You can buy an original piece of artwork on the Portland peninsula.

You can buy a designer gown.

You can buy a leather-bound first edition of a 19th century world atlas.

But you can’t buy your socks and underwear. That, however, is about to change.

We’re getting a Renys. It sounds so nice I’ve got to say it again. We’re getting a Renys!

I don’t usually get this excited about shopping. I try to avoid it whenever possible. I’ve made it through the whole Christmas season without setting foot in the Maine Mall (sorry, kids).

I was not one of those people who pined for a Trader Joe’s to come to my town, and in my handful of visits to the new Portland food store, I’m not sure how its presence is going to change my life.

But this is different. This is not just another store, it’s a reversal of a longtime trend, and one that promises real change in the future of the city.

Starting in the 1980s, big downtown retailers closed their doors, moving to what looked like greener pastures at the mall and other shopping centers. In time, the five and dimes followed, leaving their customers in the lurch.

In their place, we have seen a fantastic emergence of small specialty shops, restaurants, bars and coffee places that have given Congress Street a funky street life you used to find only in the Old Port.

Art galleries have proliferated, drawing huge crowds on the first Friday of every month and bringing thousands of visitors into the district.

But if you live in town, every time you need a rake or a pair of jeans (the regular kind, not the ones with a designer label) you have to get into your car. If you don’t drive, well, good luck.

But that trend could be coming to an end. For a long time, people have been saying that they want to live and work in Portland and prefer to do business with a local merchant not too far from home.

Now, with the announcement that Renys is moving in, a canny businessman has determined that this is a market he wants to tap

“(Portland) is a very trendy place to live and work,” said company executive John Reny. “Downtowns are coming back. We think this is a real opportunity for us.”

And, Mr. Reny, it’s an opportunity for us, too.

I’m not a department store fan. I can’t tell you what my second-favorite department store is, but Renys is definitely the first.

It’s a Maine institution that began in the 1940s when the late Robert Reny began driving to Bridgton to open his shop when business got slow at his Damariscotta store.

The chain currently has 14 locations, typically in downtowns of small and midsize Maine cities. It competes with the big guys through a mix of odd-lot bargains and a dependable line of first-quality clothes, shoes and housewares.

I’ve worked in close proximity to two Renys stores, and can personally attest that there is something intoxicating about the bargains. It’s been more than 10 years since those days, but I still have a flannel shirt, a pair of boots and my kids’ sleeping bags that I bought when I was trying to get over writer’s block.

Renys will take the space that L.L. Bean vacated when it moved its outlet store this autumn. Bean is an iconic Maine business — maybe it’s the iconic Maine business — but it does not send the message that Renys does.

A Bean outlet might be a strong attraction for someone driving through town or visiting on a cruise ship, and plenty of those visitors made their way up from the waterfront when they came through.

Renys won’t have the same appeal to them, but it will to the people who live in the city and either can’t or choose not to drive everywhere. Getting a Renys tells the world that this is not just a tourist destination. People live here.

You never know where the next revolution is going to get started, but this old-fashioned Maine department store could be the whiff of grapeshot that sets one off.

The nice folks at Renys are not trying to change the world, they are just looking for a place to sell stuff.

But by making it easier to get by without a car, by making the downtown a more attractive place to live and work and by making a livable city a little more livable, this development could help tip a balance, giving those who want it a cheaper and greener alternative to life in the suburbs.

One store won’t do it alone, but the collective confidence of people and businesses believing in the city can make a big difference.

Welcome to Portland, Renys. We’ve been waiting for you.

 

Greg Kesich is an editorial writer. He can be contacted at 791-6481 or:

[email protected]