Surplus stores have dried up across America and it has resulted in something of a problem for those of us who are “makers” – that is, people who can pick up bits and this and that and turn it into something useful.
My first experience with surplus stores came on Saturday in Seattle in the mid-1950’s when I was still not into even into junior high school. Pappy said “Come on, we’re going to the surplus store,…”
“What’s a surplus store…???”
Being young it was easy to ask dumb questions, right?
On the way to the surplus store in our old dark green 49 Chevy 4-door, I got the whole story…and it was a dandy.
You see, once upon a time, America didn’t just make a few things…we made everything. American was the Big Dog. Not China, not Europe, and not Japan. The reason the (ungrateful piss-ants) of the European Union even have a chance at their nuevo socialism is because the USA during World War II produced so much more than the Axis powers that we simply swamped the world with Made in America whup-ass products.
Donald Trump tapped into that with his MAGA-speak.
We made jeeps, we made airplanes, we made guns, we made ships,m we made electronics, we made clothing, we made rations, and we made cookware. I bet most people under 50 can’t even remember a good surplus store..but it was a thing of beauty for 10 or 15 years following WW II..
Our first stop, this particular day, was a place way down 4-th Avenue South out toward Boeing Field. It was called “Black and Tan” as it was founded by a black man and his hispanic partner. The place had everything you needed to build just damn near anything.
Need block and tackle for some logging operation you’re planning to start? No problem, that was out in the north building. In the middle yard, there was all manner of aircraft tubing. Good 6061 aluminum tubing, too.
So good was it, that when I got my first ham radio license, the Japanese fellow next door, Tom T (who retired from United Airlines SFO, last I heard) gave me a 20-meter vertical antenna that he’d designed and built using some of that B&T sourced tubing. Came in lengths up to 20-feet. Can’t count the number of Seattle area hams who made large mono-band Yagi beam antennas from that store.
Of course, the name “Black and Tan” didn’t last long – it had been a street slang name for the place. Seattle was a progressive place, too, so within a few year it was universally referred to as Aircraft Equipment and Salvage – and the pickings kept getting better. Because not only did the aircraft industry spillovers show up, but a lot of marine supply overflow was there, too.
The smell of used industrial equipment shames any Park Avenue frou-frou.
A few years later it was either here. or Northwest Salvage, that Pappy picked up his first 1,000 foot spool of nylon gill netting twine. Used for net repairs in Alaska and in Washington waters (these were Pre-Boldt fishing decision years) this big roll of heavy cord is where dad’s first forays into macrame were launched from. He made knotted grocery bags you could carry an Oldsmobile in.
Throughout my youth, we spent lots of time in various surplus stores. Not only did they traffic in aircraft leftovers, but some, like the place right across from Aircraft Salvage – was a good military surplus store. Pappy was a fire dispatcher at Pearl harbor during WW II, so he was interested mainly in things like the big, handle-less, navy mugs and watch caps. Great for fishing – mug of coffee and a watch cap – just the thing in an 8 foot boat chasing salmon around Elliott Bay.
There were some great ship-breakers, too, feeding into the surplus markets. One of the biggest of these was Zeidel’s in Tacoma on the Hylebos waterway. Here, crews worked steadily “decommissioning” many of the old Liberty ships that were used to transport goods during WW II.
One of my uncles picked up some dandy teak (decking) this way and turned it into great furniture. Did real quality work. too.
On an particular day, we could walk in and be guaranteed there would be all kinds of treasures. How would you like to buy a genuine, once used on a freighter, solid bronze port hole about 12-inches in diameter? It was $10 bucks. Big money at the time. AYFSM? Just the glass today would be $40 bucks – over an inch thick.
Seems like all of us Seattle boomers, when young, would go on the “regular circuit” with our dads on weekends because that’s what dads used to do. Sure, there was time for T-ball and such, but things like gymnastics? Not if there was a home shop, a few tools, dreams, and a surplus store around. No way.
