Portland Flea-for-All reinvents beloved arts district spot.
If the timing had been different, Erin Kiley and Nathaniel Baldwin might now be serving up veggie burgers instead of selling vintage furniture. When the couple moved to Portland from southern California in 2010, they planned to open a business, and their first thought was a vegetarian restaurant. “But we quickly decided that was not one of the things Portland wanted at the time,” says Kiley. Baldwin’s mom had another suggestion, as mothers do. Two years later it was realized as the Portland Flea-for-All. “She has friends who own the Brooklyn Flea, and she suggested that we do something comparable here,” says Kiley. “We sort of scoffed at the idea at first, and then we started looking around and realized how rich the antiques culture in Maine is.”
After four years building a loyal following on Kennebec Street in Bayside, in June 2016 the couple announced their plan to move the Flea-for-All to a historic building they had purchased on Congress Street in the Arts District. The large storefront space had been the home of Paul’s Food Center for four decades, but owner Paul Trusiani had died the previous fall, and his family decided not to continue running the grocery store. “They came to us and asked if we wanted to buy it,” says Kiley. “They saw in us the legacy of a young couple building something in the community like Paul and his former wife Annamarie had.” There were some who looked at the transition as a “gentrification story,” she says. “But it just wasn’t. We support 50 other small businesses in this shop, we do a lot of work with other local businesses, and we focus on running community events. Paul’s most loyal customers have come in and said how proud they are of what we’ve done here.”
As Kiley and Baldwin show me around the 10,000-square-foot space, I admire the rustic floor boards and assume they are original, having been covered by battered linoleum for years. No, says Baldwin, the wood is antique hemlock from a tobacco barn, installed as part of a four-month-long renovation that began with removing some 200 tons of refrigeration, supermarket equipment, and other materials that had been left behind. Portland-based design-build company Barrett Made was charged with peeling back the layers of the space, which was built in 1881 as the first Shaw’s grocery store. “We were very focused on returning it to its historic integrity,” says Kiley. Ceiling lights with angled glass globes were salvaged from one of the attics in an apartment above the shop and are believed to be from the original grocery store. Other vestiges of the building’s former life include the original butcher’s scale built into the concrete floor, and high on one wall, a porcelain urinal from a long-gone second-floor men’s room. It’s now used as a planter.
The Flea-for-All’s former location occupied 7,800 square feet on three floors. Not only is its new home larger, the one-floor layout also offers “more variety within the space we can play with,” says Baldwin. I’m visiting with him and Kiley on a Thursday, the day each week when vendors and dealers drop off items that the couple spends hours arranging into their signature displays. They have developed relationships with antiques dealers all over the state, and they vet every item that comes in. “From the beginning, we had a different take on the flea market,” says Kiley. “We wanted it to be curated, to be more of a functional, accessible type of second-life store, as opposed to a more traditional antiques store.” Toward the front of the shop, furniture, rugs, and home accessories are arranged in realistic vignettes, and at the back are several vendor booths dedicated to vintage clothing, vinyl record albums, and other, mostly smaller items. I’m immediately drawn to a large kilim rug that Kiley suggests could be cut down, a Lucite coffee table, and a Danish-modern sideboard I’m surprised hasn’t already been snapped up. Kiley explains that it’s been in the shop for about a month, which is a long time for a midcentury piece of its quality. “The store works because we really strive to have a high caliber of merchandise, but we also focus on turnover,” she says. “So most of the customers that come in do so on a regular basis because they know they’ll find something different every week.”
From the beginning, the Flea-for-All has been open just Friday through Sunday, which creates a sense of “urgency and suspense,” Kiley says. Each week, “teaser albums” of new merchandise are posted to the Flea-for-All’s Facebook page, which helps to draw crowds of up to a thousand visitors on a busy day. “We found that making it more like an event has really driven a lot more traffic than if it was a regular retail store open all week,” says Kiley. The arrangement also allows the couple to run their business largely by themselves. And while there is no dedicated parking as there was on Kennebec Street, four loading spaces right out front make it easy to get customers’ purchases into their cars. “It’s funny, we thought when we moved there would be a pretty significant dip while people figured out where we were, and then adjusted to the change in parking, but there wasn’t,” she says. “It was instantly gangbusters right out of the gate.”
On a weekend afternoon, with music playing and customers chatting as they wander through the store, the Flea-for-All feels less like a shopping destination and more like a party in a fun, funky location. And that’s just what Kiley and Baldwin had in mind. “We never want people to feel like they have to buy anything when they’re in here,” says Kiley. “We wanted to create a community gathering space, and just a nice place to be.” Trusiani’s son, Buzzy, is one of the shop’s best customers, she says. “Every time he walks through the door he just beams.”