SKOWHEGAN — She has retail merchandise for doomsday preppers, wedding gowns, fashion dresses and underwear for female bikers. She’s got women’s purses with pockets for concealed weapons, name-brand clothing, boots, sportswear, pepper spray and ice-fishing gear.
But Aimey Ribeiro, owner of Bargain Hunter, in Skowhegan Plaza, also has a sense of history.
Ribeiro, 41, opened the store in October in space that had been vacant for decades.
“Locals have told me this has been empty for at least 18 years,” Ribeiro said. “People are just shocked that there’s something in here. They remember Rite Aid being in here and Sampson’s.”
Town tax records show the space has been vacant since the early 1990s, when a Sherwin Williams paint store and a Rite Aid pharmacy moved to other locations in town, said Jeff Hewett, Skowhegan’s director of economic and community development.
“The Family Dollar went in and Rent-A-Center went in on the other side. That single space has been vacant for about 20 to 24 years,” Hewett said. “Of all the information that I have, that’s what it’s saying — about 24 years.”
The plaza was built in 1960 for the Sampson Super Market Inc. chain of grocery stores, according to commercial property assessment records.
Hannaford Bros., of Portland, which opened its first supermarket in 1944, purchased 31 Sampson supermarkets in Maine in 1966, including the one in Skowhegan Plaza.
During the 1970s, Hannaford established stores under the Shop ‘n Save name and in 1973 opened its first Wellby drugstore, including a Wellby Super Drug in the plaza.
Wellby’s was sold to Rite Aid in 1992, about the time the stores moved and the store space was vacated.
Mark Horn, of the Seattle, Wash., area, who bought the plaza last year with his wife, Linda, as a real estate investment, said the space once occupied by Sampson’s was split and renovated to make two stores — one for Wellby’s Super Drug, the other for Sherwin Williams. When those businesses moved, the buildings stayed vacant until Family Dollar moved in several years ago.
The other space — where Ribeiro’s Bargain Hunter is now — remained unoccupied until October.
Horn said the entire five-store plaza is now occupied.
Ribeiro buys much of her merchandise as overstock from Macy’s, J.C. Penney, Sears and Kmart — all of it new but at reduced prices. Brand names of outdoor clothing such as Free Country, Northface, St. John’s Bay, Clairborne, Eastern Mountain Sports, Mossy Oak and Celsius grace the racks at the 7,500-square-foot store. What doesn’t sell from the store goes on eBay for sale.
“I started out with a little bit of everything because I didn’t know where I was going to thrive,” Ribeiro said. “All my hunting and fishing clothing comes from Maurice’s sporting goods, and it’s only for wholesalers to buy. It’s not for regular shoppers.”
There are sweaters, hunting jackets and snowmobile suits, along with children’s camouflage clothing and the popular pink camouflage clothing and accessories for women, she said.
“Nobody has pink camo,” Bargain Hunter shopper Stacey Hartley, of Skowhegan, said, picking out a pink camouflage wallet. “There’s no selection of camo around here; it’s different, it’s unique, feminine.”
Her daughter, Emily, 15, said camo has been her thing since she was little. She said there are pink camouflage items sold online, but they are “super-expensive.”
“Girls around Maine like the outdoors theme,” Emily Hartley said. “Pink camo focuses on the women instead of regular camo that the men think are just for them. It kind of expresses more for women.”
Ribeiro has served as a volunteer for the Madison Fire Department, was animal control officer for Anson and Starks, and was manager of Cumberland Farms stores in Fairfield, Farmington and Norridgewock.
Ribeiro, who served six years in the 1990s as a military policewoman in the Air Force, also specializes in tactical and army surplus-style clothing and other items, including shoulder and leg holsters, ammo cans, concealed knives and competition Air Soft pellet guns. There also are high-end women’s dresses, sweaters, men’s dress shirts and ladies’ handbags — all new and sold at discount prices.
“People don’t know I’m here. It’s hard being new,” she said. “I wanted to draw men in here because men don’t shop. Women are going to come into a store and at least check it out. I try to get men in here by making the â€˜hunter’ of Bargain Hunter look like a gun scope.
“So far, it seems to be working.”