September 21, 2017
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Uncle Henry’s is a Maine institution that keeps reinventing itself

By Abigail Curtis, BDN Staff
Abigail Curtis | BDN | BDN
Abigail Curtis | BDN | BDN
Uncle Henry's Weekly Swap it or Sell it Guide, a convenience store staple, is a Maine tradition.

Almost 20 years ago, Nathaniel Bernier had an unusual dilemma, and he solved it the way many Mainers do: by reaching out to Uncle Henry’s Weekly Swap or Sell It Guide.

At that time, the midcoast man had an uncommon pet: a 5-foot-long iguana named Pablo. Bernier had owned the iguana for years, and it was not a rare sight to catch a glimpse of him walking his large lizard around downtown Belfast, secured with a cat harness. But the good times with Pablo had to come to an end when Bernier moved to a different apartment that wouldn’t allow him to bring the iguana along, too. So he sent a simple ad to Uncle Henry’s, hoping some iguana fan in Maine or nearby states might see it.

“Free to a good home,” he wrote. “Adult male iguana, with cage, food dish and some climbing logs.”

The new issue of the weekly Uncle Henry’s booklet comes out on Thursdays, but sometimes they’ll be delivered to convenience stores on Wednesday nights, Bernier said. That’s when the first calls started rolling in, and they didn’t stop for weeks.

“The calls kept coming,” Bernier said, still marveling. “There must have been 150 calls.”

While one caller did wonder if Pablo might make good eating, within 12 hours Bernier had found Pablo a new home with a woman who wanted an iguana for herself and her children. He never saw his pet again, but trusted that it had a good life.

These days, Uncle Henry’s has much more competition, thanks to the increasing popularity of the online classified ad website Craigslist and the local message boards and online yard sale pages that proliferate on Facebook. In order to keep up with the times, Uncle Henry’s also has a strong online presence these days, but Bernier hopes there will always be a place for the old-fashioned weekly booklet.

“It reaches many people that are not internet-savvy,” he said. “It’s the bathroom bible and old-school, Mainer-style. I think it’s still pretty effective, too. I think a lot of people check that thing regularly. I’m glad it has moved into the internet age, but I’m also glad it has kept its original feel. It’s an institution in Maine and it’s going to continue to be an institution.”

Uncle Henry’s was first published in January 1970 by a man named Henry Fowler, who owned a print shop in Rockland.

“He was onto something, and definitely ahead of his time,” Kevin Webb, the general manager of the company, said of the real-life Uncle Henry. “I think he was a little bit of a visionary.”

Over the years, the swap it or sell it guide grew, and now the company — based in Augusta since the mid-1980s — employs nearly 20 people. It’s not a requirement that employees love to dicker, but it certainly helps, Webb said. And although many Mainers likely think first of the physical booklet when they think of Uncle Henry’s, the company is much more than that nowadays. There’s the website, which garners more than 5 million page views every month, mobile apps and “Uncle Henry’s Talkin’ Deals,” an hour-long call-in radio show that is broadcast on Saturday mornings. The easiest way to hear the radio show is by listening in on the company’s website, Webb said.

Also, the company received some national attention starting in 2014 when it was the focus of the History Channel reality television show “Down East Dickering.” For two seasons, fans got to watch as a colorful cast of dedicated Maine dickerers used Uncle Henry’s to make a good enough living swapping, buying and selling so that they could “live life on their own terms,” according to the show’s website. Even though the name turned out to be something of a geographical misnomer — all of the Down East dickerers were located in northern, western or southern Maine — the show was popular. A Facebook page called “Bring Back Down East Dickering” has nearly 10,000 members.

“It was a great show,” Webb said. “We were for a while the No. 1 show in Australia. People all over the world knew about ‘Down East Dickering.’”

In short, Uncle Henry’s may be a Maine institution, but it’s one that is always working to keep up with the times.

“Every day we are doing something new, something different that we haven’t done before,” Webb said. “You’ve constantly got to be paying attention to what’s going on. What can I do that no one has thought of? It’s a daily battle with us, and that’s why we’re still around.”

