2012-11-30 / Front Page

Swap shop remains hub of town

By Jack Flagler
Staff Writer


Luca Dragonette, 4, checks out a fighter jet on the toy table at the swap shop. His dad, Cooper Dragonette, brings Luca down every so often to switch out an old toy for a new one. (Jack Flagler photo) Luca Dragonette, 4, checks out a fighter jet on the toy table at the swap shop. His dad, Cooper Dragonette, brings Luca down every so often to switch out an old toy for a new one. (Jack Flagler photo) CAPE ELIZABETH – Greg Odlin has heard a story about the Cape Elizabeth swap shop that encapsulates the image a lot of outsiders have about the town.

“Rumor has it, some lady picked up an antique here and sold it for $90,000,” Odlin said.

That story is by no means verified, but it does reinforce some preconceptions about Cape Elizabeth: privileged, high class, someone’s junk is worth more money than a lot of people will ever see.

But spend a couple minutes in the swap shop and it becomes clear that familiar narrative isn’t true with all the visitors. Ed Perry is a welder, he often comes looking for furniture he can repair. One time, he even found a wheelbarrow he was able to fix up.


A number of items can be found at the swap shop in Cape Elizabeth at any given time. (Jack Flagler photo) A number of items can be found at the swap shop in Cape Elizabeth at any given time. (Jack Flagler photo) Susan White comes looking for anything that can help her 5-year-old adopted husky Kino, who is sick and incontinent and sleeps on a child-size mattress with a cover that White makes up for her each night.

Odlin often finds outdoor supplies: skis, canoes, kayaks. He inspects a pair of skis in the corner, but then puts them back. The edges are a little dull, and Odlin said he can be “picky” because he knows next time he visits he’s likely to find a better pair.

It’s hard to sum up what everyone uses the swap shop for, but everybody in town uses it. When asked how many people come in on a weekly basis, Mary Otulakowski, the only full-time attendant at the recycling center, answered, “There’s 9,000 people in town, you figure that out.”

Otulakowski is piling up the debris that covers the floor in the swap shop, which she stuffs into a loader and drives across the recycling center. Mostly, she’s grabbing broken computer parts, but there are also pieces of junk mail and various discarded odds and ends.

The presence of the swap shop means a lot more stuff gets recycled that would otherwise sit in a house or get thrown out with the trash, but for Otulakowski it’s a lot of work to gather up the junk that none of the visitors will take home. She had been at it for about three hours that morning, starting at 7:30 a.m.

“At some point you’ll be able to see the floor,” she said.

The amount of labor needed to maintain the shop isn’t the only downside of its popularity. Public Works Director Bob Malley said town staff also have to make sure residents are using it responsibly. Some people, he said, have resold valuable items they’ve found, which Malley wants to discourage. Others have taken to making multiple trips throughout the day.

“That detracts from the experience and we’re trying to work on that, discouraging people from spending an inordinate amount of time waiting for things to show up,” Malley said.

The other issue, as the space gains some notoriety, is people coming in from out of town. The swap shop, and the entire recycling center, are open only to Cape Elizabeth residents.

Three years ago, local magazine The Bollard included the swap shop on its list of “The Insider’s Guide for Students and the Destitute.”

“A sign says the shop is limited to Cape Elizabethans, but it’s easy to get around that,” according to the article.

“I had to call the editor of The Bollard and say, ‘Help me out here,’” Malley said. He also wrote a letter to the editor to make it clear that only Cape residents are allowed.

Staff do all they can to make sure only residents are using the swap shop, but Malley said it’s not a great allocation of their limited resources to have them constantly checking. Occasionally, he said police have set up at the entrance to check resident IDs, but they can’t be a constant presence either.

Malley is quick to point out the positives of the swap shop, which has steadily gained popularity since it came into Cape in 1995.

“A lot of things placed there are things we used to toss in our compactor, so it does perform a valuable service. It does perform a lot of good, but sometimes it’s like a classroom without a teacher,” Malley said.

Chiropractor Colleen Monroe took advantage of the swap shop to help with her “Christmas on the Cape” event scheduled for Saturday, Dec. 1. She’s planning an arts and craft project for children building birds out of puzzle pieces and metal rods she found at the swap shop. But this isn’t the first time Monroe has taken advantage of the space.

“When I was in chiropractic school, I think a majority of my apartment came from the swap shop,” Monroe said.

The swap shop also serves as a social gathering place for Cape Elizabeth. Many neighbors and friends peruse the goods and run into each other. Ed Perry had to cut an interview short when he saw a friend he needed to talk to, Cooper Dragonette. Local politicians have even made it their spot of choice to introduce themselves to residents.

When asked what he’s looking for at the swap shop, Odlin seemed to find the question ridiculous.

“Treasure,” he responded, like it was an obvious answer.

Odlin might not find an item worth $90,000, like the fabled antique supposedly found, but among the knick knacks, widgets and gadgets spilling over onto the floor of the swap shop there is a treasure to someone.

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