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…

Rustic VHS: Digging at the Tape Barn

By John Campopiano and Matt Spry

Stretching over 20 acres with more than 400 vendor spaces, the Hollis Flea Market (established in 1964) in Hillsborough County, New Hampshire, purports to be the largest and oldest flea market of its kind in the Granite State. The outdoor market is so busy, in fact, that according to the official website, “we need two Hollis police officers to direct street crossings.” While the market offers countless options for vintage fashion, antiques, and novelty handmade items — on a recent visit we spotted a toilet seat fashioned into what appeared to be a four-string bass — a rust-colored barn on the outskirts of the market’s main drag is of particular significance to media-heads. [Authors’ note: John scouted out the location first, nearly two years ago, and urged Matt to visit, remarking in an August 2014 text that he’d “never seen anything like it.”] More than 400 miles and a hundred purchases later, this characterization still holds up.

The “Tape Barn,” as we’ve affectionately come to call it, really consists of two distinct entities, neither of which references the VHS format at all: Murphy’s House of Books and Ruth’s Book Barn. The main proprietor of both of them, Mark Murphy, has been a vendor at the Hollis Flea Market since 1998. Just three years later, he began a business relationship with another vendor, an elderly woman named Ruth, and integrated his book inventory with her movie inventory to help her with the weekly rigors of maintaining her vendor space. By 2004, this full collection of books, DVDs, and VHS tapes was moved into the barn as it exists today. More than 15,000 VHS titles adorn its shelves — most were purchased from private collectors over the years as video stores went belly up —  with an additional 25,000 titles (Mark’s estimate) residing at Ruth’s home as overstock.

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Matt’s fresh picks from the Tape Barn as of May 2016

On any given Sunday from May through October, Mark and one or more of the Barn’s other workers can be found moving stack after stack of crates full of tapes to more than a dozen outdoor tables for easier access. The barn itself is appropriately simple, with only daylight to brighten your view of the shelves, and more than a few cobwebs to add a uniquely woodsy touch. There are three narrow, floor-to-ceiling aisles to navigate that extend about 20 feet back from the entrance. Unlike your favorite video rental store, which likely arranged titles by genre and displayed the front box covers, the Barn’s tapes are ordered alphabetically and show the box’s spine text, the way libraries shelve books. (A stiff neck is a common symptom of scanning the shelves over extended periods of tape-digging — the bottom shelves are the absolute worst in this regard.)

And, as most repeat visitors will likely discover, it’s not just them who feel the aches and pains from tape-digging at the Barn. Occasionally, as a result of being exposed to New Hampshire’s seasonal elements (wind, rain, snow) tapes will emerge each spring a little worse for the wear. Ultimately, it comes with the territory when you’re dealing with a grassroots project such as the Barn. With such a massive inventory and the lack of a staff, it’s not surprising that addressing preservation issues and performing general upkeep of every tape is essentially an unachievable goal. For the avid tape-digger, however, the questionable condition of some of the tapes is less a deterrent as it is an added element of intrigue and perhaps even excitement. The issue of ongoing preservation of their inventory is something that may continue to plague the keepers of the Barn while simultaneously grabbing the attention of like-minded collectors and admirers of the medium.

The patrons with whom we’ve shared this unique space seem to be film fans like us — people in their late 20s through their early 40s who have defined tastes in genre films, perhaps horror or direct-to-video action — with some material nostalgia for the VHS format itself. More important, most of them probably hold the notion of serendipitous discovery in high regard; stumbling upon an obscure or even a personally sentimental title in the “wilds” of a flea market or vintage store is somehow more satisfying than getting a used copy from an Amazon seller, or winning an eBay auction. In discussing her fondness for flea markets in a prior exchange with John, makeup and special effects artist, Stacy Still, articulated this idea, saying that “as a massive tape collector, I’m always on the hunt for new tapes, ones that I remember fondly from my childhood at the video store.” There are few people for whom the act of poking around a cramped and dusty barn to simulate the past experience of video store browsing still holds appeal, but there are even fewer places that provide this opportunity in the era of media streaming.

The Barn is just one of several remaining VHS treasure troves of which we’re aware, but unlike Scarecrow in Seattle, WA, or Movie Madness in Portland, OR, it doesn’t have a well-lit brick-and-mortar location to sell its wares. Its staff isn’t comprised of film buffs with a fondness for 1980s slashers or 1970s kung fu epics. Instead of engaging customers online through a dedicated Twitter feed or even a website, Mark relies on a local Craigslist post that he periodically refreshes throughout the market’s open season. Many VHS enthusiasts will visit the Barn and see a collector’s paradise; its selection, trade-in policy, and prices ($3 a tape or four for $10) really can’t be beat. Despite the breadth and depth of his inventory, it’s not evident that Mark shares the same enthusiasm for the format or the nostalgia that his patrons often do. (He owns “a few” VCRs and acknowledges that interest in VHS persists because “not everything is on DVD,” but also says that his books might actually outsell the tapes.)

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Some of John’s favorite VHS covers found at the Tape Barn

With a presence at the Hollis Flea Market spanning nearly 20 years, and more than a decade of selling VHS specifically, it’s unlikely the Barn will be going anywhere anytime soon. (Ever try to sell out an inventory of 40,000 tapes? Not an easy venture.) It’s difficult to gauge Mark’s plans for expansion or advancement — he alluded to creating a searchable image database for his titles — but the beauty of the Barn is its simplicity. There’s magic in its dusty floors, in the awkward positions in which you need to contort your body to see certain rows, and in the pockets of crisp air near the back wall on a warm July morning. For purely selfish reasons, we don’t want any changes at all, because we’ve never seen anything like it.

