Last November I sat down with David Munster at his shop on Forest Avenue to do an interview that I originally planned to publish as part of the Portland Buy Local Holiday Guide in The Bollard’s December 2018 issue. Then I found out that brothers Tony and Joey Nappi were selling Mellen Street Market after 45 years of service to Portland’s Parkside neighborhood [see “The Heart of the City,” The Bollard, Dec. 2018]. It seemed like overkill to feature two four-and-a-half-decade-old businesses in the same issue, and David Munster’s TV Sales and Service wasn’t being sold or closing, so I held the Munster piece in anticipation of running it this month, when The Bollard used to publish its Portland Buy Local Summer Guide.
I’m a founding board member of the nonprofit that launched the Portland Buy Local campaign, and to me, Munster epitomizes the reasons that organization exists. He’s a hardworking hometown guy who’s managed to keep his family business going in the face of crushing competition from corporate big-box stores and online behemoths like Amazon. The qualities that have enabled him to stay in business are common to most independent retailers in Maine: honesty, accountability, expertise, and the type of personal attention you can’t get through a browser or from some customer-service rep on the phone (assuming such people even exist anymore).
When I stopped into Munster’s little shop last month, he told me he’s being evicted by the new owner of the building his business has occupied for many years. There’s a former tanning salon next door that’s been converted into rehearsal space for musicians and a venue for indie-rock bands and whatnot. It’s called Sun Tiki Studios. The owner of Sun Tiki Studios, Ian Smith, had a hand in the purchase last month of the former tanning salon and the building Munster occupies.
Now, here’s where I start getting pissed. I must apologize to David, who’s the very soul of kindness, for ranting in what should be a feel-good feature about his remarkable business. But as Cory Tracy so eloquently wrote this month, “each day we can carry the torch of incremental progress through what we choose to accept and reject,” and today I’ve chosen to reject the bullshit way people like Smith treat tenants like Munster.
Smith and somebody — apparently a guy older than Smith (Smith looks fortyish), who may be his father (Smith refuses to say) — are giving Munster the boot without any consideration for his circumstances or any respect for the fact he’s a business owner who’s been serving his community for upwards of five decades. I don’t just mean selling people stuff. I mean donating televisions to good causes and making house calls to older Mainers who can’t figure out how to program that damn “smart” TV. Munster recently turned 67, and he’s still climbing on roofs to install antennas in order to put food on his table.
Munster doesn’t know who now owns the building his business occupies. He showed me the letter he got informing him he’s being kicked out. There’s no name, just “375 Forest LLC” at the bottom, where a human being would traditionally sign off. Paperwork filed with the state lists only one “authorized person” on the LLC’s certificate of formation: Morgan Noble. I have no idea who that is. (Tips always welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org!)
The letter makes it clear that this shadowy company never had any intention of allowing Munster to continue renting the space. They’d lined up a new tenant before the purchase agreement was signed with former owner Michael Kaplan, who made news three years ago when he proposed to raze these properties and put another CVS there — a plan that would have demolished the beloved townie bar Forest Gardens, which is next to Munster’s, as well. (Kaplan abandoned those plans after pushback from Gardens regulars and city officials, who nixed his dream of adding a drive-thru lane near that busy intersection.)
Look, I realize we live under capitalism and commercial landlords have the legal right to evict tenants who don’t have leases when they take over a property (Munster had been renting from Kaplan on a month-to-month basis since the CVS fiasco). But c’mon, at least give the guy a heads up that you plan to take over his longtime place of business, and maybe be willing to let him stay an extra month or two, while paying rent, if he needs more time to find a new location in this historically tight real estate market.
“Mr. Munster was given 45 days to vacate, which is 15 more than required for a business tenant-at-will,” Smith wrote in an e-mail sent in response to my questions — he refused to answer questions by phone, and neglected or refused to address several questions I sent him, including the question of who actually owns these properties (Smith called himself the “manager” of 375 Forest LLC).
