Inside the Box

Shipping containers? More like shopping containers.

Black Box retrofitted shipping container
Shutterstock | Victor Jason

For more than a year, optician Chris Wheaton searched Portland for somewhere to open an eyewear boutique, but rents were too high and leases often long-term, risky for a start-up. “I’m not gonna lie, it was a tough year,” he says. For good reason. According to the Maine Market Outlook report, published annually by commercial real estate behemoth CBRE’s local chapter, the Portland market seems to have reached a peak. Affordable spaces in desirable locations are almost nonexistent.

One alternative for priced-out entrepreneurs: a just-opened development on Washington Avenue called the Black Box, a pod of five shipping containers retrofitted for retail. San Francisco and London have similar complexes, but it’s a first for Portland. Developer Jake Edwards says he sees his boxes as business incubators, with $1,200-per-month leases running month to month. If tenants outgrow the space — or if they fail — they aren’t stuck there.

Wheaton signed on almost immediately, opening North Optical. John-Henry and Cynthia Mlyniec moved from Rhode Island to start a coffee shop, All Those Who Wander. Ben Ray’s Evangeline sells Maine-made blankets and throws. Kristen Camp’s Campfire Studio is based in a little-trafficked Westbrook mill, but now she shares retail space with Mulxiply jewelry and bag designer Tanja Cesh, who moved from an off-street studio. Will and Mary Sissle opened The Cheese Shop of Portland, with charcuterie, honey, pasta, and more. Mary says the Black Box set-up made getting started relatively cheap and easy: “It’s a plug-and-play situation.”

93 Washington Ave., Portland