John’s purchases from The Barn:
-Aberration (1997, Artisan Entertainment)
-*Batteries Not Included (1987, MCA Home Video)
-Blood Link (1986, Embassy)
-CHUD II (1988, Vestron Video)
-Circuitry Man (1989, RCA Home Video)
-The Club (1994, Imperial Entertainment Corp.)
-Code Name: Zebra (1990, Star Classics)
-Count Yorga, Vampire (1970, HBO Video/Orion)
-Cutting Class (1988, Republic Pictures Home Video)
-Cyborg Cop (1993, Vidmark)
-Dark Breed (1996, PM Entertainment)
-Dark Universe (1993, PRISM Entertainment)
-Death Drug (1986, Academy Home Entertainment)
-The Dirt Bike Kid (1986, Charter Entertainment)
-The Dive (1989, M.C.E.G Virgin Home Entertainment)
-Eat and Run (1986, New World Video)
-The Evil Within (1994, A-Pix Entertainment)
-The Expectant Father (1993, Video Treasures)
-Florida Straits (1986, Orion Home Video)
-Forgotten Warrior (1986, Monarch Home Video)
-Freddy’s Nightmares: The Series (1991, Warner Home Video)
-Gargantua (1998, 20th Century Fox)
-Ghosts That Still Walk (1986, Interglobal Video Promotions)
-A Gnome Named Gnorm (1994, PolyGram Video)
-Graveyard Story (1992, Goodtimes Home Video)
-The Haunted Lantern (1997, Asia Pulp Cinema)
-Jack Frost 2 (2000, A-Pix Entertainment)
-Jaws of the Alien (1988, Star Classics)
-Kuddly Kittens (1990, MNTEX Entertainment)
-Little Monsters (1989, MGM Home Video)
-Lobster Man From Mars (1990, IVE)
-Meridian (1990, Full Moon Entertainment)
-Metalstorm: The Destruction of Jared-Syn (1983, MCA Home Video)
-The Meteor Man (1993, MGM Home Video)
-Mr. Nanny (1993, New Line Home Video)
-My Mom’s a Werewolf (1988, PRISM)
-My Uncle: The Alien (1996, PM Entertainment)
-Planet of Dinosaurs (1993, EDDE Entertainment)
-Playing Dead (2000, Academy Entertainment)
-Prehysteria! (1993, Paramount Home Video)
-Project: Alien (1989, Vidmark)
-Proteus (1996, Vidmark)
-Psychic Killer (1975, Embassy)
-Psycho II (1983, MCA Home Video)
-A Return to Salem’s Lot (1987, Warner Home Video)
-Screamers (1980, Embassy)
-Shallow Grave (1990, Paramount Home Video)
-Short Circuit (1986, CBS Fox Video)
-Spaced Invaders (1990, Touchstone Home Video)
-Stepmonster (1993, New Horizon)
-Strange Invaders (1983, Vestron Video)
-The Surgeon (1993, A-Pix Entertainment)
-The Texas Chainsaw Massacre Part 2 (1986, Media)
Matt’s purchases from The Barn:
-Abraxas (1990, United American Video)
-Angel of Fury (1992, Imperial Entertainment)
-Anguish (1987, Key Video)
-Bad Blood (1981, Academy Entertainment)
-Band of the Hand (1986, Columbia TriStar Home Video)
-BrainWaves (1983, Embassy Home Entertainment)
-Cage 2 (1994, Summa Video)
-The Carpenter (1988, Republic Pictures Home Video)
-The CBS/FOX Guide to Home Videography (1983, CBS FOX Video)
-Chinatown Connection (1990, Southgate Entertainment)
-Cut and Run (1985, New World Pictures)
-Dead Tides (1997, Live Home Video)
-DeepStar Six (1989, IVE)
-Double Blast (1994, Vidmark)
-Dragonfight (1990, Warner Home Video)
-Eye of the Eagle (1987, MGM Home Entertainment)
-A Fight for Honor (1992, York Home Video)
-Fist Fighter (1989, IVE)
-Free Spirit: The American Biker (1991, Visual Entertainment Group)
-The Joy of Natural Child Birth (1985, MCA Home Video)
-Laser Mission (1989, Platinum Disc)
-The Legend of Gator Face (1996, Lions Gate)
-Link (1986, Home Box Office Home Video)
-Making Contact (1985, Anchor Bay)
-Merlin and the Sword (1986, Vestron Video)
-Mindfield (1989, Magnum Entertainment)
-The Moon in the Gutter (1983, RCA/Columbia Pictures Home Video)
-Nightflyers (1987, IVE)
-Ninja Enforcer (1976, New Pacific Pictures)
-Ninja Mission (1984, Media Home Entertainment)
-No Retreat, No Surrender (1986, New World Pictures)
-The Playroom (1989, Republic Pictures)
-Raw Courage (1984, New World Pictures)
-Rock House (1988, Coyote Video)
-Rooftops (1989, Avid Home Video)
-S.A.S. San Salvador (1983, Vestron Video)
-Sudden Thunder (1990, AIP)
-A Taste of Hell (1973, Star Maker Video)
-Thunderground (1989, SGE Home Video)
-Torment (1986, New World Pictures)