Many baby boomers remember digging through bins overflowing with pistol belts, mess kits, and gas masks amid the smell of military canvas at one of their town’s standard Army-Navy surplus stores.
In the mid-1960s, the best place to find a pair of bell-bottom jeans was an Army-Navy store. It was the era of the surplus store, when few things were cooler than sporting a World War II military jacket.
The number of those scruffy surplus stores has dwindled over the decades, victims of fashion, politics and irksome inventory.
But nestled between Seneca and Exchange Street in Buffalo’s Larkin district, the only Army-Navy surplus store in Buffalo thrives. Though difficult to prove, the owners claim it is the largest store of its kind in North America.
Racks of camouflage and wool pea coats crowd the 28,000-square-foot space at Uncle Sam’s Army Navy Outfitters. Every corner of the store is packed with merchandise. A basket overflowing with youth-sized gas masks from Soviet Russia sits beside shelves filled with vintage military hats. Nearby, Yugoslavian combat shirts hang next to East German Flecktarn jackets and Vietnam War era helmets.
Robert Geist, a director and part-owner of the business, procures the products – primarily military surplus – from 25 countries. The store has a mix of vintage, modern and commercial military wear and supplies. Uncle Sam’s has been occupying its space in a former Larkin warehouse for the past 12 years.
It’s the latest player in Buffalo’s rich history of such surplus stores.
In the ’60s, at least six Army-Navy surplus shops could be found between Washington Street and Michigan Avenue, according to Warren Clark, the president of the Better Business Bureau. Clark’s grandfather started his family’s surplus store in 1922, and it grew following World War II when surplus stores were in their prime.
But the fad faded, and most surplus stores shifted to carry high quality goods or accommodate campers, Clark said. He turned his family’s surplus store into a uniform shop that specialized in embroidery. The market changed, and after the Vietnam War, dressing in a military garb wasn’t much in vogue, and surplus was harder to secure.
Of the multiple original Buffalo surplus shops that Clark recalls, none remain as Army-Navy surplus stores. Many dissolved after second and third generations had no interest in pursuing the mom-and-pop-style shops of their parents or grandparents.
But Geist and his brother Richard, who is a part-owner and operates out of New York City, embraced what others discarded, and took over what their father started 30 years ago.
The Geists created a lucrative online presence, which now accounts for 40 percent of the company’s revenue, expanded to multiple locations and embraced the surplus industry’s fashion potential.
In the ’60s, the Geists’ father Ike purchased surplus Canadian Army boots. He flipped them and was able to pay for his wedding and a Ford Thunderbird. That was the beginning of what would become his extensive relationships with multiple governments – relationships his sons would later pick up.
Shell Hubbard, who owns a chain of four Army-Navy surplus stores in Texas, said in the last 10 years he has witnessed “smaller shops go to the wayside” because they’re unable to keep up with bigger stores’ buying power of large volumes.
The Geist family, who also operate stores in Toronto and New York city, has a business that grew by 18 percent in 2012.
For every 100 who enter the store, 86 buy something, according to Chris Story, Uncle Sam’s director of retail operations.
“Our stores aren’t set up like your typical Army-Navy stores – the few that are left,” Story said. “Because it’s not just boots and pants. We’re selling a lifestyle.”
Geist and Story said their customer base is varied, from Boy Scouts looking for reliable camping gear, to the fashion-forward set that wants to pair Macy’s with military, to veterans seeking to locate lost parts of their own uniforms.
The Buffalo store is one part of a multifaceted operation. The merchandise that fills the shelves at the other two stores is processed through the warehouse that connects to the Larkin warehouse location. The 400,000-square-foot space also houses the company’s headquarters. While the store’s origin is in Toronto, the Geist brothers said they embraced the ‘American dream’ when they made their decision to anchor their family business in Buffalo.
Goods get sorted and repaired in Buffalo before being shipped to the other stores, and the complex’s second floor is dedicated to the Web team that manages the company’s online inventory.
“Surplus goes with everything, and it’s really popular right now,” said William Vogel, an operator of the company’s Web store, as he touted a 1950s Swiss wool tunic – a hot online item.
Geist travels all over the world, from Ireland to Yugoslavia, to collect goods for the store, and he organizes the shipments back to the headquarters. The 25 governments he buys from require Geist have his own means to get the products off their military bases. In a recent trip to Ireland, Geist found surplus backpacks from the Irish Civil War that date back to the 1920s.
When shoppers want “the real McCoy,” they go to Uncle Sam’s, Geist said. The store even boasts an “Old Navy vs. Real Navy” display of pea coats. Some shoppers prefer Army-grade cargo pants to the ones they can pick up at the Gap, he said. When Uncle Sam’s had a temporary store set up in the Galleria Mall, Story said they actually hurt the Gap’s business.
Uncle Sam’s also has outfitted up to 150 movies, including some big-budget films like “The Thing,” “The Incredible Hulk” and the upcoming “Pacific Rim.”
Movie production companies seeking out surplus stores to outfit their military-based scenes is part of surplus stores’ history. Clark recalls Toronto film crews heading to his family’s shop decades ago in search of uniforms and props.
Around Halloween, patrons come to the store seeking to look as good as the actors in the films the store outfitted. Halloween is this retail store’s Christmas.
“You can get something plastic or get the same kind of flight suit Tom Cruise wore in ‘Top Gun,’” Story said.
Geist and Story feel they have tapped into something that exists as an undercurrent in American society, a look that has come around again.
“Military fashion is so pervasive,” Story said.
Geist said his company sells clothing wholesale to retailers like Ralph Lauren and Urban Outfitters.
The cyclical popularity of military fashion has roots decades old. Clark recalls the bell-bottoms craze, “something that was military became civilian.”
The Geists plan to expand nationally with additional stores, but they said the headquarters will stay in the Queen City. “Buffalo will always be our base,” Geist said.