After 45 years, Maine’s defiantly down-home classifieds weekly isn’t just hanging on in a post-Craigslist world — it’s thriving. With a hit TV show in Down East Dickering, a bizarrely entertaining radio program, and satellite editions debuting nationwide, we are all dickerers now.
By Brian Kevin
Every weekday morning, on the way to his job at Uncle Henry’s, Jimm Piper stops in at the Western Avenue post office in Augusta to retrieve several bins of rainbow-colored ad forms. Around the holidays, when the flow of ads to Uncle Henry’s is at its slowest, these bins might hold 1,000 pieces of mail. When the ad flow peaks — at back-to-school time, say, or in the spring, when folks are cleaning out garages — Piper expects he’ll pick up and sort some 4,000 forms a day.
Photographed by David Yellen
He drives his bins over to Uncle Henry’s world headquarters, an uninspiring beige slab on Augusta’s sprawly eastern edge. Piper takes them into a back office with industrial carpeting, buzzing overhead fluorescents, and a pair of long folding tables with faux wood veneer, the kind you might see in a church basement during a bean supper. Taped onto the tables are 60 or so labels roughly corresponding to the categories into which all merchandise in Uncle Henry’s is sorted: Airplanes & Equipment, All-Terrain Vehicles, Animals, Antiques, and so on, all the way through Wanted, What’s Happening, and Yard Sales — though the labels on Piper’s tables aren’t arranged alphabetically. Some of them are peeling away and others have faded to the point of illegibility, but it doesn’t matter to Piper, who’s been sorting Uncle Henry’s ad forms for 18 years and doesn’t really need the labels anyway. The thing about Uncle Henry’s is that, after a while, you more or less learn the book by rote.
A weekly copy of Uncle Henry’s cost 15 cents when Rockland printer Henry Faller founded it in 1970. At first, Faller charged another buck to run an ad, but soon after, the book adopted the free ad form, and it’s been the cornerstone of the Uncle Henry’s business model since. Buy a weekly copy — it costs $2 today — and you can place an ad at no cost, using a tear-out form on the back page. Sell your tractor, trade some barn wood, ask around for a python, advertise a séance: the lack of restriction on how you use your space is part of the Uncle Henry’s ethos. In an intro to the first edition of what he called his “Swap & Sell Guide,” Faller put a democratic spin on the venture:
“Since it is for you, only you can make it a success,” he wrote. “The New England tradition of trading or swapping is an old and very interesting one, and I am sure many readers will not only acquire things they can use from this publication [and] get a few extra dollars, but have a lot of fun doing it.”
It’s hard to say which idea seems more quaint today: That face-to-face bartering with one’s neighbors might be “a lot of fun,” or that this might be facilitated by an unsexy little newsprint booklet you have to pay money for. Because while 2015 may be the 45th anniversary of Uncle Henry’s, it also marks 20 years since the launch of both eBay and Craigslist, which kicked off a long, slow death march for print classifieds. Craigslist in particular — ubiquitous, user-friendly, and free for all but a handful of users — took $5 billion away from newspaper classified sections between 2000 and 2007, according to a recent Harvard/NYU study. Online classifieds have made an endangered species out of alternative weeklies (like the dearly departed Boston Phoenix), which once relied on classified revenues. And if you can manage to find a local pennysaver these days, chances are it’s not much thicker than a pamphlet.
“Uncle Henry’s is trusted. It never changes, and embracing it means you’re forthright, you want to be part of the community, and you care about what’s important at the core, rather than superficial stuff.” — Talkin’ Deals host/producer Debi Davis
At Uncle Henry’s, meanwhile, the ad forms on Jimm Piper’s folding table keep piling up by the thousands each day — and each one represents a book sale. Every Thursday, some 8,000 stores and gas stations get the new edition of Uncle Henry’s, a number that’s more than doubled in the last 20 years. The company launched a Massachusetts edition in 2009, and this winter, its first few satellite editions will be published outside of New England, in places like New Jersey, Florida, Georgia, and Kentucky. Last summer, hordes of bargain-crazed Uncle Henry’s fans filled an arena in Lewiston for a colossal rummage sale/gathering of the tribe called Dickering Days, and the brand’s burgeoning media empire includes a companion website, a few smartphone apps, a year-old radio show, and Down East Dickering, a popular reality series that just wrapped its second season on cable’s History network.
