The word gemach is an acronym for "gemilut chasadim," acts of kindness. The traditional gemach fund is a free-loan organization. But we don't refer to those as "gemachs" anymore (or at least I haven't heard them called that). Instead, those funds are just called interest-free loan funds. Gemachs seem to refer today to organizations that lend physical items instead of money.
Gemachs loan many items, and they must be returned when you're done with them. Usually, the items are already used by the time you get them, but some organizations buy new items too, so maybe you'll be the lucky person to use it first. Most items are donated to the gemach already used.
So what kinds of items can you find at a gemach? We're not talking about a Goodwill-style store here. Each gemach has a "theme," and some are small enough that they may be run out of someone's home or just a list maintained by a person or organization. You can find wedding dress gemachs, wedding gemachs, bridesmaid dress gemachs, gemachs with baby toys and furniture. Wedding gemachs can carry bridesmaid dresses, mother-of-the-bride dresses, fake flowers, decorations, and even leftover food from other weddings. [When you rely on those gemachs, you will have little to no control over "the look" of your wedding, from colors to styles, and the styles may be outdated.] Those are the kinds of gemachs I know. Do you know of other kinds?
Wedding gemachs can be a whole room or they can be a Google document maintained by a shul. In the case of a central document, the spreadsheet lists things like color, size, whether the borrower can make alterations, and where the dress is (usually with the owner). Wedding gemachs in a building can be organized by color and size, or they can be tables with piles of poorly-maintained clothing. When you're dealing with clothing, always remember to ask the cleaning policy. Was the item cleaned when it was returned? Will you have to clean it before returning it or will you pay a cleaning fee? As a side note, you should be aware that bedbugs can travel in used clothing. [For more, read Bed Bug Confidential: An Expert Explains How to Defend against the Dreaded Pests.]
Every gemach should tell you its policies and be upfront about any fees. That's right. Not all gemachs are free. In fact, few are. However, most should be free or have a token fee if you can prove you are truly indigent (and that level is much lower than secular standards). The controversy with the gemach system is that gemachs can sometimes (and in some communities, often) be far more expensive than the "secular" option. Wedding-related gemachs are particularly guilty of this. It isn't unheard of to spend more than $1,000 on a wedding dress at a gemach that you have to return after "the big day." [Devil's advocates on the internet suggest that parents (since it's usually a parent) can use these fees to make large costs of the wedding tax-deductible because it's technically a donation to charity since the dresses, flowers, etc, must be returned. When someone is paying for his or her own wedding, they usually don't have/want to spend the cash for that.] If you want to read more about the unrest over wedding gemachs, start with this blog post from Conversations in Klal: Err, Define Gemach for Me Please.
Some other time, we'll talk about ways you can make your Jewish wedding cheaper. Adult converts often foot the bill for their wedding, so that is a common concern.
So what's the take-away? If you're looking for a big ticket item, remember to ask if there's a gemach for that. You might even want to check neighboring communities. Also, remember the gemachs when you have good-quality items that need a new home.