BANGOR, Maine — As banks failed and unemployment soared, the Maine-based music, DVD and video game chain Bull Moose made a startling announcement: 2009, the year the economy took a nosedive, was the chain’s most profitable year ever.
“It’s kind of ironic, but then again, while people might not be going out and buying a new TV, they’ll go out and spend 20 bucks on a couple of DVDs,” said Bull Moose president Brett Wickard, who opened the first store in Brunswick in 1989. “We know what our strengths are. Our prices have always been competitive. That’s what keeps people coming back.”
On the heels of its recent success, Wickard and fellow Bull Moose staffers made the decision to broaden its retail horizons by adding books to its regular stock of CDs, records, DVDs, video games and collectible items. The Bangor location, the most northerly of the chain’s 10 stores, will be the guinea pig for the chain’s new literary-minded venture. Starting with a grand reopening party today, a tripled-in-size store will sell books at a 35 percent discount off their list prices.
“Books had certainly been something we’d always toyed with. We knew last year that we wanted to do this. I think there’s some overlap between music and movie fans and book fans, but we’ll get some new customers, too,” said Wickard. “You kind of have to jump in with something like this. It’s like when we expanded to include DVDs in addition to music. We didn’t know if it would work, but it did.”
The timing was perfect, as both spaces on either side of Bull Moose were vacant, and landlord Bob Connor, owner of the Maine Square Mall, was open to renovation. Last month the walls separating Bull Moose from the vacant stores on either side were knocked down, and new fixtures were installed over the ensuing weeks. Last Wednesday, the books arrived — a selection spanning the gamut from contemporary fiction to art, music, science, biography and poetry.
“The way our system works, it adapts the store to what the customers want,” said Wickard, who designed the computer system Bull Moose runs on as his senior project while studying at Bowdoin College in the 1980s. “Our Portsmouth store has more indie hip-hop. Bangor has more metal. It will be the same for books. If a particular genre really takes off here, we’ll order in more stuff to fit that need. It’s completely customer-driven. We want to appeal to everyone.”
Bangor manager Kim Beckim, on the job since October 2009, has overseen the transition from the cramped 3,500-square-foot space to the new 10,000-square-foot store.
“We needed the space so badly. We had to cram so much stuff into our tiny old space. We hired five new employees, too,” said Beckim, who previously was assistant manager at the Waterville store. “We’ve already gotten phone calls from a lot of people asking about the renovations. Some were old customers just curious, and some were new customers who’d never even been here before but are excited to go to a new bookstore.”
The Bangor location, which opened in 1999, has been the chain’s most profitable one for several years. Located next to Blockbuster and across from Kmart on Hogan Road, the Bangor store is not only conveniently situated for mall shoppers, it is also a destination for music and movie fans from northern Maine and New Brunswick.
“There’s not a weekend that goes by that there isn’t someone from St. John or Presque Isle in the store,” said Freeman Saunders, who has worked at the Bangor store since 2004. “It’s the only real music store for half of the entire state, and for part of Canada. People make it a point to come to Bull Moose. People feel welcome here.”
With its late hours and laid-back atmosphere, the Bangor Bull Moose has long been a bastion of cool in a part of town more known for chain restaurants and big-box stores. It’s not uncommon to see teenagers and college students coming in at 10 p.m. to browse, schmooze and hang out. While the funny, sometimes-anarchic posters and artwork that decorated the walls of the old store are now gone, Beckim promises that everything else will remain the same — plus 11,000 new books to choose from.
“People don’t come here for posters. They come here for the customer service and the great deals,” said Beckim. “They come here because it’s always good. And now we have even more room to do more.”
Wickard has big ideas for the future of the chain. If the Bangor store is successful, books will be added to other stores. In another month, used books will be added to the Bangor inventory, and shoppers will be able to sell back used books. More new stores in new locations are also a possibility — though each will retain its own special look and feel.
“A business should connect with the community. It should be different in each location. I hate that cookie-cutter feel,” Wickard said. “We want to take the big-box stores head-on. We’d like to send them out of state. We want to be the locally owned option you always go to.”
Bull Moose in Bangor is located at 665 Hogan Road, and is open from 9 a.m. to 11 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday and 9 a.m. to midnight Monday. For information, call 262-0410, or visit www.bullmoose.com.