So it’s hard not to wonder: what’s old Uncle Henry’s selling that everyone is buying?
FOUND IT IN UNCLE HENRY’S
Category: Miscellaneous. Buyer: Brie Weisman, Rumford. The story: “So sheep and goats carry parasites in their poop. They can handle a certain load of them, but if you start to notice they’re sickly or not putting on weight, then you need to collect their fecal matter and use the microscope to identify the type of worms they have. But you don’t really want to go buy a nice new microscope for that, do you? So I got this microscope from a guy in Durham. I was like, ‘Well, I was hoping I could use this to look at my sheep parasites.’ And he was like, ‘Oh, that’s perfect — I was using it to look at my goat parasites.’” Uncle Henry’s strategies: “Thursday’s my day. I set aside time to look at my Uncle Henry’s. You want to do it on Thursday and before like 9 o’clock, because what if you see something? You’ve got to be the first to call. Then if you’re buying any kind of farm equipment, the best part is getting to visit the farmer and see their setup. It’s very educational.” Other memorable purchases: Got a great woodstove the very same weekend as the microscope. “It was this magical weekend of finding stuff. It was fabulous.”
Among the ads that Piper was sorting into piles on a recent winter morning was this one, from a man seeking a pet: Tortoise. Reasonable price. Been looking a while. If you have, will give him a very good home.
Been looking a while. For imaginative readers, it’s that kind of small, enigmatic embellishment that makes Uncle Henry’s so potentially entertaining. Just where has this man been looking for tortoises until now? How long has he been at it? Has he tried a pet store? For every 10 straightforward ads in Uncle Henry’s — item, description, and price — there’s one that hints at some droll or dreadful story, leaving the reader to dream up the details. (The classic example, “Wedding dress, never worn,” appears every few issues.)
What’s more, the free ad form means there’s no good reason not to try and shoot the moon, to seek out some seemingly impossible treasure or request an oddly specific trade item. Sure, it might be a long shot, but if you already bought the book, then what do you have to lose? So a regular Uncle Henry’s reader tends to encounter ads like this one:
Looking for a hot dog cart with all three bay sinks, hand sink, grill, refridge [sic], steam table. Will work for it, shoveling snow, odd jobs, etc.
Is there someone out there who both owns this rather precisely tailored hot dog cart and hates shoveling so much that they’re willing to trade it away? Hey, anything’s possible! And it’s this sense of omni-possibility that keeps the Uncle Henry’s faithful buying the book week after week. Because if you happen to be that one-in-a-million cryophobic wiener vendor, then stumbling upon this ad will likely be a thrill roughly on par with a Powerball jackpot.
“The rule of thumb at Uncle Henry’s is that we want people to have an experience,” explains general manager Kevin Webb. To that end, Webb says he takes a very cautious approach to occasional reader requests for more (and more specific) categories and subcategories. His staff — about 25 people in that east Augusta office, none of whom have titles — reads, approves, and manually enters each submitted ad (a point of distinction from Craigslist). But if a reader submits an ad in a counterintuitive category, they don’t necessarily correct it. Thus you can find an ad from a reader seeking a horse in the Animals section, but you might also find one in the Farm & Garden section, or the Wanted section, or maybe even the Miscellaneous section.
Nor does the Uncle Henry’s staff take great pains to correct spelling, grammar, or punctuation, and in rare cases, an ad that’s more or less unintelligible manages to slip through. Consider this one from the Collectibles section of a recent issue:
1” x 33.3” Printed on adhesive backed vinyl. Can be framed, pinned up or adhered to your choice. These are printed from a full size scan of my original purchase in 1970. One is the digital file and the other a pic I took of the printed one and the framed is original. They actually look better than original. I’ve added approximately 1.5” border. $75 Each.
Could be a steal! But since it doesn’t mention what’s being sold, you just won’t know until you call. “It’s not our place to try and pinpoint you down,” says Webb.
