Joe's Smoke Shop & Super Store - Portland, ME

           A man named Nate is contemplating whether or not to enter Joe’s Smoke Shop. From across the street, the squat, brick façade of Joe’s appears to be aflame, sunlight striking it with early summer violence. Nate is a new resident of Portland, Maine. He is — as the locals call it — from away.

            Joe’s Smoke Shop is one of the few remaining shops near the heart of Congress street to retain the semblance of a Portland that once was. Not that that particular version of Portland was any better or more charming than the Portland of today, simply that it was closer, more pure, to the origins of Portland. Nearer to the source of its Maine-ness, Nate could say.

            Herein we find the crux of the paradox. Does Nate himself become more of a Mainer by entering Joe’s? Or does Nate stay out of Joe’s, allowing it to retain more of its native vibrancy?

            He wants to go into Joe’s. He has heard about their fine fare.  Delicious breakfast sandwiches, meatball subs with melted cheese and, indeed, even tuna subs, equal to any grandmother’s recipe, all available at a reasonable price. These treats are accompanied by a beer and wine selection deemed modest at very best. Despite all these realities, Nate still wants to enter the store. He wants to feel slightly more entrenched in his adopted homeland and going into Joe’s Smoke Shop certainly feels like an avenue to do that. Indeed, it very much is. But, because of his non-native heritage, any small bit of actual native Maineness he experiences in Joe’s — be it accent, custom or simply the stock (whoopee pies, all-dressed chips, lobster rolls and the like) — so too does he leach that bit of uniqueness straight from Joe’s itself.

            This is a zero sum game of Maineness. This is a microcosm of unique culture everywhere. Each foreign culture began as a separate dish of unique flavor and appeal. Now, thanks to globalization, in all its forms, our earth is rapidly becoming a vast melting pot of culture. Societies and social norms, mixing and mingling, imparting bits of their own experience onto bits of other until, in time, the globe will be a singular grey place, with neither nooks nor crannies nor pockets of difference: uniform, uninteresting, unchanging, eternal.  

            The danger of cross-contamination, thinks Nate, of dissolution and dilution is no joke. It is simply too slow for anyone to really wrap their head around. Entering Joe’s is not simply a dilution of the native Maineness that exists inside Joe’s, it’s a broaching of the future’s trust. Though, here we could get into the paradox of the need for capital investment for a place to survive and what that means for the culture of the place itself, but let it simply be said that to preserve a native place, it can only, truly, be frequented by natives, or those who are of equally interesting stock.

            The only way for Nate to have both his cake and the pleasure of eating it would be to find the ability to adopt Maine’s cultural mannerisms and mores with an insane and preternatural quickness. Only if he hunkers down, listening to the lexicon, mimicking the speech, mannerisms and even quirks of the establishment’s proprietors and employees can he hope to preserve it, as one preserves a national park by carrying out what they take in. Of course this means he becomes a spy, a turncoat against his own cultural upbringing, taking up the standard of a different master. Only if he does this does he preserve the dividing lines between Maine culture and his own.

            But can he do this? Can he betray his own past for the purpose of upholding another’s? What about his own upbringing? What about his own brand of wildness?

            Should not we all become a more potent distillation of ourselves, picking up nothing of the outside world and following only the savage and illogical inner truths that develop only in the most remote of isolation? Would that make our world a loony bin of differing opinion and understanding, if everyone simply chose not to adopt any other’s ways? Would two people be unable to connect anymore? Would it simply be an unmoored rumble of ships passing at various times of night, unable to call out to each other or offer help in the blackness of the raging sea?


            Before the natives of Joe’s were wilder ancestors still. Generations upon generations ago, unimaginable people, they were, even more interesting and inscrutable than present incarnations of that age-old bloodline living up in Caribou or on the frosty shores of Togue Pond. Imagine the thickness of their accents, the coarseness of their furs and the oddness of their traditions. Despite all these oddities, they still interacted with one another, traded and made friends. Friends enough to eventually be wrangled into calling themselves Mainers after all. Accepting a label to their homebrewed quirks.

