For a state better known for its prized lobster, abundant blueberries and towering pine trees than for housing a business that helped revive independent record stores, Maine plays the underdog. By the time I was first introduced to New England’s “Vacationland,” though, that vinyl revolution had yet to begin.
I often spent summer vacation at my grandparents’ tiny cabin on Thomas Pond in South Casco, Maine, in the mid-1980s. It was a one-and-half story log cottage painted with bright red accents. The cabin had an outhouse, toolshed and small garage nestled on a thick bed of pine needles, all of which sloped toward a tiny beach and a wooden, mossy pier that quietly lapped the water with a calming regularity.
Camping in the woods ultimately brought nostalgic memories, but for me, a shy kid and a serious music fan, it also meant being without my small stereo and tape deck. Being unplugged was expected, though, because I’d be busy fishing for bass and sunfish on the boat with my dad, grandfather and sister, or setting foot in the pond’s soft, squishy sand on warm days. Growing up north of Boston, that cabin in South Casco felt like the top of the world to me, eons from anywhere. But it’s only an hour from Portland, home to Bull Moose Music, the best record store in Maine.
Its small flagship store in Brunswick was founded in 1989 by entrepreneur Brett Wickard on $37,000. Now nine shops stretch along the rocky coast from Sanford to Bangor, with two in New Hampshire. On paper, that’s one way Bull Moose stands out in northern New England. But its biggest contribution to independent music is not as well known as it should be.
On its 10-year anniversary this year, Record Store Day officials released the July 2007 email written by Bull Moose employee Chris Brown, who was first hired as a clerk in 1991 and is now its vice president. In Brown’s email to Department of Record Stores head Michael Kurtz, he suggests creating an “Indie Record Store Day” as “a national event that drives people to indie stores. Indies rule. We haven’t gone anywhere ... We are more important than ever before.” Brown ends the note with the humble message, “I’m going to close because I haven’t eaten lunch.” The guy single-handedly launched a new trajectory for independent music, and did it before his lunch break.
After a group of record-store owners brainstormed in Baltimore that year, Record Store Day officially began. Bull Moose Music was not named as a co-founder, but without Brown’s initial push for others to recognize that vinyl could be important once again, RSD may not have existed. Every April since then, music fans clamor to the nearest record store to grab special editions of records pressed specifically for the occasion. The effect of Record Store Day on the record industry is impressive. In April 2016, sales of vinyl shot up 131 percent. About 521,000 records in the U.S. went home with eager music fans. Record Store Day also helps keep record stores afloat. Sales at independent record stores in 2017 skyrocketed, surging more than 300 percent.
Portland, one of the few metropolitan areas in the predominantly wooded, lake-dotted state, is a good fit for Bull Moose’s headquarters. But parts of Maine, some more isolated than others, are just as deserving of a place where a tight-knit music community can gather. It’s the ninth least populous state, on par with its neighbor, New Hampshire. But where New Hampshire is smaller and borders Vermont, Rhode Island, Massachusetts and Connecticut, Maine is much more isolated. The state’s northernmost portion parallels the rugged Appalachian Mountains, and juts up against Canada like a jagged thumb. The vast North Maine Woods, roughly the size of Connecticut and Rhode Island, is still mostly devoid of towns or paved roads, comprising 155 unincorporated townships and 3.5 million acres of forest.
Its northernmost point is Estcourt Station, a village home to just four people, according to the most recent U.S. Census report. While that population could sit comfortably around a kitchen table, Portland boasts more than 66,000.
Those are the extremes. In between are long stretches of barren land that seem ready to swallow you whole. And yet, Maine’s nickname is “Vacationland,” which can conjure images of smiling women with perfectly coiffed and sprayed hairdos jet-skiing crystal blue waters in modest swimsuits, like vintage Go-Go’s. As with everywhere else in the world, the best spots in Maine, with the clearest lakes and the grandest views, are taken by those with the most money. They live in Freeport or cozy, quaint harborside towns like Mount Desert Island, but Maine’s got its share of low-income housing and towns struggling to stay above water, with good folks who have no time to lounge by the lake. According to one site, 35 percent of the population in Perry, halfway between the equator and the North Pole, lives below the poverty line.
