Whither ‘Strange Boston’?

This past weekend, my husband and I went to Portland, Maine, for a little getaway. At the top of our list of places to visit was Strange Maine, a shop we encountered during our first trip to Portland a couple of years ago.

For a couple of geeks, the store is a Shangri-La. They’ve got used video games, books, CDs, records, cassettes, VHS tapes and DVDs, along with crazy art, old toys and other cultural relics. The vibe is beyond indie — it’s totally off the grid. We felt right at home.

Strange Maine also hosts events ranging from concerts by noise bands and anti-folkers to puppet shows to author readings. It’s a heck of a joint. This time around, I bought an old Sega Master System game (“Action Fighter“!) and Rick bought a 4-DVD anime box set — both very discounted thanks to us bringing this coupon.

Even though we love Strange Maine, visiting it always makes us a little sad, since it has no analogue in Boston. I’ve heard a lot of folks complain over the years that there are no more “cool” stores in Boston — by cool, meaning independent shops with character that break the mold — and I’m inclined to agree. Sure, Newbury Comics is great, but it’s to Strange Maine what a pair of Fluevogs are to your favorite Cons. And sometimes, you just want to wear those crusty ol’ Cons.

Skylight ExchangeThe closest thing I’ve ever found to Strange Maine is the Skylight Exchange. in Chapel Hill, N.C. I’ve only been there once — when I visited my friends Dallas and Thomas in 2003 — but the place left a strong impression. Not only did they have used books, movies and CDs, but they had awesome sandwiches and milkshakes, and they host concerts and other events from time to time. I really didn’t want to leave. (I think I wanted another milkshake.)

I think the great vibe I get from places like Strange Maine and Skylight Exchange is because  they are the direct results of someone implementing their own quirky vision. And somehow, they work. So why can’t it work in Boston?

The two places that, in my mind, come the closest are in Coolidge Corner. Irving’s Toy and Card Shop always brings back the best memories from my childhood, as I root through boxes of old action figures or peruse the selection of paddle balls, wind-up animals and other cheap plastic toys. And don’t forget the board games, the candy and the delightfully anachronistic ambiance. Closer to the heart of Coolidge Corner is Brookline News and Gifts, which crowds its narrow aisles and jam-packed shelves with tobacco, flasks, tons of board games, novelties, gifts and anything else you can think of. (Some Yelpers mention that there is a lot porn; I don’t recall seeing any to that degree. But I wouldn’t be surprised.)

But as fun as those shops are to visit, they still fall short of what I would love Boston to offer. I tried to think of shops in the city that do buck (or, if now closed, bucked) the trend, that are more than just another Newbury Comics and try to hit on a wide range of geek interests with some unique character. I remember the old Diskovery book store on Brighton Ave. in Allston, where the organization was lacking, the dust mites were a-plenty and the woman who owned the place was as surly as could be. (At least there was a cat wandering amidst the piles of books.) Among Boston’s used CD shops, Planet Records, Nuggets and the Comm. Ave. In Your Ear have the most character for my money. Comicazi gets my pick among the comic shops, thanks in large part to their great treasure trove of old action figures and $1 comics. The thing about all of those stores, of course, is that they are more or less speciality shops. It’s hard to find all-purpose geek boutiques — or punk junkshops, if you will. I’ve never been there, but maybe Regeneration Records in Allston fits the bill. Weirdo Records might get there, now that they’ve relocated from the owner’s apartment to a Mass. Ave storefront. (I know there are other places out there — what am I missing?)

We are lucky to have the Comicazis and Planets that we do have, in addition to the Lorem Ipsums and the Tokyo Kids and the Million Year Picnics and everything else. But there is something about a geek nexus like Strange Maine, a shop that somehow bundles under one roof a rich cross-section of geekdom, serving as a subcultural outpost. Visiting stores like that is a little like coming home, and that’s a hard feeling to capture. I wish I didn’t have to go to Maine to find it.

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