“It’s our place to give you enough of a guideline of where to look, then let you flip through and take your time and experience it the way you want to. Part of what we’ve done over the years is to try and foster that spirit of exploration — where you never know what you’re going to find — that makes Uncle Henry’s fun for a lot of people.”
And it’s this sense of omni-possibility that keeps the Uncle Henry’s faithful buying the book week after week.
There’s that word again: fun. Part of the secret of Uncle Henry’s success may be that its publishers have always focused on making the book a fun ritual as much as a practical resource. Henry Faller sold the company in 1983 to the family that owns it today (a family, says Webb, that is quite private and prefers not to have its name mentioned in print — though if you’re curious, you can google it in a matter of minutes and might even find the owners’ names mentioned in a pair of Down East articles about Uncle Henry’s from the early 2000s and early ’90s, when the family was apparently less shy). Webb took over the day-to-day management of Uncle Henry’s in 2008. He’s a broad guy with a Tom Selleck mustache, a former wholesale exec and consultant who knew little about publishing before coming into his job at Uncle Henry’s. His biggest challenge, he says, has been maintaining that sense of fun, organized chaos while also growing the company and trying to stay relevant in a digital age.
Consider the Uncle Henry’s website: To compete with online marketplaces like Craigslist, unclehenrys.com must be at least user-friendly enough that folks seeking out a specific item are likely to find it. But a website too neatly organized would trample that “spirit of exploration” and random discovery. The solution: A mess of customizable alerts and search criteria, yes, but also an auto-updating crawl splashed across the homepage, where ads flow past willy-nilly as they’re fed into the Uncle Henry’s system in real time, either by staff in Augusta or by site visitors placing them online (online ads still get a once-over from a human, if not right away, and while ads can run online for free, it still costs $2 to get in the book). There’s an Android app with thousands of downloads that does only this, and although Apple “didn’t think it was entertaining enough,” Webb knows of devout bargain hunters who leave the ad stream open on their monitors all day long, idly watching the deals go by, like clouds drifting past the window.
“It’s basically the equivalent of having the book in your bathroom,” observes one Uncle Henry’s IT staffer.
The increasing popularity of the website in recent years was the first step in Uncle Henry’s slow transition to a national brand — but don’t suppose for a minute that the print edition is going away.
“I don’t think we’d be who we are if we made that kind of drastic change,” says Webb, “and I don’t know that we need to. If we’re providing a service people value in the print form, then we’ll continue to be viable in the print form.”
Webb knows of devout bargain hunters who leave the ad stream open on their monitors all day long, idly watching the deals go by, like clouds drifting past the window.
Not only do people value the printed Uncle Henry’s, some of them build whole traditions around it. Consider the t-shirts for sale on the website (actually, first consider that a classifieds booklet even has t-shirts), which simply read, “Thursday Is Uncle Henry’s Day,” acknowledging many Mainers’ iron-clad weekly routine of picking up the new edition. A Down East reader once wrote this magazine to describe a holiday ritual in which his family members take turns reading aloud from Uncle Henry’s — each one picks the most bizarre or oblique ad they can find, then the rest of the family guesses the sale price, and the winner is whoever comes closest.
“We hear all the time about people who’ve been reading us since issue number one,” Webb says. “We hear the stories about the husband who just got buried, where there were two things with him in the coffin, and one was an Uncle Henry’s. Really. They send us pictures.”
FOUND IT IN UNCLE HENRY’S
Category: Automobiles Buyers: Rhonda and Vern Hoyt (with Emit), Buckfield The story: “My husband is a Dodge freak and always loved a Little Red Express. I’m a pick-up girl. Well, he saw a 1979 Little Red Express in Uncle Henry’s, and I could just see it on his face. Normally, I’m like, ‘Yeah, whatever,’ but this time, I liked it too, so I said, ‘Call the guy.’ We got up at 2:30 on a Saturday morning, drove five hours across the state to Charlotte to go look at it — cash in hand — then ended up pulling it home on a trailer. My husband says it’s mine, but he drives it too, so it’s really ours. Our son just finished driver’s ed. He says he can’t wait to drive it, but if he gets to back it into the garage, he’s pretty happy. It’s just one of those rare trucks you see around — and it’s got stacks, so that makes it cool.” The holy book: “It’s probably sacrilegious to say it, but we call Uncle Henry’s Vern’s bible. He reads it once a week — scans it beginning to end.”