So basically two extra weeks for Munster to vacate the premises and (not that this is Smith’s concern) reestablish the business he’s run for 46 years in a new location by July 31. What a mensch. “The building was purchased at a price that could only be justified by increasing the rent at 373 Forest Avenue to at least market level and a tenant was lined up for immediate occupancy prior to the purchase of the property,” Smith wrote. That may explain why, when Munster asked if there was a higher rent he could pay to remain there, he was told, “triple the rent; we just want you out,” according to Munster.
“In my discussion with Mr. Munster on the day after the closing of the sale of the property [June 15, a Saturday] he said twice that he was already ‘planning to leave,’” Smith wrote. That may or may not be true, but again, 375 Forest LLC already had a tenant “lined up” to take over Munster’s space, so any discussion of Munster’s plans was moot. I assume Munster knew that without a lease he didn’t have a legal leg to stand on, so his only alternative would have been to appeal to Smith to grant him the favor of some additional time.
Munster would never say this, but I will. For a man of his age, experience and standing in the community to have to basically beg some schmuck like Smith for a favor is beneath him. To do so would be pitiful, shameful — not gonna happen. Better to blow it off and say something like “I was gonna leave anyway” than to lose one’s dignity like that. And that’s not how Munster does business. He’s got the integrity to attach his name and his face to everything his business does (he used to run a lot of TV commercials, naturally, in which he and his family were featured). Compare that to the owner(s) of 375 Forest LLC, who are too shady and/or cowardly to even print their name on the eviction notice that may also turn out to be the death warrant for Munster’s livelihood.
I’m especially shocked by this situation in light of the nature of Smith’s business: a hipster “DIY” indie-music venue whose audience and performers — punks, anarchists, riot grrrls, rappers, street poets, misfits, etc. — are generally not sympathetic to people like Smith who use money and power to screw good people over. I asked Smith if he was concerned about how this would play with that crowd; he didn’t answer that question. I suspect he may have figured he’d get away with it without a reporter finding out.
When I spoke with Munster last fall, he was hopeful that business would rebound and said nothing about wanting to leave his longtime location. “But the last ten years, it’s a wonder that I’m still here,” he told me. “We’ve leveraged the company trying to stay in business, and hopefully we will. I’m kind of at the end of my career. I’m 66 and I could probably do it for another ten years.”
Munster survived the onslaught of Amazon and the box-box stores that’ve wiped out nearly every independent TV shop in the state in part by getting certified to repair the models sold at places like Best Buy and Sam’s Club. The corporate stores farm out the repair of TVs under warranty to local repairmen like Munster, who are increasingly rare these days (Munster said an entire generation of electronics technicians was lost with the advent of personal computers, which drew young people away from the TV-repair trade and into fields like programming). Munster can fix pretty much any electronic device, Over the years I’ve seen turntables, radios, amplifiers and all sorts of mystery circuit boards on Munster’s workbench. “I’ve had doctors bring equipment in, like ultrasound machines, portable ones,” Munster told me. “I’ve had people bring in their [car] dashboards.”
I asked Munster how it felt to be losing his place of business this way. “It’s kind of like I feel the weight of three generations on me, that after three generations and me doing it for 46 years, now I won’t have a shop anymore, and I don’t know what that’s going to be like.”
Back in the 1940s, Munster’s grandfather ran a radio-repair shop in Portland, at the foot of Munjoy Hill, called Maine Radio. Munster’s father had several TV stores throughout the state. David got his start working for his dad, then took over his father’s Portland shop in 1973, when he was in his early 20s. It’s really a five-generation business, Munster later pointed out, since his own son, Ryan, has worked with him over the years and his grandkids have appeared in commercials and thrown out the first pitch at Portland Sea Dogs games during which the shop has run promotions (Munster’s TV gave away two 32-inch TVs during Friday home games). Munster sets proudly line the concourse of Hadlock Field, the Sea Dogs being one of many local institutions that have benefitted from their association with his business.
If he can find even a small, affordable commercial space to do repairs this summer, Munster said he’ll try to keep doing that for awhile. His website isn’t much, but he’s keeping the business’ phone number (874-0724) and has e-mail (email@example.com).
“I don’t know what’s going to happen to me,” he said last month. “I’ll probably still come over here, try to open up the door!” And he laughed, a little sadly. “Yeah, I have no idea.”