While the company doesn’t release the numbers of booklets it prints each week, it does disclose where they end up. The Uncle Henry’s guide is distributed throughout Maine and New Hampshire, and in some parts of Vermont, Massachusetts and Canada. It’s mailed to subscribers in all 50 states, Webb said.

“It’s quintessential Maine and Yankee ingenuity,” he said. “At the end of the day, people in Maine are looking for ways to be good stewards of whatever products they have. Today’s world is all about having more and more and more. But how do I make do with what I have? Most Mainers look at that as being a responsible steward, and it’s smart economically.”

Another reason for Uncle Henry’s enduring popularity is, of course, the writing. Many ads are all business, stating their purpose with practicality and intent, but others are small gems of literature disguised as a classified advertisement. Orono writer Robert Klose opined eloquently on Uncle Henry’s in an essay published in 2000 in the Christian Science Monitor.

“The examples of good and entertaining writing are legion,” he wrote. “A few years back, when I was looking for a secondhand clarinet for my son, I came across the following, from a clearly frustrated parent: ‘For sale, clarinet. Cheap. (Now he wants the trumpet!)’ And consider this one for a reliable polly: ‘Free to a good home. Parrot. I let him fly outside and he always comes back (so far).’”

Klose even wrote about an Uncle Henry’s ad that sounds straight out of legend. Some Mainer evidently was hoping to unload the mummy of an Egyptian cleric for $40,000.

“I don’t know if any thrifty, utilitarian Mainer answered the ad, but I was impressed with the author’s closing gloss, which was straight out of ‘Becket,’” he wrote. “‘Will no one rid me of this meddlesome priest! (Call after 6 p.m.)’”

Klose said this week that he fears that the meteoric rise of Craigslist has overshadowed Uncle Henry’s somewhat.

“My sense is that it’s not as talked about as it used to be,” he said on Friday. “It’s become a quieter affair, unfortunately. It’s just so typical of Maine. I still advertise on Uncle Henry’s, and except for my old iMac, I’ve been able to sell everything.”

But if there’s been any overshadowing by Craigslist, it certainly isn’t apparent in a recent edition of Uncle Henry’s that is stuffed full of ads for just about everything, other than an Egyptian mummy, that is. There are cherry burls (ranging up to 300 pounds) in Anson and a 1966 Plymouth Valiant for sale in Harrison that reportedly lived most of its 51 years in a garage. There’s a 1962 Old Town square-back canoe for sale in Cushing, a feller buncher for $79,500 in Amity, and a 200-year-old barn and contents available in Vienna, no price specified. In Glenburn, there’s a little-used exercise bike for sale for $75 or best offer (“I refer to it as the clothes rack because that’s all we ever used it for,” the author confessed). You could move into a large in-town home in Madison for just $28,500, buy the top cover of an 1800s wooden washing machine (no price listed) in Lebanon, or even a “fire hydrant very old. Good for dog or lawn,” from Searsport for $350 (or best offer). There are free roosters in Belfast, (“please help,” their owner pleaded,) a free piano in Palermo and old books aplenty in Levant.

Every copy of Uncle Henry’s comes with a form allowing the purchaser to place a 30-word ad for free. Without a free form, each 30-word ad is just $2.

“Those free ad forms come in piles and piles in the morning in the mail,” Webb said. “Last week’s forms or forms that were printed 20 years ago. People will keep Uncle Henry’s around.”

One way the company sets itself apart, he said, is that every one of the ads placed in Uncle Henry’s has been looked at by a human in an effort to outwit scammers. That doesn’t happen on Craigslist, he said. Those human eyes are looking to see if the person placing the ad cannot meet a prospective buyer and is asking to have payment wired to them before sending out the item. They are also looking to flag sellers who are offering goods or animals too cheaply, such as selling a bulldog for just $100.

“If it looks too good to be true, it is,” Webb said.

“The online world is often the wild, wild West, and while we can’t protect everybody from everything, we do try very hard. We operate in this small community. These are our neighbors. We do everything we can to make sure our users are protected. Anything to help people out.”

 


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