2014-07-11 / Community

A Window on the Past

Bix Furniture Stripping
By Craig Skelton,
South Portland Historical Society

Bix Furniture Stripping, 158 Pickett Street Bix Furniture Stripping, 158 Pickett Street My first boss was Earle Angell, who some folks may have known for his many years of service with the fire department or the Bix Furniture Stripping business he operated at 158 Pickett St. I didn’t work for him at Bix, however. I was working with another teen, mowing grass and digging graves at Mount Pleasant Cemetery, which didn’t require his constant supervision. Earle was also the cemetery superintendent and would come and go in a big blue Ford van and used to cart furniture around from his Bix shop.

Bix Furniture Stripping started out on Broadway and was operated by Harvey and Fran Fotter, who purchased the franchise around 1963, according to their son Steve. Steve and his sister Ellen Jamison could not recall where the original location was. However Carolyn Billen, a volunteer at the Cushing’s Point Museum, found a reference in the old directories for 795 Broadway. Readers of Kathy DiPhilippo’s book, “South Portland: A Nostalgic Look At Our Neighborhood Stores” would recognize as the location of Mid-Town Market operated in the mid-1970s; however the building is now gone and Evergreen Credit Union now occupies that location.

Steve says he worked a summer there, but it has been far too long for him to remember where it was on Broadway. He remembers stripping merry-go-round horses and at least one 6-foot ship's wheel and that Harvey and Fran had a VW bus with a sun roof that allowed them to schlep things to and fro, with the difficult bits poking out the top. What do you think the chances are that the merry-goround horses were from the old carousel at Old Orchard Beach? I’d like to think they are good. dicated the business was moved to the Pickett Street location in February of 1969. An entry in Harvey’s diary, for Jan. 3, 1973 reads, “Had meeting at shop with Mr. and Mrs. Earle Angell – bank has OK’d their loan – we to fi- nalize sale Jan. 8.” The Fotters moved to North Carolina shortly after selling the business and records indicate Earle operated Bix out of the Pickett Street building until about 1981.

I had occasion to go to the shop, not on cemetery business, but because my mother from time to time would take furniture there to get countless layers of old paint stripped off. The 1970s might have been a time of re-awakening from the standpoint of an appreciation for the natural wood grain look. Prior to that time, folks had covered everything with paint and Earle certainly found a niche in stripping a lot of that away!

And I, too, think that back then we weren't a throwaway society like we are today. Many of the furniture pieces my mother took there were something she or one of her brothers or sisters had salvaged from the old homestead before the carpet baggers made off with the rest. That old stuff surely had a modicum of sentimental value on top of being well made and worth the trouble of saving it. Fact was, though, that often Earle would uncover something hiding under all that paint such as an imperfection in the wood, a putty filled crack or broken spindle. All that said, I still have a small rocking chair that mom presented to Marcy and me when our daughter was born that she fondly remembered her grandmother rocking babies in.

Stepping inside the Bix shop was tricky, and I remember furniture was stacked floor to ceiling in the left side of the building, naked of any paint, awaiting their owner to come and pick up it up. Just as you would walk gingerly around a pyramid of tomatoes at the grocery store, you didn't want to brush your shoulder on anything in Earle's shop for fear of bringing chairs stacked to the ceiling down on top of you. In a way, though, it was more like being in the natural history museum surrounded by precariously stacked dinosaur bones rather than tomatoes.

The right side of the shop was the messy side of the business. Earl had a really big tub as I remember. It was more like a giant baking pan on short legs. In this pan, he would position a piece of furniture and smother it with furniture stripper. It was separated from the other room by a half wall that helped to contain some of the flying debris when Earl unleashed a hose to rinse off the gunk. He was wearing rubber gloves of course, but short of a space suit, there wasn't much you could do to protect your clothing. One thing I don’t ever remember seeing was Earl with a mask on. Those fumes must have been awful.

Fast forward to today and a visit to the shop will fill your nostrils with the delicious smell of coffee brewing and bagels being toasted. The restaurant is called simply 158 Pickett Street and has become a favorite weekend morning stop for Marcy and me. We go there at least once a month on our rotation of favorite places. There is something about their sour dough bagels we can’t resist.

Sitting there, I can’t help drift back in time to the image of what it looked like some 40-odd years ago. The Steam Punk theme room divider along with metal tables and chairs, and a bunch of kitchen equipment all occupy space once dominated by the bones of old furniture and stripping equipment, but it hasn’t escaped me that very little in that building has actually changed. One thing I’ve noticed for certain is that it has a new coat of paint.

My thanks go out to Sally Hinckley, who put me in touch with Ellen Fotter Jamison and her family. Her brother Steve and his wife Abby found the picture of the Bix building in an old photo album and were able to provide other important information from a diary kept by Harvey Fotter.

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