Used clothing shop fills need, social action agenda in Washington County

Posted Sept. 07, 2010, at 10:29 p.m.

MACHIAS, Maine — Smack in the middle of Machias’ Main Street, which doubles as U.S. Route 1, is one of the town’s busiest businesses.

Bags O’ Rags is a warren of eight rooms, all packed with gently used clothing, bedding, household items and knickknacks.

Sometimes when owner Sandi Bryand of Machias opens the thrift shop, there is a pile of surprises waiting at the door — plastic garbage bags full of yard sale leftovers. Sometimes she puts little treasures out for passers-by to pick up for free — shirts and sweaters draped over the handicapped-access ramp, worn shoes and boots set in a doorway, a basket full of toys that have seen better days.

There have been complaints. Under their breath, some residents mutter about the clutter and how it may look to outsiders driving by. They don’t care for the implication that Washington County residents can’t buy new.

But Bryand, who speaks her mind plainly and without reservation, aggressively defends her business.

“This is the face of poverty,” Bryand said in a recent interview. “Sometimes our neighbors don’t like to see the face of the poor. But here it is and I say ‘too bad’ to them. If everyone else was doing their job, we wouldn’t have to be here.”

On a recent weekday, the shop was full of bargain hunters. There were women looking for fall clothing, mothers outfitting their children for the new school year, and college students finding extra supplies for their dorm rooms.

“Look at Bangor and Ellsworth and you see that Goodwill figures prominently there,” Machias Town Manager Chris Loughlin said this week. “Bags O’ Rags is our local version. Sandi does fill a major need here.”

Loughlin said that of the many storefronts in downtown Machias — some quite empty — Bags O’ Rags is viable and working.

“It’s the ultimate recycling,” he said.

Bryand first opened a “Free Store” in Whitneyville 27 years ago, when she had “stuff” she didn’t need but that others could use. As more and more people heard about what she was doing, others brought her more items to give away.

As the operation grew, Bryand needed to find a larger place to rent and eventually began charging “a dime an item, a buck a bag” to cover expenses.

She bought her first building in Machias in 1994, and the not-for-profit facility that was renamed Bags O’ Rags has since grown into the largest thrift store in Washington County.

“I do this because I can,” Bryand said. “I am privileged.”

Bryand came from an upper-middle-class family. She has two bachelor’s degrees and a master’s degree in environmental education.

“I can take care of me and mine and never work,” she said. “Therefore, I have to give back. The community needs to work together and it will raise us all.”

Bags O’ Rags accepts donations of goods and cash, and every employee is a volunteer. Every dime raised from sales is given away.

The store is open six days a week, Monday through Saturday, though the hours vary depending on the availability of volunteers.

“This is more than a store,” Bryand said. “This is a community service.”

Bryand funnels the store’s profits to Machias High School, The Ark Animal Shelter, Next Step domestic violence support group, Whitneyville Library Association, Machias Adult Education, Cobscook Community Learning Center, the Machias Food Pantry, Maine Academy of Modern Music, We Care baby center and Wash-ington Academy. She funds college scholarships and has even helped local families with burial expenses.

During the Wild Blueberry Festival weekend alone, Bryand donated $1,000 in profits to a local scholarship fund.

Looking around her shop, Bryand said, “All of this used to end up in the dump,” and she believes that used goods could be the revitalization of downtown Machias.

“An alternative economy works,” she said. “The more you give, the more you get.”

Bryand said empty storefronts could be filled with used goods, creating antique shops, used furniture stores and the like.

“I’m already bringing in customers from Canada, Calais, Ellsworth and, in season, from all over the country,” Bryand said. “Used commerce could become the savior for Machias.”

For now, however, families flock to the store, especially now as the school year starts.

One mother, who asked to remain anonymous, said Bags O’ Rags is where she does all her school shopping.

“I can get a whole bag of clothing for $1,” she said. Without the store, she said, her children would wear last year’s clothes even if they were too small. “I don’t know what I would do without Sandi’s store. It is a lifesaver.”

For more information, visit www.bagsoragsthrift.com.

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