So Seattle: The military surplus store that’s a mainstay in Belltown
Patagonia is a fine, famed purveyor of outerwear with a fervent clientele of global proportions. But in Seattle, it might not even be the best outdoor store on its own block, 1st Avenue and Lenora Street. That distinction arguably belongs to its neighbor, Federal Army & Navy Surplus, which has been in Belltown since nobody wanted to be caught dead in Belltown, which occasionally would wind up being the case.
As one might surmise from the military mannequins in Federal Army & Navy Surplus’ front windows, it’s a great place to shop if you’re looking to dress up for Halloween as a soldier. But it’s mainly a place for hard-core apparel and accessories meant to withstand harsh elements. If you receive a tip that a potentially grave disaster will strike tomorrow, this is where you’d want to shop today.
Don’t expect to find guns, ammo and fishing gear here, however; this isn’t Warshal’s, the late, great downtown sporting goods store that reminded Seattleites of their rugged roots. (Hotel 1000 — not so rugged — has risen in its stead at 1st and Madison.) Federal Army & Navy Surplus is, paradoxically, a rather peaceful place. Back when the Vietnam War was a growing concern, the store’s biggest customers were protesters, not soldiers.
“In the ’70s, at the height of America’s discontent with the military, military wear (among protesters) was in style,” says Steve Hall, a member of Friends of Historic Belltown. “It’s an ironic way of wearing military and not being militaristic.”
Hall has been a customer of Federal Army & Navy Surplus since he worked for the U.S. Forest Service in the ’80s. He would go there every May to purchase field supplies or a fresh pair of wool pants left over from the Korean War, and has continued to pop in frequently to see what sort of surprises sibling co-owners Jack and Henry Schaloum might have in stock.
“Recently, they had all these snowshoes,” Hall recalls. “They had a salesman who sold them samples, and they’d sell them to you. It’s quite a contrast with Patagonia.”
At the surplus store, you can buy a refueling device that looks like a missile, several flavors of Department of Defense-issued M.R.Es (meals, ready-to-eat), a camouflage “Ghillie Suit” that resembles Chewbacca after a night spent sleeping on sticks and leaves, and Rite in the Rain notebooks filled with waterproof paper.
Jack Schaloum’s son, a collegiate golfer, finds the last of those items — made in Tacoma and “defying Mother Nature since 1916” — to be a particularly useful tool during drizzly practice rounds.
Jack and Henry’s parents were Holocaust survivors who came to Seattle in 1951. Izak Schaloum ran a dry-cleaning business near where Warshal’s used to be, eventually purchasing a sporting goods store across the street that dabbled in military surplus. It was here where Jack says Izak “saw a niche” and focused on surplus, building the enterprise that opened to a point where it outgrew its original 1955 digs.
The Schaloums purchased the old brick building they now occupy — a meatpacking plant and a shoe-part facility in previous incarnations — and moved in toward the end of 1979. A youthful raconteur then, Jack was fond of such woebegone Belltown watering holes as The Frontier Room, where Captain and Cokes would be curiously lacking in the latter ingredient.
It’s a different neighborhood now.
“It seems like, particularly in Belltown, people have an exit strategy, and that includes selling to a developer for $11.3 million,” says Hall, describing a scenario roughly applicable to the recently closed Two Bells Tavern on Fourth Avenue, which will be replaced by a residential tower. “Belltown has an ephemeral nature to it, so you can’t expect to have these iconic businesses stay forever. But what you want is to have new ones replace the old ones if the old ones go, for whatever reason.”
For now, the Schaloum clan and their funky shop — the last of its kind within Seattle’s city limits —aren’t going anywhere. Jack says he and his brother have no immediate plans to retire, explaining, “Retail keeps us sharp both physically and mentally.”
But their business model got more challenging with the advent of the internet. Where they used to score a lot of gear in person at auctions on local military bases, they’re now in competition with bidders all over the world and transactions have increasingly moved online. Even Amazon’s got a toe dipped in the surplus sector nowadays, Jack notes. And when Amazon takes a dip, it’s usually not long before that dip becomes a dive.
“There’s an old Yiddish saying: ‘Man plans and God laughs,’ ” says Schaloum, having just returned from a week of hiking through Utah. “So, we’ll see what the future brings.”
The exterior of the Federal Army & Navy Surplus store in Seattle’s Belltown neighborhood.