Maine is also a place outdoor enthusiasts crave: It has Acadia National Park, state parks and preserves, mountainous terrain great for skiing and about 33,000 acres of virgin forest. It’s got Mount Katahdin, aka the northern terminus of the Appalachian Trail and the state’s highest mountain. (Just don’t hike it during winter, if you want to live. Caribou, while north of the trail, once plummeted to minus 41 degrees.) The less adventurous can hike to the top of Cadillac Mountain to see the first rays of sunlight hit the U.S. mainland.
The story of Maine’s people begins with its Native Americans. Tribes like the Penobscots, Abenaki, Micmacs and Maliseets settled around major waterways like the Saco, Androscoggin and Kennebec rivers, only to be subjected to diseases and conflict from white European inhabitants. Many were driven out to Canada. In the 1970s, the Penobscot, Passamaquoddy and Saint John Indians won $27 million to buy back 300,000 acres of their land, but reconciliation is far from over. In 2015, the Penobscot Nation and the Passamaquoddy tribe withdrew from the Maine legislature amid conflict with controversial Republican Gov. Paul LePage, stemming from his withdrawal of an executive order to recognize tribes’ sovereignty.
Not all Mainers grow potatoes or run a lobster boat, as travel brochures or stereotypical TV ads might have you think. Settlers and Native Americans floated heavy logs from the Great North Woods down rivers like the Saint John and Allagash. As lumbermen associations and towns sprung up, hardscrabble Mainers continued to shove more lumber downriver. Later generations worked at paper mills like the Great Northern Paper Company. That shuttered in 2014 after a century amid bankruptcy. At one time, the company provided the U.S. with 16 percent of its newsprint. But where Maine might struggle with an aging population or the fallout from a dying industry, its people make the state special.
In Maine, if you’re not local you’re from away. Full disclosure: I’m a true New Englander, not a true Mainer. But I’ve got in-laws in Bangor, hiked Acadia when it was 10-below, watched the sun set over Cadillac and walked portions of the Appalachian Trail. I also still don’t understand quite where “Downeast” is. Yes, I’m from away, but I can clearly see Maine is full of good people. They’re working-class, salt-of-the-earth folks who would give your car a jump at 3 a.m. without hesitation. And they’re fiercely protective of Maine’s eccentricities. If you pronounce Calais like the French city, and not like the tough skin that can form on your hands from manual labor, you’ll hear about it. (Calais, by the way, is where they drop a herring on New Year’s Eve. Only in Maine.)
Maine is beautiful, but it can also be prime boredom for kids who can’t afford to ski or hike, or who have to work to support the family. Small towns mean lack of a place to chill with others who share your interests. As a result, Bull Moose stores sometimes exist in half-vacant plazas where other shops and businesses have gone dark. If you’re lucky enough to live in a town that has a Bull Moose, it might be the only place for music fans to hang out, making it necessary to that community’s well being.
The Sanford location, for example, stays hidden and anonymous in a quiet shopping plaza amid a gym, a thrift shop and a storefront peddling tax services. Once you step in though, it’s like an oasis — a cozy portal to rock, jazz, metal, movie soundtracks, krautrock, “world” music, and all other shades. The space is small and narrow, but like Bull Moose’s 10 other locations, the tiny store is full to the brim with new and used books, DVDs, classical, concert and music CDs, television merch and plenty of vinyl, new and vintage. At some Bull Moose, fliers post guitar lessons. Slots in local bands litter the message boards, fluttering to announce the next customer. Handmade posters for upcoming shows and piles of zines are a hyperlocal perk and a human connection you can’t get online. A record store that’s truly important is far more than just logistics and driving routes. It’s a feel; it’s something you can depend on when there’s not much else that’s happy in your life.
That’s why Bull Moose is the best record store in Maine.
Up next, we travel to North Dakota.