WAKEFIELD — If the powers-that-be here were to hang a banner across Main Street that read "Use it up, wear it out, make do, or go without," hardly a resident would bat an eye. This pretty former mill town in the marshy countryside of southern Rhode Island is a stronghold of a particularly frugal subspecies of New Englander. Maybe that's why Wakefield has so many consignment shops.
"There are a lot of swamp Yankees here," said Laurie Schneider, who opened One More Time 17 years ago. "We like a bargain."
On a Saturday morning, Schneider was welcoming regulars who were sizing up racks and shelves of clothing, shoes, boots, and purses. A few circled the two racks of menswear. "We like to see things move along," she said, which explains her pricing policy. "I compare to Marshalls and try to be on the low side of that."
Her regular clients approved. "I sell clothes here and I buy clothes here," said Jane Karoko, who still remembered a great deal on a Burberry jacket. "It's like recycling — guilt-free shopping."
Holly Garceau is even introducing her teenage daughter to the thrills of thrift. "They turn up their noses initially," she said. But such finds as a bright red trench coat, a Kate Spade shoulder bag, or a black Michael Kors jacket with chain trim could be enough to stop the eye-rolling of even the most dismissive young clothes horse.
Farther up Main Street, consignment is in the DNA of the Burton family. Jill Burton and her mother, Patti, opened Chameleons Consignment Loft in 2011 when Jill graduated from the nearby University of Rhode Island. The textile merchandising major — who was wearing a Tory Burch tunic from the shop — has a flair for merchandising. "When you run a consignment shop, you discover all these cool people in your town," she marveled. "And here I thought everyone was a soccer mom. People lead such interesting lives — you can see it in their clothes." She had a point. It would be fun to know the back story of the first owner of the puffy snakeskin-patterned coat by Calvin Klein.
Chameleons has a small formalwear section, but most shoppers are looking for more practical pieces. "We always get severely nice handbags — tons of Coach, Michael Kors," said Burton. "People around here love them."
In a year and a half, the shop has built a solid following, including Jeanne Dubilewski, proprietor of Cheshire Cats practically next door. "My daughter and I keep them in business," she told me with a laugh.
Dubilewski's own shop resembles an old-fashioned antiques and collectibles emporium, except "everything in here is on consignment," she said. "It's from local families — they don't need it, or they have to empty a house." She and her husband have been collecting antiques for more than 40 years, so Dubilewski understands the appeal of the hunt. "EBay has taken the fun out of it. People forget what it's like to enjoy an afternoon walking around," perhaps lifting the lid of the worn wooden blanket chest, flipping over a cup to check the manufacturer of the '50s-era dish set, or tapping the keys of the ornately carved piano to see if it's anywhere near in tune.
Consignment shops aren't solely a Main Street phenomenon. It's a short walk up a side street to Kiddie Korner. Natalie Haney opened the shop in August and already has 102 consignors of children's furniture, clothing, books, and toys. Not only does she sell snowsuits, high-end strollers, and half-pint tables and chairs, she has Elmo dolls. "They're hard to get," said Haney. "You can't buy him anymore."
A short detour out of the village, Consignments Ltd. specializes in mostly modern furniture. The pieces — a Shaker-style dropleaf cherry table, an oak library desk, a black leather ottoman — are nearly new or at least very lightly used. Like many Wakefield shops, prices go down the longer a piece stays in the store.
But clothing is Wakefield's bread and butter and B&L Perennials is the biggest store in town. Brenda Ratcliff, a retired elementary school principal who bought the store about five years ago, likens Perennials to "having a huge closet." Most of the clothing comes from well-known designer lines (as well as specialty retailer Chico's) and can range from an Ellen Tracy navy blue jacket or a graphic DKNY black and white blouse to a Chanel couture jacket that inspires sticker shock even at a drastically reduced price.
The store is often a destination for girlfriend shopping expeditions because of its large inventory of jewelry, shoes, bags, and clothing in all sizes. In fact, steady customer Jeanne Miro managed to keep herself smartly outfitted during her multi-year journey from a size 16 to a size 2. She knows how to make consignment shopping work: "Keep going back, keep browsing, keep checking back," she said. "Above all, be patient."