If this doesn’t immediately strike you as a recipe for compelling radio, you might be forgiven. Snippets of Talkin’ Deals dialogue don’t really lend themselves to transcription either. Consider this typical exchange from a recent wintry Sunday morning:
Host 1: We’ve got Tom joining us. Good morning, Tom.
Host 2: What do we got today?
Tom: Got a bunch of auto parts, if somebody’s looking for them on the show.
Host 1: Turtle’s looking for some snow tires [Turtle is a frequent guest host, one of the stars of Down East Dickering]. You got some snow tires for Turtle?
Tom: What size?
Tom: Let me make a phone call tomorrow. I got a buddy of mine does a lot of used tires.
Turtle: Okay, I’d appreciate that.
Tom: Hold on, let me write this down. [Speaking slowly] 215 . . . 70 . . . 15.
Turtle: Yes sir.
Tom: All right, hold on here. [pause] How many you need? Two? Four?
Turtle: Four. Studded, if possible. I gotta get over the Notch at 4 o’clock in the morning to get here for Sunday mornings.
Tom: Oh my goodness gracious. Yeah, let me make a phone call . . .
Turtle: Okay, Tom. I’ll do that.
Tom: Also, I’m looking for pictures of any old or interesting vehicles, if anybody’s got anything like that laying around. Pictures they may have taken at car shows or whatever.
. . . and so on. Five minutes of this at 7 a.m. on a Sunday and you may well fall back asleep. But trust me when I say that if you hang in there a bit longer, Talkin’ Deals somehow morphs after 10 or 15 minutes into Maine’s most inexplicably charming hour of radio. It’s the broadcast equivalent of some weird, beloved comfort food, like peanut butter and jalapenos. Host Tom Sarna and Debi Davis (the show’s producer) have an easy rapport. They’re not as funny as they think they are, and their delivery has kind of an endearing “aw shucks” quality when reading an ad that strikes them as a good bargain. The show feels homespun — when a caller dials in, we hear the phone ringing in the background as Sarna or Davis step away to answer — with trace elements of the same familiar, harmless, slightly chucklehead vibe that prompts people to leave on shows like Car Talk or A Prairie Home Companion, even when they’re only half listening.
And yes, theoretically you can buy a Prius or a parka or a puppy, although Davis (who first pitched the show to Webb and the Uncle Henry’s team) suspects that at least half of all Talkin’ Deals listeners are just tuning in for the banter rather than the deals.
“There are so many people out there,” she says, “who will pick up that book and love reading it, but have never made a call, never even tried to buy anything.”
Davis herself is a lifelong Mainer and Uncle Henry’s reader who only made her first purchase this winter: a woodstove and 25 feet of stovepipe. She read the ads on the air one Sunday, then drove the next morning up to St. Albans for the stove and back down to Newfield for the pipe. To hear Davis tell it, if Uncle Henry’s clicks equally well with both the die-hard bargain hunters and the breezy radio surfers, it’s because the brand is a natural extension of cherished Maine values.
“Uncle Henry’s is trusted,” she says. “It never changes, and embracing it means you’re forthright, you want to be part of the community, and you care about what’s important at the core, rather than superficial stuff.”
FOUND IT IN UNCLE HENRY’S
Category: Building Materials
Buyers: Dorothy and Frank Hamory, Orland The story: “My husband and I had bought a lakefront lot with plans to build, and I always wanted post-and-beam construction, but a timber frame is so expensive that I didn’t think we could do it. This 16-by-24-foot frame was built in a workshop at the Fox Maple School in Brownfield by a group of Oglala Sioux visiting from South Dakota. It wasn’t practical for them to ship it back to the reservation, so now the post-and-beam is our kitchen, pantry, and dining area. We built much of the interior by reusing items we found in Uncle Henry’s: mortise-and-tenon doors, a used commercial stove, cherry wood for the kitchen cabinets, antique hardware and lighting fixtures, rough milled pine for the trim and interior walls, even old bricks for the walkways.” Perk of shopping Uncle Henry’s: “I tell you, the people that you meet from Uncle Henry’s, that’s a wonderful experience itself. It’s not the product, it’s the people. They’re interesting people, they’re honest people. I don’t think in all our dealings over the years we’ve ever come out with less than we bargained for.”
