Keeping Maine Strange, Part I – The Beginning

By John Campopiano

In this multi-part series, NEMMC sits down with Brendan Evans, curator of curios and creator/owner of one of the few independent multimedia shops left in New England, Strange Maine. An unassuming honey hole of obsolete media, found photographs, and punk rock t-shirts, Strange Maine has been a local Portland staple and out-of-towner “must-see” since April 2003.

In Part I, Strange Maine founder, Brendan Evans, sheds light on how a compulsion for collecting and binge watching horror movies on VHS led to the creation of a tiny storefront that has grown into a small mecca for those determined to feed their passions for collecting all things local, independent, and offline.

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Strange Maine interior, 2017
NEMMC: What was the genesis of Strange Maine? How and when did it first open?

Brendan Evans: When my friend, Shea Mowat, and I were in our early 20s we were diehard movie junkies. We watched videos until 6am almost every night–with heavy a emphasis on horror, low budget, and art films. During the day we would drive all over Maine and New Hampshire visiting mom and pop video stores–which back then could be found in every New England town. Around that time they were all upgrading to DVD and selling off their VHS tapes for $1 each, 2 for $1, even 4 for $1–and these were gems! There were so many obscure 1980s horror videos in particular. We would fill Shea’s trunk with bags and bags of horror tapes. We had shelves, milk crates, stacks of these things. In fact, once a cop pulled us over at 2am for having a tail light out and he noticed all of these suspicious looking bags in the back seat. We told him they were all full of horror videos but he really didn’t understand what we were doing.

At some point we started talking about opening our own video store–even though we really didn’t have much money. I was working as a projectionist at a third-run movie theater in Portland while Shea worked in a group home with schizophrenics and the mentally ill. Between the two of us we only had enough money to buy mountains of tapes that no one else seemed to want. Initially, we thought we would buy an old van and drive around southern Maine like a bookmobile and rent these tapes out to people: drive a circuit and come back to each town at the same time every week to recollect our tapes and rent out more, etc., all the while continuing to scour thrift stores and yard sales for new inventory.

But we never got the van.

It was an idea that we knew was absurd and, though we were sincere, it just never really took off. But the seed was planted and we had acquired all of this stuff and wanted to spread it around to people. Meanwhile, after four years I quit my projectionist job. It had become very routine. After taking a month off (and watching more movies than ever– sometimes ten a day or the same one three times in a row) I realized that I couldn’t get another job. No one wanted to hire a high school drop out with no phone, no car, and dreadlocks down to his butt–just an overall bad looking dude.

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Congress Street in Portland, ME, circa. 1985. The local arcade, Starcade, would eventually become the second (and current) location of Strange Maine

But I tried. I applied to be a parking garage attendant, a night watchman–any low impact, menial labor–but the no phone, no email thing was a major stumbling block. So, I started looking at store fronts that were for rent. Even though this was 2002, rent was still pretty pricey: it was looking like $1,200 – $1,500 per month for second story office spaces or out of the way storefronts which I would have had to take a bus to get to. It was all pretty discouraging. But then one fateful day I saw a ‘For Rent’ sign in the window of a place right in the middle of downtown Portland (and only three blocks from my apartment.)

By that time I realized that I would need to sell records, too, in order to make a shop feasible, so Shea and I decided to open a kind of media thrift store with no particular emphasis on any format. Strange Maine was born.

NEMMC: And this was back in the early 2000s?
BE: Right. We signed a lease in February 2003 and had the keys on March 1. We worked seventy hours a week for a month and had our grand opening on April Fool’s Day of that same year. In those days, most of the contents in the store I had hauled over hundreds of separate trips from my overflowing studio apartment–from my place to the shop and back again. Over and over. Pile by stack by crate by sackful. This was all during the US invasion of Iraq and my route went straight through an occupation of anti-war protesters who were camping out in Monument Square. Most days I’d take a minute and add my voice to the chorus of the disaffected–it was an exciting and emotional time for me. I felt like I was joining society for the first time in my life.
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Interior of the original Strange Maine location, circa. 2004
NEMMC: So, was the majority of what was sold at Strange Maine originally from your personal collection?

BE: Early on we put a sign on the door stating that we were buying records, tapes, videos, DVDs, books, etc., and that folks should just drop in while we put the shop together. A lot of the early content in the shop came from those drop-ins, most of whom were willing to trade for store credit. Tons of punk rock kids would drop by with their hardcore 7-inch records and zines, which were previously collecting dust in their closets because no one would buy.

When we finally opened for business on that Tuesday, April 1 in 2003 there was a line of people waiting to get in–many of whom had credit slips and wanted to scoop up the stuff I had been putting in the window display in order to generate interest in the shop. Most of those things were from the cream of my own collection. I had emptied my apartment in order to jumpstart the shop and many of those records, books, and videos I sold I still miss today. But, of course, it was worth it to have some cool stuff in the shop.

I was 23 years old and only wanted to make enough money to pay my rent and eat three or four 7-11 hot dogs a night.

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Paul Reubens, aka, Pee-wee Herman, visits Strange Maine in 2005
NEMMC: It seems like, even today, that Strange Maine leans a little more heavily on cult and horror films and music. Was this always the case? 

BE: I did notice that some people were really excited about particular records and movies; passionate about books; thrilled to find 80s punk demos on cassette for $1, while other folks had the look of sharks or vultures when they’d find something they could flip for a profit on the Internet. But I think the punks who came to the store really dug the socialist approach I had toward that stuff and they really championed the store. I was there five or six days a week, noon until midnight, sometimes later. It was a great time.

My vision for the space and its contents continued to grow and I became very possessive of the shop–it became my world and Shea, who still had a day job, felt excluded and left about six months after it opened. Occasionally I would close for a day or pay a friend to man the shop so I could have a day off, there were  a couple of occasions where I handed over the keys to a regular who’s name I didn’t even know with the hope that they wouldn’t do anything too heinous. I didn’t have a computer still, or a cash register, and I didn’t accept credit cards…but I was proud of the fact that if the power went out the only real affect it would have on the store was that it would be marginally dimmer (though it was already the darkest record store I had ever been in, having just three or four 60 watt track lights for illumination).

Back in those days it was a very simple, funky, rinky-dink place. Some folks still view the shop this way–but now it’s very tidy, organized, efficient, and much more of a capitalist venture now than it was back then.
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Strange Maine interior, 2017
In Part II, NEMMC and Evans discuss the darker (at times morbid) side of Strange Maine. Coming soon…
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