In the summer of 2010, my lady friend (who would go on to become my wife) and I took a trip up to Maine, back to my hometown of Portland. She had been to Maine before but I don’t think she had ever been to Portland and I was excited to show her around. We checked out the waterfront, the boats I used to work on, my high school, a couple of my favorite bars, the pizza place my buddies and I went to all the time in high school, and Bull Moose Music, a local record store in town.
Putting into words what Bull Moose had meant to me growing up was hard to do and it was fun to show her a place where I had spent so much time during my high school years. I spent hours there. Couldn’t even begin to tally up an estimate let alone something remotely close to an accurate number. If I was going to give this lovely lady a proper glimpse into what my Portland, Maine was, a trip to Bull Moose was essential.
Earlier this week, some news came across the ticker that reminded me of that particular visit and so much more. Bull Moose’s Portland location was closing its doors. Other Bull Moose locations across the great state of Maine would remain open, but due to the reduced foot traffic in downtown Portland as a result of COVID, the Portland location was packing things up. The hope was to reopen again, but for now, the unofficial Portland landmark was done.
It sucks. There really isn’t a more eloquent way to put it. I feel for those people who were lucky enough to still be able to visit the store and now can’t any longer. And I know that young people don’t buy physical copies of music anymore, but if they did, I would be bummed for those in sunny Portland, Maine who will be robbed of the unparallel joy of roaming through Bull Moose’s collection.
I have no idea when I first stepped foot in Bull Moose but when I think of high school, it’s synonymous with those four years spent attending Portland High School, which was just a few blocks away. I’d dip into Bull Moose at lunch or after school. I’d stop in on weekend nights and throughout the summer, afraid I might have missed something not being able to go on a regular basis. Sometimes I’d have a clear objective, sometimes I was just kicking around with no stated purpose. In both instances, I usually left with something, if not a few things.
Throughout high school, I was a sponge when it came to music as I was on a relentless quest to figure out what my tastes were, what music I loved, what music I liked, and what music I didn’t want any part of. Classic rock, modern rock, grunge, hip hop, rap, jazz, jam bands. Nowadays it’s so easy to explore different kinds of music and different artists thanks to streaming services. If you’re curious about an artist, you do a quick search and there you go. There’s very little effort involved and certainly very little financial commitment to checking out some new music now. It’s all so easy.
But back in the day, if you heard something on the radio or caught a video on MTV, the follow-up work required if you dug it was far more labor-intensive than it is now. And I logged my time in the basement of an old building on Middle Street where there was a video store, a pizza place, and a record store. If you were a high school kid, what more could you ask for than those three spots all within a few feet of each other? Grab a slice at Anthony’s, pop into Videoport to check out movies or available posters, and then ramble over to Bull Moose. A solid hour or two right there, if not more.
One of the best features of Bull Moose was the used music section. They had hundreds and hundreds of used CDs (and even some used tapes.) The used section was a great way to check out new music at half the cost. They had a listening section set up as well and if one of the two Discmans on the small table was available, you could saddle up and check out an album before forking over a couple bucks for it if you liked it.
Just an example: I heard a song by The Specials once but I was lukewarm on ska; not quite sold on it despite having gotten into the Mighty Mighty Bosstones (who were only kind of ska.) So on one visit to Bull Moose, I checked their used section for Specials’ albums. Lucky for me, they had ‘The Singles Compilation,’ a Specials’ greatest hits album.
When in doubt, an artist’s greatest hits album was always a good way to go when it came to checking out an older act you had just gotten into. And so I grabbed the album, took a seat at the listening station, and cruised through the album. I loved it and at a low cost of maybe $6, how could I not buy it? In any other situation, I would have been a little hesitant to buy the album but not so here.
Of course, now, this would all be a moot point. But again, this was back in the day, you animals. Back in the day spending $6 on an album you weren’t 100% sure of was a hell of a smart move compared to dropping at least $10 bucks more. And even then, I still did that on more than one occasion.
I’m sorry. I thought the Marcy Playground album with “Sex and Candy” on it would be good. I was wrong.
But even in that situation, Bull Moose came in clutch because not only could you buy used CDs, you could sell your old CDs and I did that a lot. I did it to then buy more CDs. It was something of a circular economic back and forth between myself and the shop. I would truck in there with 5 to 10 CDs, they’d buy maybe half of them, giving me about $20, and I’d turn around and give that money right back to them a short time later having picked out a new Pearl Jam record or Grateful Dead live album. This happened on almost a regular basis and is part of the reason why in our basement right now I have about four large books full of CDs. It might actually be five now that I think about it.
Bull Moose just felt like a safe place. The people who worked there were cool, like super cool, and gaining their respect, or at least a semblance of respect (real or imagined) felt like an accomplishment. There was Laree Love and a guy named Tony with a giant head of hair who I think maybe played in a band called Rumford, but I could be wrong about that. There were other people who worked there but those are the two I remember most. They’d give you a “hey man” when you’d approach the register and for a teenager, it was what it felt like later on in life when a bartender would do the same thing.
