Ken-A-Set shop says goodbye

The Ken-A-Set thrift shop, which opened for business in Waterville since the 1970s, permanently ceased operations on Feb. 22. The closing was announced after increasing competition between local thrift stores made the business unsustainable.

In recent years, Ken-A-Set began operating in collaboration with Skills Inc. of St. Alban’s, which, according to its website, is a non-profit organization “that helps adults with intellectual disabilities and other challenges to achieve their goals through employment, residential, and supportive services, and through educating the public to eliminate barriers.”

Skills Inc. was created in 2005, when Ken-A-Set merged with Sebasticook Farms, another nonprofit focused on developmental disabilities. Since its conception, the organization has served the central Maine community via its several support programs. The programs, according to the Skills Inc. website, have establishments in Skowhegan and in Waterville on Quarry Road, Industrial Road and North Street.

Chief Executive Officer of Skills, Inc. Tom Davis said in a phone interview that the reasons for closing the store are two-fold. While Ken-A-Set “enjoyed a fair measure of success” in its early years, the last eight years have delivered “more competition, and we have struggled to make a profit.” Additionally, the Waterville location contained the organization’s Ervin Center in the basement. The Center, which offers cooking, sign language and exercise classes, in addition to programs for basic skill development, was not able to thrive in such a small space, according to Davis.

The 24 people who are currently served in the Center will be moved to a handicap-accessible building on Front Street, which Davis described as a “terrific upgrade.”

Consistent with the mission of Skills Inc., 15 of the 20 employees at the beloved thrift shop had some sort of developmental disability. The closing, therefore, poses significant challenges to the employees who might have limited work opportunities elsewhere. 

Davis noted that all former Waterville employees are being given the chance to interview for a position at the store’s new location in Pittsfield and expects at least one or two of them to become employed there. The small number of transferring workers can be attributed to the challenge of getting transportation to the new store, Davis said.

In an email, President of Retail for Goodwill of Northern New England Randy Finamore expressed his sadness over the news that Ken-A-Set will close: “[the two stores] created a vibrant shopping experience for ‘thrifters’” and “we were disappointed to hear of [their] decision to close doors in Waterville.” In response to the struggles that former Ken-A-Set workers may face in terms of unemployment, Finamore said Goodwill will “be very happy to consider Ken-A-Set’s displaced employees for open positions when spring arrives and our sale volume increases.”

Waterville City Manager Mike Roy also commented to the Portland Press Herald that Ken-A-Set’s closing is “disappointing.” The packing up of inventory here further compounds a greater issue of closing storefronts on Main Street, and also means a loss of one of downtown’s most lauded businesses.

Both locals and College students frequented Ken-A-Set due to its wide range of merchandise and positive community image. Charlotte Marratta ’18 said in an interview that despite “only having gone to the store a couple of times,” it “always had pleasantly surprising things for sale.” Additionally, Marratta preferred Ken-A-Set to larger thrift stores, such as Goodwill, because “the organization’s overall mission made me feel even better about my purchases and who I could be helping.”

Ryohei Watanabe ’17 has also recognized Ken-A-Set’s benefits to the community during his time on the Hill. He noted in an email correspondence that “not many stores decide to operate in the charitable way that Ken-A-Set did, so having it in Waterville provided a much welcomed contrast to the chains we have on [Kennedy Memorial Drive].” 

Ken-A-Set has enticed many College students from not only a shopping perspective, but also from a volunteering one. Throughout the years, whether it be during the Winter Carnival or on Colby Cares Day, the Colby Volunteer Center (CVC) has had active collaborations with the store. Students’ volunteering, according to former Echo articles, has typically consisted of being shuttled down to the store, where they spent a few hours organizing merchandise and getting to know the hardworking staff.

Both the charitable business structure of the store and the competition with larger chains that Watanabe alluded to can be attributed to Skills Inc.’s decision to move locations. Pittsfield, in comparison to Waterville, has fewer large thrift stores and is expected to provide an environment in which Ken-A-Set can thrive. Davis said the Pittsfield store plans to follow through with their mission to “create jobs for the disabled and profit for Skills Inc. to offset lacking federal funding” by granting employment priority to applicants with disabilities.

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