There are few experiences as inherently part of Portland as floating around the basement music and DVD store at 151 Middle St., below Casablanca Comics, either to see what’s new or just to kill time before a show at the Nickelodeon.
But that experience came to an end Monday when Bull Moose Music closed its Old Port store.
The business that sells records, CDs, books, movies, toys, and games was an Old Port staple for nearly two decades. But on a rainy Monday, as November ticked into December with the pandemic-year streets void of the usual holiday shoppers, Bull Moose did exactly what Bob Seger said to do.
It turned the page.
“Our lease is up and there is very little foot traffic downtown,” the business said in a Facebook post. “All other Bull Moose locations will remain open. We hope to see you at one of those stores (or online) soon.”
Brett Wickard, the founder of Bull Moose, declined an interview request. A representative of the company said Wickard was not doing interviews on the matter, even when asked only to discuss the history of the company.
“Downtown Portland will rebound and when it does we will look for a new location in Portland,” the Facebook post continued. “Until then, the Mill Creek and Scarborough stores are only a few miles away.”
Bull Moose will also continue to operate its stores in Waterville, Bangor, Lewiston, Windham, Brunswick, Sanford, and New Hampshire.
But its absence will not go unnoticed in the Old Port, where it is but the latest of several well-known businesses – among them Holy Donut, Lois’ Natural Marketplace, Eaux, Po’ Boys & Pickles, Portmanteau, Paper Patch, and soon Vena’s Fizz House – to close for pandemic- or economic-related reasons.
Quincy Hentzel, president and chief executive of the Portland Regional Chamber of Commerce, said it was especially hard to see Bull Moose go.
“They were such an iconic business in town, they were such an established business,” Hentzel said. “It’s a little surprising.”
But ultimately, she said, it’s not that shocking, considering the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on businesses.
“If you look at the past nine months, it’s been really hard for retailers and restaurants all over,” Hentzel said. “Specifically in the Old Port.”
She said it was “interesting” that Bull Moose and the Holy Donut both have other locations outside downtown.
“Portland itself is going through a really challenging time for businesses,” Hentzel said.
She said business and restaurant owners are “exasperated,” and there is a level of uncertainty for everyone, in part because of Portland’s recently passed ballot initiatives, which Hentzel called “fairly catastrophic.”
Hentzel said a requirement to raise the minimum wage to $18 per hour during a state of emergency created a situation that was untenable for many businesses. She said it’s hard to imagine any business surviving to the ninth month of the pandemic, only to have to then increase its wages by $6 an hour.
Hentzel said you can “read between the lines” about why businesses with locations outside of Portland have decided to close their Old Port establishments.
“I would be hard-pressed to think we won’t see more stores closing or moving out of Portland over the next few months,” she said. “Due to the pandemic, but also to these new regulations that only businesses in Portland have to follow.”
Hentzel said it’s likely more businesses will decide to open in other nearby towns or cities – South Portland, Westbrook, Falmouth, for example – simply because they won’t have to struggle to figure out how to pay their employees.
Mary Alice Scott, executive director of Portland Buy Local, wouldn’t say the ballot questions were the reason Bull Moose left the Old Port. She noted the Holy Donut needed more space, and suggested it was possible Bull Moose made a similar decision.
But she said Portland does not make it easy for a small business to keep its lights on.
“It’s a reflection of everything we have seen so far,” Scott said. “Commercial rents in Portland are really high, and if there are no people, it’s hard.”
She said the Bull Moose basement space may also be hard to fill, in a building that has had a difficult history attracting new tenants.
Scott said she hopes businesses like Holy Donut and Bull Moose ultimately return to downtown Portland since they were cornerstones of the Old Port and part of its character. She said the solution could come down to new federal relief funding for businesses, although she’s not certain that will come through.
“Without additional funding, I’m worried about how many more businesses will close in January, February and March,” Scott said. “It’s never been more important (to shop local).”