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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Gator Bait: A Love Story

The alligator wants food to chew
Feed him just right or he’ll feed on…YOU
Better be lucky, with the spinner
That tells you to eat him
Or take out his dinner
Give him a TV only he knows
Just when his jaws are ready to close
Take out a jug, put in a case
He’s losing his patience
Just look at that face
Feed him a can
If that’s what you choose
Throw in a block and…YOU LOSE
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Original artwork from the ALLIGATOR  one sheet poster, 1980

By John Campopiano

All of us have a memory of a moment that we’re not entirely sure actually occurred. A blurry instance that we think happened but that we can’t corroborate with someone else or find evidence of no matter how sophisticated the keyword search in Google.

With this in mind, is it likely one might have a childhood memory of sitting inches from  a television set and watching a giant, man-eating alligator burst from the depths of a sewer onto a public thoroughfare? Doubtful. But maybe?

That’s the scene childhood friend, Zac, describes of his first viewing of the 1980 cult classic, ALLIGATOR, directed by Lewis Teague, starring Robert Forster and Robin Riker, and written by the man who also brought us PIRANHA (1978) and THE HOWLING (1981), John Sayles. Originally from Massachusetts and now residing in Chicago, Zac and I shared in a screening of this film at a young age – perhaps too young to be watching the likes of an animatronic monster devouring unsuspecting pedestrians left and right – in his North Attleboro basement.

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Spanish version of ALLIGATOR poster

 

Zac recalls viewing this oddity, “My first memories of seeing the movie are burned into my brain. I was far too young to watch it, maybe six or seven (ca. 1991-92?), and I was downstairs watching it on TV in the basement by myself. The image that is forever etched into my mind is the scene where the alligator bursts out of the street where there is a manhole cover and comes above ground. It was terrifying…”

Clearly the film made an impression on Zac, as it did on me the first time I saw it (Zac’s 2nd go around with it.) Twenty years later that experience with Zac is somehow both vivid and largely unclear in my mind, much like a memory of an experience you can’t quite decipher or confirm. Zac again: “I had that memory of the movie [the alligator bursting from underground] and it had an impact on me for years, but it wasn’t until the two of us connected over it later that I realized it was a real movie in the world. I think I always half-thought that I had imagined it and made it up. Lo and behold, on a second viewing as a teen or adolescent, the same scene came up and it was all confirmed as a real thing in the world.”

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Campopiano visits the North Attleboro, MA house where he first saw ALLIGATOR (1980), February 2016

Indeed, these bizarre memories of reptilian horror were, in fact, real, and in the two decades since, Zac and I have sporadically cobbled together other memories of the film through various email and Facebook message exchanges. It has been – as these things often are – very enjoyable to wax nostalgic for a pleasant time (albeit foggy) in my adolescence. Of course, if you’re someone who happens to suffer from both nostalgia and an urge to collect, the buck does not, as they say, stop there.

In the years since first seeing the film several things happened: I exposed many friends and family (much to their indifference or outright displeasure) to ALLIGATOR. In 2014 I met the film’s director, Lewis Teague, at a convention in New Jersey and had him sign my original Egyptian ALLIGATOR poster [see photo below]. But it was even earlier, in elementary school that I learned of a rare movie tie-in game produced by the IDEAL company, appropriately called ALLIGATOR – The Game. And in the years since its limited release it has become somewhat of a coveted piece by many horror fanatics and board game collectors alike.

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ALLIGATOR – The Game by IDEAL (1980)

Truth be told, since those elementary school days I’ve kept an eye out for any relics from ALLIGATOR (copies of the film on any format, original one sheet posters, etc.) but it was the IDEAL game that continued to elude me no matter how savvy my search. This all changed when I discovered a seller from North Kingston, RI, selling the alligator piece from the game. No other parts of the game were included, but I didn’t care. The cool part of the game was always the 27″ long alligator itself – in all of its forest green, plastic glory.

The complete game with original box commands a high dollar (upwards of $100 or more) — so to find even the lone alligator in decent condition and under 100 miles from my home in Boston should be deemed a lucky, if not an improbable, find.

But could I really sink my teeth into it and seal the deal?

After some good-natured back and forth regarding price I was able to round third base and slide directly into the jaws of this delicious piece of 1980s nostalgia. After years of wondering when or if I would ever find it, it was mine.

******

On a warm, Sunny Sunday in February I made the trek south to North Kingston, RI to collect my treasure. Almost immediately after breaking through the East Greenwich/North Kingston town line I felt as though I had stumbled into the most rural part of the state. Not much separated the modest cottages from an antique store (with a fabulous bathtub propped up proudly on the front porch) and some railroad tracks. The owner of my beautiful beast lived in (what felt like) an abandoned farmhouse. Kids toys and rusty farm equipment littered the property. I rang the bell.

A woman cracked the door open and peered out at me. Children could be easily heard running around and yelling in the background. “Hi, I’m here for the alligator toy…” I said.

She quickly called to one of her children to fetch the gator. “Here you go,” she said. I gave her the $15 I had haggled her husband down to and went about my way.

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Campopiano immediately after claiming his prized alligator, February 2016

Victory was mine and I couldn’t have been happier. Years of hunting were over. Not dissimilar to how I have felt over the years collecting other memorabilia, I now felt closer to a film I’ve appreciated for years. It’s a true sign of a collector when it’s not enough just to admire something from a distance – we must connect with it in a tangible, realtime way. Somehow it satiates our hunger for the past while justifying the effort exerted on the quest itself to find whatever it is we’re hunting for.

It’s funny how things like films (and certainly music) have a way of not only binding themselves to us but also binding us to others in our lives. My pal Zac and I never see one another, and yet we carry this bizarre little connection with us through life. I can’t pass his old street in North Attleboro or even see a status update of his on Facebook without thinking of ALLIGATOR. What’s more, I can’t see the VHS cover in my collection or catch the film on late-night TV without thinking of Zac. It’s strange, yet also strangely comforting.

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Campopiano and ALLIGATOR (1980) director, Lewis Teague, in New Jersey, March 2014

Interested in other horror movie-themed board games? Check out this great article by John Squires on Dread Central!