People didn’t mess with building departments then, either. You bought materials and if it was on your own property, you pretty much did what you wanted. I suspect this is one reason I like living in Texas, so much. Where we live, there is no building department. Imagine that!
One of the Ure family axioms was that “iIf someone could tell you what to do on (or with) a piece of property, you didn’t really own it. Someone else did…” Texas still has this clear-headedness about it. Up north? Fading fast, my friend. Mostly gone from both coasts already.
“Except we usually went to the places closer to our house which was what…down at the end of Empire Way around the south end of Boeing Field..umm….JACK’s Surplus…that was it!”
Don’t get me wrong, there are still some damn fine surplus operations around, but they aren’t being “fed” like they were back when we still had large-scale manufacturing on the ground in America. Nowadays, if you want a small gas engine for some hare-brained scheme, you hit Harbor Freight and hope they have some of those 6 HP Chinese engines in stock and on sale for $99.
Material from Tractor Supply is good – but the prices would never match surplus prices. Sure, McMaster-Carr is great, too, once you figure your way around. And yes, you can find sheet and fiberglass bar stock and such (antenna insulator, lol) but it’s not like finding thick military surplus fiberglass for a nickel a foot.
eBay – if you’re looking for metal and such is good. But, you can buy 10-pounds of lead ingots on Amazon for about the same price as eBay and get it with Prime free shipping, too. (Everyone should pour lead and concrete for weights sometime!)
Back then? It was a different world. You’d go to Northwest Salvage or Aircraft Equipment and Salvage and you’d find a piece of [whatever] with an engine of the right size on it. You’d haggle on the price, strike a deal, and take off the engine plus parts you needed. If the motor was on a pump, or something that might have value on its own, you could leave that out.
Going through surplus stores is one reason Pappy always carried a box of tools in the car. You never knew when that “Got to have it” item would pop out of a pile of scrap. We used to be able to head out into wrecked car yards and pull what we wanted, too. Lawyers are gonna save us al from ourselves, ain’t they?
The Mother Giant of all the Seattle surplus operations was Boeing Surplus.
You can still find some damn interesting things on sale, but now it’s been “sanitized” as Boeing “Investment Recovery.” Once again, bean counters, huh?
Then there was Washington Liquidators down by the old Seattle Rainer Ice Plant in Georgetown, just south of where I grew up. My buddy, the major and I were not yet old enough to own cars, but we would make the short bike ride down to Washington Liquidators with some frequency because they had some of the absolute coolest electronics. We got wire, tubes, and some components at “such a deal” pricing.
A few transmitters I saw there? I wish I had ’em today. Many an ART-13 and such (BC-610’s?), but the real gems to my eye were the refrigerator-sized main shipboard transmitters that came of the ships being broken up for scrap at places like Zeidel’s… It was living in steampunk and a feeling that is comparable to anything that’s available today.
Pappy managed to throw cold water on a number of near-purchases of these thousand pound behemoths. “Where, exactly, are you going to get 400-cycle AC power, if you don’t mind me askin?” He’d already run my own 220-volt circuit to my downstairs had radio/bedroom and a line had to be drawn.
That didn’t stop me and I have been looking at 400 Hz rotary converters ever since. Don’t see ’em much, lol.
And that, my friend, is why now that we’re older, we are able to clearly behold the huge loss of creativity we’ve brought upon ourselves as a Nation.
If I was Ure President, I’d make sure we got back into the surplus sales business and with it? I’d make sure that every child coming out of school could cook, cast metal, saw wood, solder electronics, read a schematic, read an auto shop manual *(not Chiltons.. I mean the Factory manuals) and tune up a car engine.
Which is precisely why my kind of thinking is so dangerous to the “Specialization of Labor” crowd. Some things are special, sure. My corneal doc, for example.
But changing the oil and resetting the idiot light? Pah-lease! Laying some Formica or building a cabinet? As a nation we need to fall in love with hard work again…and with surplus stores.
I believe you can’t buy happiness. That’s something that has to be built.
Write when you get rich,