            Brutes, they were. Twelve feet tall, able to feast on Maple trunks like spits of asparagus. They loped through the woods like wendigos, bathed in riverbeds, drove moose before them like sheep. The women carried babies four at a time, knit clothes from the quills of porcupine and slayed deer with simply a stern gaze.

            These were no wimpy peoples. It takes a rough kind to make it through the long winters of Southern Maine, as it stands. So, one must strain to imagine these indomitable stones of people. They must have been harder and more jagged than the very landscape itself.

            Now, the plight becomes clear. Does Nate go inside? Does Nate flaunt his own weak brand of culture before these living ancestors to giants? Does he silently weaken the raw origins of native Maine with his pale arms and nearly hairless legs?

            Or does Nate go out and become his own self? Does he go and find for himself the origins of his own bloodline? Does he seize the nearest (willing) woman and run with her, pell-mell, into the deep woods, fashioning for himself a sovereign nation, which will birth its own fiendishly unique offspring? If he were a strong man, thinks Nate, he would do this. If he were a unique man, thinks Nate, he would do this. But, what Nate doesn’t understand is that inside of each and every one of us lurks a uniquely strong man.

            Each one of us has the seeds of ragged authenticity, dormant inside. In a society with any sort of pressure to conform — which is all societies — the seed will remain inert in nearly all of us. Certainly, there are people made of such rugged stock that, like a ragged weed, their inner seeds grow and flourish no matter the conditions. But for the majority, the seed slumbers, preserved inside, quiet and useless.

However, we must only give that seed space and time. Simply space and time. With only those two gifts, a seed of weird, wild inner oddness can grow. Anyone, if serious about their isolation, can become the source of a river delta of a bloodline that fans out, hewing raging torrents through the sedimentary rock of society itself!

            But that is for the wilder sort, mistakenly thinks Nate. In the moment, Nate just wants a tuna sub and a six-pack of beers for later. So Nate chooses to go inside as any one of us would do. He chooses to preserve nothing, depleting Maine’s reserves charm for his own benefit. Better that he give them his money, he thinks, to preserve some semblance of what they are, than allow them to founder, which is a fine point, but a sad one nonetheless. And so, without further hesitation, Nate steps into Joe’s Smoke shop and all is as it will and must become.





3.0 Stars

It doesn’t look like a place where you’d find gourmet food. But the food is damn tasty in its own right. Sure, they’re not using locally-sourced, catch-of-the-day ingredients, but Joe’s is fine in a pinch, especially when the cash flow is running dry.


Dollars and cents

Joe’s is, if nothing else, an excellent way not spend money. There is a reason why many of the clientele do not appear gainfully employed. Joe’s has a niche and it nails it.


Scary Gas Station

Not that it’s dirty, it’s actually pretty damn clean. It simply has a hint of scariness. One does not feel particularly welcome in Joe’s, no matter the time of day or night.


Made to Order

The cooks behind the counter are quick and kind. One woman (I have yet to catch her name) who’s behind the counter most weekdays at lunch, reminds one of a friend’s mom. Great service in my experience, despite everything the exterior and interior would lead you to believe.



Muster up your inner Mainer and check out Joe’s. This is a great Portland haunt that will serve you up a tasty breakfast/lunch, quick and cheap. Also, if you need beer or wine, there’s no easier stop if you live even remotely close to the West End. I know what most people will say, “Joe’s is creepy!” Yes. Joe’s is creepy. But Joe’s is also proficient in its areas of business. Please, if you go into Joe’s, don’t think about what could change. Joe’s is a crazy, less-than-attractive place in the midst of finer dining spots like Boda and Pai Men Miyake. Simply be a paying ghost. Go in, experience a still-remaining wacky nook of Portland, pay some money and get the heck out.