a game in which each player trades what he doesn't need to get what he wants, and both players win. Once you get out of the habit of reaching for your wallet, checkbook, or credit card, you will discover that anything can be traded to get whatever you need. The basic rule in bartering is to find out what you have to trade, who needs what you have, who has what you need, and how you can get together on a deal.''

This spring, Connie Stapleton was contacted by two young women in Massachusetts and asked if she would barter an article for their new magazine on bartering. She accepted the offer. In return for her article she received a box of wild fruit jams and an assortment of herbs, which she considered a delightful and fair exchange.

This new magazine, just three issues old, is growing fast. Sandra Border and Laura McCarthy, its owners and instigators, call their new publication ''Borden and McCarthy's Barter and Trade Journal.''

''I guess you would say we are a grass-roots response or alternative to the trade exchange system, which we feel is far too costly for the average individual or family to get involved in,'' Mrs. McCarthy explains. ''Our husbands both work in Boston, and we are both professionally trained women. I am a nurse, and Sandra is trained in social work. But I have two small children, and Sandra has four little boys, so we are busy with families.''

This past year Laura stenciled some floors for Sandra in exchange for her daughter's fee at her nursery school. ''With inflation what it is,'' Laura comments, ''both of us were looking for ways we could maintain the quality we wanted in our homes and lives. We began to think of other things we could exchange and to look for a publication that would give trade listings.''

The pair found seven books on barter at the library, but no magazine that would give individual barterers a means of communication and exchange. So they decided to start one. Laura took on the typing, advertising, and page layout, and Sandra financed the operation out of nursery-school earnings. They hired a printer to get out the first issue of 3,000 copies, which contained articles on barter and classified ads from people who had goods or services to exchange.

The partners used the first issue as a giveaway to acquaint people in the region with what they were doing. They set a 70-cent single copy price for the second issue, which was placed on sale in 135 Massachusetts stores. The subscription price is $8 for 12 issues, which can be ordered from PO Box 24, Rockland, Mass. 02370.

''It is amazing what people are listing with us,'' Laura says, ''- everything from baking skills to antiques, vacations, and ponies. We have apparently hit on a very successful idea because we are answering a real need.''

Meanwhile, a graphic artist in Manhattan, who is also a sculptor, wrote that he has worked out a barter system for getting his large sculpture pieces constructed in steel. ''For years,'' Wallace Walker says, ''I have been working on sculpture intended as large-scale landscape structures, hoping to receive commissions from the presentation of my drawings and models. Then George Lanthorne, an artist and welding metalsmithing teacher at the Jardon Vocational School in Ferndale, Mich., suggested that his senior classes in welding could construct some of my sculpture. He then interested Paragon Metals in Detroit in our project, and I promised to design a sculpture for their factory landscape in exchange for their supply of raw material.''

Mr. Walker visited the school and explained to the students the concepts behind his geometric shapes so they could work with understanding. Three pieces of sculpture have now been completed, and the fourth is in progress. If and when they are sold, Jardon School's scholarship fund will receive 10 percent of the selling price. The sculptor thinks this kind of artistic barter could also have a future.

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