The original Sea Bags store on Custom House Wharf in Portland has expanded more than once in the 22 years since the company started, and next month will be converted to a factory discount store. (Portland Phoenix/Elizabeth Clemente)
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It can be easy to miss Sea Bags on Custom House Wharf in Portland – and impossible to know how the company launched in that spot 22 years ago has grown into a national success.

Last year was especially significant for the business that sells locally made tote bags from recycled boat sails: Sea Bags opened 13 new retail shops around the country at a time when other businesses struggled to hold on. Next month it will open a new flagship store at 123 Commercial St., triple the size of its original location.

Shoppers browse April 9 in the original Sea Bags store on Custom House Wharf in Portland, which is the only store in the chain where bags are manufactured in-house. (Portland Phoenix/Elizabeth Clemente)

The 2,500-square-foot Commercial Street store is set to have a soft opening on May 7 followed by a grand opening Memorial Day weekend. The Custom House Wharf spot will remain open as a factory store, selling discounted bags from the store’s older product lines.

Don Oakes, Sea Bags chief executive officer, last week said opening a second store in Portland was not in the plans at this time last year. But it became a necessity because of the pandemic.

Black Friday in November is typically the one time of year that Sea Bags customers have a chance to get what Oakes called a “really good sale price” on items, with crowds looking for bargains in Portland and at the company store in Freeport. 

Social distancing guidelines made normal Black Friday operations impossible last year, but one day last fall Oakes was walking past the Commercial Street space, which formerly housed home decor store Company C, and noticed it was for lease. 

Sea Bags totes are made from recycled boat sails. Anyone who donates a sail receives a bag in return; bags usually retail for $100-$300. (Portland Phoenix/Elizabeth Clemente)

Sea Bags made a deal with the landlord to operate there for about six weeks from early November until mid-December for an extended Black Friday event. The “indoor tent sale,” as it was called, had special hours for immunocompromised and elderly customers, and allowed people to make shopping appointments.

“My hope was we’d be able to at least replicate the sales that we were able to get in Portland and Freeport,” Oakes said. “I’d say our sales exceeded my wildest expectations. It did so well that we decided, ‘Why should we kill this? Let’s stay open.’”

A major factor was increased foot traffic. Oakes said the Commercial Street store has seen more people walking past than the Custom House Wharf shop thanks to its more central location. What surprised him most was local people saying they didn’t know the original Sea Bags store even existed.

Oakes said he knew opening another store during the pandemic would mean increased labor and overhead costs, but it also presented an opportunity to liquidate discontinued and old designs at the Custom House Wharf store at discounted prices.

Customers can see totes being made from recycled sails while they shop at the Portland Sea Bags store on Custom House Wharf. (Courtesy Sea Bags)

He said Custom House Wharf will continue as a factory store “in the truest sense of the word,” since it is the only Sea Bags store in the country with in-house manufacturing. Customers there can also trade in their boat sails for a Sea Bag, which typically retails for $100-$300. 

Sea Bags nearly doubled its stores nationwide last year. Oakes said the company started 2020 with 25 stores, and with the addition of the new Portland location now has 39. It only planned to open eight new stores in 2020, but with the pandemic making rents cheaper in expensive areas the retailer had been eyeing – places like Sarasota, Florida – Sea Bags seized the opportunity.

It also opened a store in Kennebunkport – bringing its total number of Maine stores to nine – along with stores on Martha’s Vineyard, and in California, Michigan, and South Carolina, among others. 

The new Sea Bags flagship store at 123 Commercial St. in Portland will be triple the size of the company’s store on Custom House Wharf. (Portland Phoenix/Elizabeth Clemente)

Oakes said the Commercial Street store is the only one planned to open this year, so far, to make sure production can keep pace with demand. He said sales have been “stronger than expected.” in recent months.

“It does seem as though the economy is opening up, and that people are getting out and they’re shopping and they’re spending,” he said. “So we’re expecting a busy, busy summer.”