GARDINER — Shoppers this holiday season will be treated to a downtown that looks a bit more full than they’re used to seeing.

Four new stores have moved in for the months of November and December as part of a Gardiner Main Street project providing free rent for “pop-up” businesses during the busy holiday shopping months.

The pop-up stores include a women’s clothing store, a Maine-made craft store, a charitable second-hand store and a store the owner calls a “small-scale Marden’s.”

Gardiner Main Street worked with landlords of six downtown storefronts to offer free rent to help fill some vacant spaces and increase foot traffic for all downtown businesses.

The idea was to lower barriers for store owners looking to expand in a new location or for people with new businesses hoping to find a storefront.

Jennifer Bergeron, owner of the women’s clothing store earth bound, one of the pop-up stores, also has locations in Waterville and Hallowell. She sees this as an experiment but said a good holiday season at the Gardiner pop-up could lead to a permanent opening.

“If this is a success, it’s a huge upside to opening here,” she said

Bergeron said she hopes the holiday shopping brings in plenty of foot traffic, but the key factor in whether she’ll open a store in Gardiner is if people walking through the door actually buy something.

Besides measurable goals such as increasing foot traffic, Gardiner Main Street Executive Director Patrick Wright has an intangible goal of gauging the project’s success: creating buzz for downtown.

Right now, he said, it’s still too early to tell whether that’s been successful.

“It definitely gives us a chance, and that’s what we were going for, to grab people’s attention and say, ‘Look, there’s some different things going on in Gardiner,'” Wright said.

He said the ultimate goal is eventually to find permanent tenants for the empty storefronts.

Businesses wanting to fill the spaces had only a couple weeks to pull a proposal together. Of the six applicants, two ended up dropping out, Wright said; but a secondhand clothing store decided to open a permanent store at one of the locations, independent of the project.

Wright said one of the pop-up stores is able to occupy two connected units, so all six spaces will be filled.

Bergeron said having a downtown willing to take a chance on a project such as this is encouraging, but the empty storefronts that lead to it is a bit concerning. Every empty storefront shoppers encounter as they walk down Water Street is a reason to turn around, Bergeron said.

“We’re trying to be a little bit bold and try to focus on building an economic model that will work and be sustainable for the future,” said Nate Rudy, director of economic and community development for Gardiner. “Sometimes you’ve got to take a calculated risk, and I think Patrick and Main Street have done a great thing with this project, and I’m glad to support it.”

City councilors voted to waive any municipal fees associated with opening these business to encourage more people to apply, and Rudy has worked with Wright on cooperative advertising for the new stores.

“It seems as though Gardiner is on the right path,” Bergeron said. “I think people are getting tired of going to the mall. I think people are often disappointed with online shopping, especially with clothing.”

She said her store would benefit from similar stores downtown that would make Gardiner more of a shopping destination.

Rudy said he hopes the pop-up stores will create just that, providing an alternative to big-box stores this holiday season.

“When you’re spending money in downtown Gardiner, you’re helping your neighbors and community members sustain their businesses, and there’s a huge value to that that goes beyond just shopping,” he said.

Store owners sound off

Ruth Mazziotti, assistant manager at SaraSara’s, one of the other women’s clothing stores downtown, said she thinks her store and earth bound will complement each other. She doesn’t see it as competition.

“We don’t have the exact same stuff, so it’s not going to be a question of going down the street and seeing what price they got,” Mazziotti said.

Charles Bragdon, who co-owns another of the pop-up stores, said he’s OK with people price shopping with competing places such as Reny’s or Walmart. He said his store, Treasures and Trinkets Discount Store, will beat their prices. They carry some products that are similar to those at the Reny’s department store down the street, but he said there aren’t exactly the same.

However, Bragdon’s store is also different from the others in that he’s already planning to stay in the location long-term. “We’re not just a pop-up store,” he said. “We’re a permanent location.”

He said his products will cost around 65 percent of retail and will be popular for lower-income people in the community.

The owner of another pop-up store, Pooch’s 2nd Hand Shop, isn’t looking to make money for herself. The store selling used home goods and other products will donate all profits to animal rescue agencies and shelters. Owner Bethany Rackliff said that a couple years ago she thought of selling donated items to prevent more dogs and cats from being euthanized.

“People are just in love with the idea, and they want to give, give, give, and it’s really awesome to have all of that support,” Rackliff said.

She’s been operating the venture out of her mother’s garage in Vassalboro on occasional Saturdays, with the hope of being able to raise enough funds to open a permanent storefront. She said the pop-up project lets her test run the idea with less investment. All store workers are volunteers, but she still needed start-up capital for the deposit and utilities for the space.

Rackliff also runs her own home health care business, called Peace of Mind Home Care, out of her Whitefield residence.

Rudy compared pro-business efforts of the city and Gardiner Main Street to golf advice. “Every swing that gets your ball closer to the hole is a good swing,” he said. “This has definitely been a good swing for us.”

Paul Koenig — 621-5663
[email protected]