AUBURN — In one shop, it's toys, clothes, kids' gear, country tunes and a rack of tiny red velvet holiday dresses so adorable that anyone with baby fever best avert their eyes.
A few doors up it's bright lights, happy music and racks of jeans, sweaters, coats and tops. A clingy teal BCBG club dress hangs from one mannequin. Fair warning: Extra-small, it requires a rocking body.
But the price? Get ready to pick your jaw up off the dance floor: $12.50. New BCBG dresses can go for hundreds.
Two stores, one plaza, one new, one moved from across the street, both examples of L-A's expanding appetite for thrift.
Heidi Hilton owned Raggamuffins clothing consignment shop beside Cumberland Farms on Center Street for five years. In October she moved across the street, into Center Street Plaza. Hilton has 4,000 consignors between this shop and a second in Gardiner.
"We go through 1,000 items a week, just this store, coming in and going out," Hilton said. "In October we broke all of our records: Our best day, our best week, our best month. We thought maybe it was just the move; it doesn't seem to be stopping."
Amy Desmarais opened Pipsqueaks Children's Boutique on Route 126 in Sabattus in 2005. That secondhand store specializes in kids clothes, newborn to tween, maternity clothes, baby gear, furniture and feeding supplies. She opened her second shop in the Center Street Plaza last month after talking to Hilton.
"I always wanted to try it in a busy location where there was more foot traffic," Desmarais said. "A lot of my customers are women — grammies, moms, day care people. It's been really good. We kind of send people in both directions."
Customers are clearly trying to stretch their dollars, but it's about more than that. Paying full retail doesn't always make sense, she said. Babies and tots aren't able to put much wear and tear on anything before outgrowing it. Some of her customers also like recycling, or thinking of the environment.
"I think people are just wising up in general, with the cost of fuel and gas," Desmarais said. "I don't think it's only people who are struggling. They just know better."
Hillary Cuffori from Lewiston, a Sabattus store regular, recently visited the new Auburn location with her young son in tow. She shopped, he checked out toys and a red toddler bed.
"I like the fact that I can trade stuff in for store credit and then look for stuff in my kid's current size," Cuffori said. Another perk: "Not having to take him into Walmart. . . . I can just appreciate the used part of things for kids — you don't always have to buy new."
Goodwill, that granddaddy of thrift, is also seeing more activity.
Michelle Smith, spokeswoman for Goodwill Industries of Northern New England, said in November that sales in the Auburn store for the previous six months were up 5 percent over the same time last year. Donations were up 15 percent.
"I think it's been definitely a trend in the last five to seven years or so with more people shopping secondhand and thrift store shopping," said Smith. "I think it started when the recession hit a few years ago. We definitely noticed more people coming to our stores, whether it was occasional shoppers that were coming more often or new shoppers that had never shopped secondhand before.
"Now that the economy is improving slightly I think people will continue to go because I think they discover they can find really great quality items for much less money than if they were to buy them brand new," she said. "The stigma that used to be around it is definitely fading rapidly."
Some of her customers, too, like that they're boosting a nonprofit.
This time of year, many are in Goodwill looking for outdoor decorations or gifts. Some industrious crafters come in for sweaters and the challenge of unraveling them and knitting something anew.
Desmarais said many of her customers are parents looking for basics, like play wear for day care, and grandparents looking for duplicate gear, like swings and playpens.
Pipsqueaks had a rack of gently used kids' coats and ski pants for $10 to $20, and gear like a Safety First stroller and car seat for $84.99, half the price of new.
At her store, she purchases items outright, offering cash or sweetening the deal by offering more money in store credit.
At Raggamuffins recently, Hilton had a women's corduroy L.L. Bean blazer for $14.50 and black velor kitten heels by PM Collection for $8.25. Her specialty is casual, with a small section in the back for men.
Hilton and Desmarais agreed there's a way to do secondhand right: It's about being selective.
Hilton said she averages 10 appointments a day with people looking to consign something. Clothes can't be older than two years and they have to be freshly laundered. Everything is ironed before it goes out on the sales floor. The store, too, has to be inviting and clean.
"We have (sugar cookie) Scentsy burning all the time; it just gives you a real warm shopping experience," Hilton said.
As part of the move and the uptick in business, her two part-time employees have gone full time. She's hired another part-timer and is looking to hire one more.
Bonnie Fleury, the owner of New To You Consignments in the Taylor Brook Mall, said she, too, has noticed more interest in stores like hers.
"I just helped my sister open one in Lisbon," she said. Her Rags to Riches opened two weeks ago on Main Street.