Born and raised in Maine, Annie Brett brings the art-meets-function-meets-design kind of weathered coolness to Portland, OR through her vintage shop, Wilma. Who else can relate to being that kid digging through piles of clothes at yard sales and flea markets alike, and smelling a little like moth balls? *Raises hand* :-)
Okay, we’re excited! We could talk about vintage all day long. Be it roughly handmade or meticulously designed, worn on the body or displayed in a home, made for someone’s mother or the masses– we love it all. What can you tell us about your path to becoming a vintage furniture and found object seller? I know your business, Wilma, is relatively new for you. What did you do before this, and are you happy to have landed in this little pocket of the world?
I love this corner of the world and can’t imagine myself anywhere else. Treasure hunting was in my blood early on. On summer weekends, my mom would circle the ones she wanted to go to in the classifieds, and we’d make our way around town on the yard sale circuit. My grandmother (daughter of Wilma), would take me school shopping at Bradlees, a small Maine-based discount chain every fall and when we went to visit her as I got older, trips to the mall were frequent. In high school, I would go to the flea market in the next town over and dig through piles of vintage sweaters. The dealer would bring in a new stash every Saturday, and I soon amassed a small collection. I was the only one of my friends who smelled like mothballs.
I have always loved shopping and curating. Clothing, objects, furniture, and art are portals to other worlds. Sometime in high school or my early twenties, I allowed myself to quietly admit that I wanted to own my own store someday, but it was always a tiny whisper only to myself. In 2005, the first time I visited Portland, I went to Tumbleweed on Alberta and felt so inspired by it that I drew a layout for my future dream store in my notebook. This was back when Portland was a very different city, and Maine had nothing like it.
I finished college in Maine with a bachelors in Sociology and worked in early childhood for a few years before burning out, and that’s when I landed at The English Dept. & Xtabay Vintage. What was intended to be a quick, easy retail stint while I had an existential crisis, turned into five years of tears (brides) and laughter (working and learning under Portland vintage clothing queen Liz Gross). Sometime along the way I turned my near-constant thrifting habit into a side gig, and started dipping into the Portland vintage scene, joining markets here and there, and eventually, opening my own studio in the inner southeast industrial neighborhood.
Oh don’t we know it– business ownership is kind of like a really, really long roller coaster you can’t get off of… I mean, don’t want to get off of! How have you navigated the challenges of owning a business, and have there been any moments where you look at what you’ve built and feel nothing but seeping, endless pride and appreciation for your community?
Owning a business is a real doozy. It’s this tiny little heartbeat of a dream that you feel inside one day. A tickle in the back of your mind that grows until you can’t ignore it. And then all of a sudden you have this full-blown THING that you can’t really walk away from! Early this spring I had a long period of self-doubt. Sometimes you do want to get off the roller coaster! Originally I referred to this as a “project” and not a business and it really still feels like a creative outlet that I am just lucky enough to be paid for. The challenge is oftentimes just me against myself: am I any good at this? Will I run out of ideas? WHY AM I NOT GETTING ANY LIKES ON INSTAGRAM? (That one probably resonates with any business owner out there these days).
Those thoughts are always there, but honestly, I feel a lot of pride for what I have built. If you had shown me my studio, my community, my confidantes, a few years ago and told me: this is what’s in store for you- I would have never believed it. The feeling of turning out the lights in *my* studio at the end of my day. Looking around the room at an open studio and seeing creatives and people I admire and respect, gathered together. Seeing people I DON’T know, gathered together. When an order comes through and I don’t recognize the name - it's still wild to me. I never understood it when other people said it before me, but the “Wilma World” community is what keeps me going. Sure, I have to think about realistic things like paying the bills, but it's the amorphic, intangible that keeps me going every day. I very much would not be where I am now without the very special community of people who are out there believing in what I do.
Let’s talk inspiration! What would we do without it? Maintaining the motivation to show up every single day can be challenging– whether we love our jobs or not (and we do!). What are your reliable sources of energy for your work?
This is easy. I am incredibly lucky to be surrounded by a group of inspirational, powerful women who I call my closest friends. Every single one of them owns their own business; from other vintage dealers to clothing designers to caterers to DEI professionals, I am so fortunate to have a wealth of knowledge, support, and experience at my fingertips from the women in my life. I have deep admiration for the passion and drive these friends have for their own careers, and in the moments when it isn’t so easy in my world, all I have to do is turn to them.
If I’m in a creative rut, I try to mentally take a few days off from feeling the need to have constant output. I just have to turn it off every once and a while. I’ll go to the beach, take a walk in my neighborhood, stroll through a store, and just try to reset. I don’t have a secret recipe for it, I just take a break until inspiration strikes again and I get back to work.
You’re originally from Maine, which is such a special corner of the country. There’s something about the small towns peppering the stunning, endless coastline that means everything’s just the right amount sunkissed, wind-blown, snow-bitten, and always salty. What lessons did Maine teach you and how have you brought those into your life here in Portland, OR?
I think you named it- there’s something about the ever-changing landscape of Maine that is “just right.” It can be the depths of winter- everything is dead, not a hint of green life in sight, but even in the barren, you find so much beauty. Nature reminds us we don’t have to be in full bloom at all times, and that it's okay to strip back and rest.
High summer, the sweltering days of August when the air is thick with humidity; you step out of the shower not knowing if you’re wet from the water or wet from sweat, and all you want to do is sit under the hum of the ceiling fan. But outside, cicadas and birdsong and the salty ocean beckon. It's a sweetness to life; this feeling of everything as it should be and not too much more, reliably so, year after year.
It’s evident in the pieces I source. I don’t like excess, or luxury, or fuss. There is a restraint in my work. I tend to stick with mostly natural materials and a down-to-earth style, an aesthetic attainable for the rest of us. So many of the moments I create are vignettes, moments in time versus an entire house outfitted in _______ . I think my Maine upbringing reflects that; it's where function and art and design intersect. In thinking about this question, I took a stroll through my camera roll. I think the images speak for themselves:
From L-R: Weld Maine, 9/18, Wilma World 12/21. Portland, Maine, 9/18. Wilma World 12/21. Ellsworth, Maine, 8/21, Wilma World, 12/21. Tenants Harbor, Maine, 7/21, Wilma World, 12/21.