It just felt good, like you were somewhere where you belonged.
There was the bulletin board plastered with flyers for upcoming shows and there was the new release section that was always worth taking a peek at. By the used section was the local section where you could find albums by the same bands whose names were on the flyers over on the bulletin board. In the fall of 2005, my band’s debut album made its way into that section, and seeing it there, our name written in black Sharpie on the white divider that separated music from different artists was an unbelievably cool feeling.
After college, I moved back to Portland for a few years, and about once every two weeks I’d stop into Bull Moose, determined to come out with at least two new albums. My band’s flyers were now on the bulletin board and I navigated the store with the experience of a trusted professional. But even still, there was that sense of open-mindedness, a little bit of naivete and youthful wonderment. I never knew what I was going to find or if an album cover was going to catch my eye. I didn’t know if that while digging through the still thriving used section, I’d come across a blast from the past, which was oddly enough, probably something I had bought and then sold back to the store a decade earlier.
Trust me when I tell you that it was never lost on me that I could be buying a used copy of an album that I once owned and sold and this used copy could very well be the one I had sold.
It didn’t matter though. None of it mattered. It was all in good fun because, in Bull Moose, it was all good fun.
I’m not going to front and cop to still paying money for music these days. I’m an asshole in that regards just like everyone else is. I couldn’t even tell you what the last album I bought was but if I were to really think about it, it might have been nearly ten years ago when I saw this crazy Slavic brass band play at a bar in Philly and bought a copy of their album. But even with that, I didn’t really listen to the physical copy of that album much. It found a home in my car and that was it.
Record stores, like book stores, seem to be a dying relic of a bygone era. Thanks to streaming services and the vengeful behemoth that is Amazon, their usefulness in a practical sense has eroded. But then again, that’s almost a slap in the face to both establishments because they were never really there to be practical but instead, be experiential. You may have had a singular goal in mind when stopping by a local record store or book store, but rarely were you in one for less than fifteen minutes. It was one of those rare instances where distraction was a good thing.
The COVID pandemic and the resulting restrictions put in place by local governments could very well be the death knell for record stores and book stores, establishments that were on borrowed time as it was. The last thing they needed was for foot traffic to dry up, for people not to be inclined to swing by and meander around for a while, leafing through racks of albums or books. That involves touching and you know, these days…
I hadn’t stopped into Bull Moose in years but I’d be curious to know if the store even resembled the one I used to know, one with racks and racks of CDs. Had it transitioned to putting more of a priority on other items, whatever the hell they may be? Was there even a used section anymore? I have trouble imagining there being one because if sales of new albums are down, it would make sense that there aren’t many people strolling into a place like Bull Moose to sell used CDs. And if they are, it’s probably not kids like me twenty years ago, with a handful of albums in my back pack. It’s more likely to be old heads like myself now, lugging large boxes of CDs and no one needs a 40-year-old man walking in anywhere with a cardboard box full of CDs they bought in the 90s. That’s why God made flea markets.
Bull Moose being able to keep their other stores open does soften the blow, but I never really went to those stores. Mine was the Portland location and that one is closing. If I had a connection with the Windham location, it’d be a different story but that is not the case here.
I could go deep on the cruel passage of time and how it all somehow comes back to me just getting older but I’m not going to do that. I’ll do that some other time. Right now I’m just lamenting the loss of a place that meant a great deal to me and helped shape my musical tastes when I was the most receptive. I’m lamenting the fact that people younger than me won’t have the same experience and even worse, probably don’t even realize that they won’t have that same experience because it’s one that is most likely so foreign to them. I remember one time I brought up the act of buying a CD to some young people a year or so ago and it was as if I was speaking a foreign language. It didn’t make any sense to them and as I was saying it, it didn’t make much sense to me either.
Vinyl will likely always be a thing, but is that enough to keep record stores in business? Unless the Internet were to collapse into itself tomorrow (we can’t rule that out,) there is very little incentive for someone to go and buy an album. You can stream and I suppose now the indicator as to whether or not you really like an album is if you download it. That means it’s serious. But buying it? What would you even play it on besides in your car stereo?
Times are changing. That’s obvious. Part of how you know is that you get hints and for me, Bull Moose Portland closing is a pretty big hint. When it comes to looking back at your time growing up, you’d like certain things to stay the same. That way you can visit them in person and reminisce at the scene. Knowing these places are still there helps keep you grounded in a way, especially if they were a place that helped form the person who you would come to be. The further you get away from that time, the more you want it to always stay because it helps remind you of that specific era in your life.
But life doesn’t work out that way. Sometimes an effin’ pandemic happens and upends everything.
So you’re left with just the memories.
The books and books of CDs.
Thanks for the memories Bull Moose Portland.