As home to one of the largest commercial fishing ports on the East Coast, Cape May is no stranger to all things nautical. From fresh-off-the-boat seafood and plenty of places to dock-and-dine, to maritime décor and artwork, Cape May is a hub for the sea-inspired lifestyle. Which is why it’s the perfect location for Sea Bags, the Maine company known for its creative and thoughtful transformation of previously used boat sails into printed totes.
“Sea Bags was always looking to open a retail store outside of Maine,” says Amanda Cargill, Mid-Atlantic Area Manager for Sea Bags. “They wanted the next location to be a family-oriented town, as well as coastal. Don Oakes, the CEO of Sea Bags, visited Cape May often because his son was living and working there, so it just kind of felt like a perfect location and opportunity to expand the footprint. Cape May was the third retail store to open.”
The Cape May store opened in 2014 and was renovated in 2021, and while the space is great — think huge open windows and plenty of natural light right on Liberty Way off the Washington Street Mall — the concept behind Sea Bags is what turns window-shoppers into customers. That, and pretty eye-catching merchandising.
“You walk in and you’re just kind of immersed in lots of bright colors and patterns,” says Cargill. “Some people even get a little overwhelmed because there’s just so much to look at.”
Not only is there a ton to look at, with great display features like lobster crates and other nautical elements, but the bags are fascinating. Each and every tote is made from real, previously used sails, which means that while some may be similar or feature the same pattern or color, no two are exactly the same — they are all cut from different pieces of sail cloth. And that’s one of the primary reasons to shop in a store rather than online.
“It’s always nice to come in and see and touch and feel the product,” says Cargill. “With sails, you’re going to have a wide range — the weight of the sail, the feeling of it, some are going to be softer, others are going to be firmer and crunchier. So, each bag is unique in addition to the print. Some might have come from a more weathered sail that’s extra salty — it’s going to have signs of hard sailing. It could have rust stains from the hardware, all kinds of unique things. So not all of them are going to be perfect and crisp and white, though we do get a lot of sails like that too. Some that are more distressed also affect how the bags are printed, so there’s an advantage to coming into one of our stores to look.”
At Sea Bags Cape May, in addition to all the other merchandise, there’s a vintage wall, where some of the best looking and most unique vintage bags hang on hooks, ready to be swooped up for customers looking for something special. Whether it’s a lucky number, symbol or letter, these elements offer an extra eye-catching component to an already one-of-a-kind tote. Even better? They’ll help you shop around for your perfect bag.
“We can send out a request to our other stores; we have an email chain,” says Cargill. “So, if somebody’s looking for a specific number or letter, we can ask the other stores and they’ll email back with pictures, and we can actually find other numbers and letters for customers who are looking for something specific.”
The bags are priced pretty reasonably too — ranging from coin purses that start at $15 up to around $300 for some of the duffels and larger items. The medium and large vintage totes, which are the most popular items within the brand, start at $160 and $175 respectively, and while that might be more than you spent on your run-of-the-mill beach tote, the Sea Bags totes offer more than originality to warrant the price tag.
“Sail material is incredibly durable,” says Cargill. “You could pick up a beach bag for $20 and it will last you maybe one season. A Sea Bag will last you year after year after year.”
Though durability, functionality, and uniqueness count for a lot, that’s not the only thing you get when you shop at Sea Bags. The store — in fact, the whole company — is a model in sustainability. In addition to sourcing their most used material from used sails — Sea Bags has saved 1.5 million pounds of sails from landfills since their inception — they use U.S.-based manufacturers for everything, right down to the thread used to sew the totes.
“Sustainability is a huge part of who we are,” says Cargill. “Our rope manufacturer is one of the last rope manufacturers in New England. The same with our thread.” Sails are collected one at a time — 8,000 are traded annually and those who opt to turn over a used sail to Sea Bags instead of adding it to a landfill can exchange it for their own Sea Bag product.
And though every Sea Bag product is one-of-a-kind — from diaper bags and wine bags to totes, pillows and even lounge chairs — some sails are so unique they are cause for an auction.
“The auction platform has been around for over ten years. It was created for our really rare sails, ones we’ve only seen once or twice in the last 20 years,” says Cargill. “For years, we held onto those sails because we didn’t know how to price them, and now that we’re able to price them, as we understand the market more, the auction platform is just kind of a fun way to have customers engage.”
In addition to enabling bidding on hyper-rare sails turned into Sea Bags products, the auction platform is also used as a give-back tool. Sea Bags partners regularly work with organizations like the Maine Cancer Foundation, Indigo Arts Alliance, and more, and proceeds from auction items will often help support those missions.
Whether you’re looking to make a statement with a brand-new bag, or you just want to check out an innovative company with an equally interesting product, be sure to head to Sea Bags this summer. ν