“We’re looking for kind of salt-of-the-earth people, the kind of people that are huge characters and that seem like they’re disappearing,” says Severance, now a vice president at another media company. “They’re not your everyday guys, not the run of the mill that you see.”
Not that you see in Manhattan, anyway. But if anyone should know his way around exaggerated, folksy New England stereotypes, it’s Severance. His grandfather, Bob Bryan, was one of two storytellers behind Bert and I, Maine’s now-fabled series of folk humor recordings. He spent childhood summers visiting his grandparents’ camp near Ellsworth, and he developed an obsession with Uncle Henry’s from the time he was old enough to read.
“Right when I got to Maine, I would get one and highlight the whole thing,” Severance remembers, “then never be brave enough to actually call anyone. Still, it was so exciting to rip through those pages and look for . . . who knows?”
A reality show centered around Uncle Henry’s buffs seems to occupy the perfect Venn intersection of two already proven reality-TV concepts: shows about haggling for used merchandise, like American Pickers or Pawn Stars; and shows about quirky rural dwellers, like Duck Dynasty and Swamp People (the latter of which is a product of Severance’s current company). In 2012, Severance reached out to Webb, and the two began an on-again, off-again correspondence about what such a show might look like. Eventually, Webb ran a casting call in Uncle Henry’s. Severance and a film crew came up to film a demo reel, and the History network expressed interest. Down East Dickering premiered last April and just completed its second season.
Part of the secret of Uncle Henry’s success may be that its publishers have always focused on making the book a fun ritual as much as a practical resource.
The show has given Uncle Henry’s a substantial amount of national exposure. Episodes start with a few loose “teams” of Uncle Henry’s fanatics (white, male, minimally groomed, and thickly accented) showing up at their favorite retailer to buy the book on Thursdays. They page through, make some calls, then head out onto the Maine backroads to commence dickering — or haggling — hoping to end the week a bit richer after a few shrewd swaps and sales. It’s not a competition, although viewers do see a running tally of how much dough the dickerers have shelled out and brought in. The book itself gets plenty of screen time, and whenever the show airs, Webb says the Uncle Henry’s website gets so much traffic that he worried early on it might crash (it has not).
And, wouldn’t you know it, Severance has actually pursued a Craiglist-focused show as well, back before Down East Dickering took to the airwaves. That concept involved tough-talking New Jersey guys who bought items on Craigslist, then fixed them up and resold them on the website at a profit. The A&E network bought a pilot, but nothing ever came of it. So what’s the mojo that worked in Uncle Henry’s favor?
“Craigslist is online,” says Severance, “which is where everyone seems to be. But in Maine, there’s this little treasure that’s still blasting it out, paper-style. I think the fact that people were still doing that kind of blew some minds.”
FOUND IT IN UNCLE HENRY’S
Category: Animals Buyer: “Chicken Joe” Taylor, Wells The story: “Denali is my Easter-bunny white Arabian mare that nobody wanted, but she’s beautiful. This little old lady had her, and she was way too much horse for the little old lady. I remember the day four years ago my friends picked her up for me in Winterport. I said, ‘If you get there and she’s skanky, just drive away.’ She does have attitude, but I guess so do I. Apparently no one wanted her because she likes to be alone. She’s very bossy and pushy around other horses. She probably would have gone to the dog food factory, she’s got such a bad attitude. But she’s beautiful, and I love her.” Other memorable purchases: Two baby South African blue-necked ostriches from “somewhere way up in East Cupcake” that (to Joe’s surprise) grew up to be 10 feet tall and 400 pounds (they are now in a Massachusetts zoo). Also a green Solomon Islands eclecus parrot named Charlie who, when he gets excited, yells a phrase that this magazine cannot print.
