Dispatches from the Other Portland

Portland, Maine, my hometown for the better part of two decades, is a pretty hip place. We are not, for the most part, innovators in fashion, but we are early adopters of the more interesting latest styles.

For years now, what I take to be a Brooklyn style has been prevalent among the local twentysomething crowd. The hipper restaurants are full of pretty young women and bearded men in plaid shirts who, on the one hand, seem ready for the woodlot but who, on the other hand, seem too skinny to lift a decent-size chainsaw. Likely as not, they arrived on single-speed racing bikes converted for commuter use. Nifty machines.

One of the hipper local restaurants is Otto's, a pizza joint on Congress Street, on the way up Munjoy Hill. At Otto's the booths are made from old piano parts (including the soundboards and strings), and the lighting is from reproduction old-fashioned bulbs that look exactly like glowing vacuum tubes.

I'm not a huge fan of derivative fashion—I much prefer deeply committed idiosyncrasy—but as fashions go, this one is pretty good. The beards seem affected and the jeans are too tight, but I've been known to wear a plaid shirt myself. Otto's always has three or four interesting, well-priced brews on tap. The pizza is good.

Here as in Brooklyn, the youth culture is very musical. Everyone seems to play an instrument, often in a band. They appreciate 1950s and '60s jazz, old-school ska, and the charms of used vinyl records—not entirely a good thing, since that means more competition for the few on offer in this town. Otto's is almost always playing good music and while the source is usually a bartender's iPod, I'd be willing to bet that there's a record player somewhere behind that long, dark bar.

On one recent visit to Otto's, I took along a copy of the March 2012 issue of Stereophile. Cracking a brand-new Stereophile over a beer and a pizza is one of my favorite things to do. But recently, at other times in other public places, I've felt self-conscious about my choice of reading material. It's awkward to explain to even a polite nonbeliever why the speaker on the cover—in this case, the Sonus Faber Amati Futura—costs as much as two years' rent on a nice in-town apartment, or nearly two years of full-time work at prevailing barista wages, after taxes. When you think about it, that's a scary superposition of current economic facts.

But on this recent visit, people were interested in my magazine. I'd hardly opened it when a young male employee—beardless, but wearing a lumberjack shirt—started asking me questions about it. Soon we were talking about Bartók's music for solo piano, which he greatly admired (I do, too). It was an interesting, respectful, substantive conversation.

Maybe 20 minutes later, a guy waiting for takeout asked me if that picture on the cover was of one of those speakers he'd heard about that are made up the coast (in Rockport). He knew the brother of a guy who did some work for the guy who made those speakers (Andy Payor), and in return had access to some of his castoffs. Again, there was a sense of respect, a little knowledge, even a touch of pride in his oblique connection to the industry. All of this was combined, naturally, with a sense of head-shaking amazement at the prices of some of this stuff, but with none of the outright hostility I've felt in the past.

It might not be Portland, Oregon (or Brooklyn), but east-coast Portland is a very hip, quasi-urban small city. (The 2010 census cites our population as 64,000. Greater Portland has 230,000 residents.) We deserve credit for having maintained a viable vinyl culture during years when an LP was an anachronism. From www.enterpriserecords.net, the website of my local, Enterprise Records: "We've never sold a CD, and after a couple of decades in the business, it's starting to look like we're going to outlast the format that was supposed to drive us out fifteen years ago."

And yet, despite being the home of Bob Ludwig's Gateway Mastering Studios, the reported birthplace of audio scribe Ken Kessler, and the home of Enterprise Records and Bryan Woods, a friend of mine who has four (count 'em) four Vandersteen subwoofers in his system (it sounds great), Portland is not a high-end audio town. Even Bob Wirtz, Enterprise's proprietor, looks on people like me with suspicion.

So it's all the more reassuring when total strangers—non-audiophile civilians—strike up conversations over a copy of Stereophile. Take this with a giant grain of Portland gourmet sea salt (see www.maineseasalt.com), but I can't help thinking that this moment in cultural and economic history presents a real opportunity for the audio industry. Despite their Brooklyn-based fashion, this generation of younger east-coast Portlanders shares a deep appreciation for the local and the idiosyncratic, and a deep distrust of all things megacorporate. They appreciate craftsmanship, tradition, elegance, and value. They are more inclined toward artistic than scientific pursuits. They're open-minded. They're willing to spend substantial fractions of their total income—not that they have much choice—on local art, high-end pizza, good beer, and other mood adjusters. And they obviously love music. All this makes them pretty decent people, in my book, but it also makes them likely customers for a principled, well-calibrated high-end audio trade.

Admittedly, there are uncertainties. An economy in which a month's rent equals a month's full-time wages for readily available (service) jobs doesn't leave much cash to buy boutique integrated amplifiers. And I can't help thinking that, to maintain credibility with this crowd, the industry will need to abandon some of its more absurd and cynical proclivities (see the May 2012 issue). The key will be to offer real craftsmanship and value at an accessible price. This is not a new idea, and I'm not the first to suggest it. But my pleasant lunch at Otto's made me hopeful about the future in a way I haven't been in a while.—Jim Austin

john abramson's picture

nice piece. don't forget that the reality of portland is that of a working class/poor people's city ( just walk down congress stree), with a thin veneer of 'hip'.



Kal Rubinson's picture

Works for me.  We'll be there (again) in August.


remlab's picture

Circus Time potato chips.."They're wicked good!"

"How many clams they put in them there cakes.."

Our family lived in an old converted warehouse on fore street that was also used for the "Underground Railroad" in the mid 1800's.The elementary school I went to was located in an eighteenth century graveyard (Eastern Cemetary. Founded in 1666). I also remember walking to school with the (Casco bank display) temperature reading under 20 below zero.. I loved that town. Historical, ideocyncratic,hip, and very cold in the winter..

ksquare's picture

Jim should also mention it's the birth place (or nearby) of Transparent's Karen Sumner, and that the Full Belly Deli is as good as anything in NYC! I wish I'd never left. Ken Kessler