The Old Port still has stores that sell luxury items and this season's designer couture, but these days the shopping landscape looks slightly altered.
Two consignment clothing shops in the downtown area have opened in the past few months - Find on Free Street and Second Time Around on Exchange Street. And a third, Nova G., opened recently on Forest Avenue. While they offer brand-name clothes and glittering jewelry, their prices are low enough to lure customers even in the midst of an economic downturn.
These stores, however, are not momentary fixes to help money-strapped locals remain fashionable during recessions. The stores' owners say they're confident that consignment shopping will continue growing in popularity even as the economy rebounds.
"The economy has changed the mindset [of shoppers]. I think it is a lesson learned," says Jennifer Greenlaw, who opened Nova G. in late August. "Those who hadn't consignment shopped before gained appreciation for it."
The recession has also helped Greenlaw's line of business because it has widened the network of consumers not only shopping for used clothing but also recycling their own, thereby adding to her inventory, she adds.
The recession across the country has been good to thrift stores. The National Association of Retail and Thrift Stores says that most of its members are seeing increases in both sales and incoming inventory. A recent association survey found that around 67% of the 333 business members that responded said third-quarter sales in 2009 had increased over 2008 (with an average increase of approximately 35%), while 11% said that sales were about the same.
Laura Ker, the owner of Find on Free Street, says she opened her store after becoming successful at finding old clothes and selling them on eBay when she worked as a Pilates instructor. While the downturn has helped the consignment business, the Waterville native says, too, that people's desire to live more sustainably is increasing interest in recycled clothing.
"With the popularity of the green movement, second-hand clothing has lost the stigma it once had," Ker says. "It's becoming much more accepted in public."
Along with your funky fashionistas searching for a rare vintage find, Ker says she sees more conservatively dressed customers in her store. "People come in who might not have 20 years ago," she says.
Find, which occupies the former Arabica coffee shop, has exposed brick walls, colorful art on the walls, a polished wood floor and jazz playing in the background. Ker says she wanted to design a space that was artistic and inspiring. Plus, she washes all the clothes she brings in at a local Laundromat and uses wooden hangers. "[A second-hand shop] doesn't have to feel like a dusty, second-hand store," she says.
Greenlaw, who lost her finance job at Fairchild Semiconductor last spring, also adds a unique touch to Nova G. Besides selling consigned clothing, she offers "recycled designs" by her and her partner Holly Cooper. The two women spruce up old clothes by adding creative details, like flouncy new collars and buttons. Greenlaw says that so far business at her store has exceeded her expectations.
Ker says business was good when she first opened Find in mid-August, but that sales have dropped off a bit leading up to Christmas. But she's making enough money to pay her and an employee, and she hopes to open a second shop in Portsmouth within two years.
Second Time Around, a national resale chain, opened seven months ago and is currently consolidating at its location on Exchange Street after operating both there and at a Fore Street store, according to Manager Jessica Powers. Powers says she's closing at Fore Street because the other location does brisker business.
Though the number of consignment shops in the area has increased in the past year, neither Ker nor Greenlaw say they are worried about competition. In fact, Greenlaw says it can only help.
"The more of us the better," she says. "The more we develop the pool of people who consign, the better off we are."