So does the Down East Dickering audience tune in for the same reasons that so many read the book or wake up early on Sundays for Talkin’ Deals? For the sense of playful adventure, the thrill of the bargain hunt, membership in a community that values tradition and straight talk? Or might the funny accents, weird nicknames, and backwoods hijinks have something to do with it?
Down East Dickering’s recurring characters go by monikers like Yummy, Codfish, and Turtle. There are occasional slaptick-y moments of comic relief (cars catching fire, guys falling into ponds), plus a smattering of jabs at flatlanders and other city folk. None of this is a big deal in small doses, but if you lay it on too thick, you start drifting into a seedier reality-TV sub-genre sometimes known as hicksploitation. In a blog post last year about the Duck Dynasty phenomenon, Outside magazine senior editor Grayson Schaffer offered a concise definition: “The genre laughs at (and sometimes with) the last group of people it’s still ostensibly OK to stereotype — white backwoodsy men.”
“We didn’t want this to be something where people were made to look like idiots,” says Webb. “We wanted people to laugh and have fun. We wanted to show these guys failing, but more often you’re laughing with them. And the fact is, these guys aren’t dumb.”
“I would hope the audience isn’t laughing at these guys,” agrees Severance. “That’s not the feel I get, and that would bum me out. To me, it’s just exciting to watch what they’re going to say next. Especially a guy like Tony, with that beautiful Maine accent. He’s just fun to listen to.”
Tony is 49-year-old Tony Bennett of Bethel, the show’s narrator and arguably its main dickerer. It must be said: Bennett’s accent should be recorded and preserved at the Library of Congress. It should be bottled and sold in stores. As the main face and voice of the show, Bennett is a casting agent’s dream come true. He’s a big, ebullient guy with the locks of a metalhead and an unkempt beard that spills down his chest — both with just enough gray to be taken seriously. On the show, he’s accompanied by his dickering partner, Codfish (a Silent Bob type), and his Jack Russell terrier, Duke. He’s a shrewd bargainer with the folks he meets via Uncle Henry’s, but he’s also warm and friendly; he has a disarming habit of calling people “old boy.” Bennett has made part of his living by haggling and reselling ever since the 1970s, and he keeps stacks of Uncle Henry’s back issues stored in crates (for the contact info). Webb knew him long before the show’s casting call, because Bennett used to promote a snowmobile expo each winter, and he’d call Uncle Henry’s to try and barter for commercial ad space.
“I think they’ve done a pretty good job as far as portraying us all and keeping us pretty much how we really are,” says Bennett (calling on a cell phone following a run up to Camden to do some dickering). “When I first signed the contract, I was worried about that. They said, ‘Listen, we’re not going to make you look like a bumbling idiot unless you are one.’ That made me feel a little better because I am kind of a bumbling idiot, so I don’t mind that. I just don’t want to be shown as something I’m not.”
Down East Dickering does indeed have a feel of authenticity, and Bennett’s (and others dickerers’) charisma and clear enthusiasm help the show avoid the hicksploitation trap. Sure, the producers get some mileage out of the accent and various hillbilly hijinks (mud running, driving skidders over cars), but then, so did Bert and I. In fact, there’s an undeniable cultural thread linking Maine’s classic comedy routine and a reality show like Down East Dickering: Both are in it for laughs, both are vaguely anthropological, and both exude an undeniable cornball comfort.
That same thread runs right through Uncle Henry’s, says Bennett — and this is the secret to the brand’s success.
“A lot of folks have read it their whole life,” says the dickerer. “It’s just so familiar to them, like a shot of whiskey after supper. Our show’s got a ton of fans who were from Maine and moved away, and they all say that it brings them home.”
It’s anybody’s guess whether that warm familiarity will carry over as Uncle Henry’s editions start popping up nationwide this year, but Bennett suspects the appeal is universal.
“The Internet is so boring, so impersonal,” he says. “You don’t see nobody, it’s not fun, you’re not going nowhere. I just don’t understand it. The chase is it for me, along with that new guy I met today.
“With Uncle Henry’s, the dream is on. It’s like when you were a kid and you used to read the Montgomery Ward’s magazine with Nana, you know? How you circled one thing on every page because it was just a wish book? Well, hey, Uncle Henry’s is just a big wish book.”