i visited an army/navy surplus store in a part of town that nobody would ever drive to. unless, of course, it was the only place in town that had something you were desperately searching for, or if you lived there. there's nothing wrong with being there, it just - doesn't have much.
or so i thought, until i patronized one of san diego's only surplus stores. and i'm wishing there were some other reason to take me to that side of town, so i could find more excuses to meander amongst their goods.
in the town i grew up in, there was a really neat, dark, dirty, chaotic army surplus store on the north part of town called Jax. my dad would go there for fishing or hunting supplies, and i would always beg to go to see what neat things i could find buried in boxes under layers of dust that nobody had laid eyes on for decades. i loved previously owned military clothing, that had a mysterious life before i laid my hands on it, the only evidence of which (aside from the obvious wear) was a last name, rank, or number scrawled on the inside tag. i loved imagining the person who owned it and what they must have done, where they might have gone or what they saw while they were there, or if they were even still alive. in fact, many times you could buy any of these items new - but they never had as much personality as the used stuff. it wasn't soft, worn in, loved (or hated, i suppose).
over the last three decades, i'm sorry to say that Jax, while still an amazing store in its own way, doesn't resemble what it used to be. it's now a bright, inviting, yuppie catering, overpriced, mountain gear store, chocked to the brim with hundred dollar north face backpacks and snowboarding jackets into the $400 range. they have odd flavored trail mix and gourmet coffee beans. they may even have an espresso cart to satiate the caffeine deprived shoppers.
but if you look hard enough, way back in the rear of the store, you can find remnants of what the store used to look like. this is the area of the store where you won't find young, keen-clad moms with their babies in hip little backpacks. in fact, you will rarely find employees. but back there lay military issue laundry bags and canteens, snow camo and stuff sacks, worn out fatigues and nearly mangled combat boots. and its worth college avenue traffic and the 15 minute drive to get there, even if it is quarantined into a small, rarely populated room at the back of the store.
the place i went to today was everything Jax used to be, but about 100 times larger, and even less apologetic. so much gear was in that store that much of it was crammed together uncomfortably, and some things were impossible to reach. medals of every shape and size adorned the walls, and treasures ranging from dried pumpkin fish bait to those metal utensils that clipped together neatly, spoon over fork over knife.
but the true magic of the store laid in the never-ending basement. a giant, dark warehouse of clothes, mystery boxes, metal cases, netting, nylon rope, wool blankets of every shape and size, and many more items that i couldn't identify. it was awesome.
nobody worked in the basement, and in the two hours i was there playing, trying things on, investigating, i only saw two other people. and they both quickly scanned a few racks, and shortly thereafter sought the bright, safe retail space upstairs.
steel shelves a block long and 15 feet high stretched the length of the basement, six deep and both sides crammed with clothing, two items high. they were overturned monoliths of fabric and crossbracing. suits, jackets, and pants were packed so tightly that they could not be shifted sideways, only pulled off their hangers and down, never to fit back alongside their military issued counterparts. and it was comforting somehow, to see rows of exact duplicates, differing only in condition of wear, size, and name etched inside.
among the items were black navy issue wool peacoats. at a guess, i'd say there were close to 1,000, peacoats alone. multiply that by the fatigues, dress uniforms, and branches of the us military, and you end up with more clothes than you could hang in a lifetime. i was awed at the magnitude of their stock. it was overwhelming.
i was in search of a coat for my upcoming trip home. after 3 years in california, i don't have any cold weather clothes left. i figured i would canvas the surplus circuit before opting for a too-expensive columbia jacket from REI, as my budget is a little tight. i considered the peacoat route, as i had once owned a coast guard coat which i bought for 10 bucks at a salvation army. though it's arms were much too short, it kept me warmer than anything EMS carries on their shelves at the height of ski season.
after rummaging, climbing, unmounting from hangers, replacing, and re-rummaging, trying on jackets of every color, shape, size and fabric, i found a blue, canvas parka with a fuzzy removable lining. it donned buttoned straps on the shoulders and small flags on each arm. every button, snap, and buckle was accounted for - a rarity after years of hard wear and tear.
it was too big on me, so i set it aside and searched for more. the one i found appeared to have been separated from the rest. but after an hour of exasperated scouring, i gave up and hoofed back up the concrete stairs into the light of the store, jacket in hand.
"um, excuse me. this doesn't have a tag on it, and i couldn't find where the rest are."
the somewhat ambivalent clerk explained that it was most likely the only one. it was an east german coat, and they didn't really see much of them anymore.
i explained to him that was hardly possible, since they had at least 300 of anything down there. but he remained firm, assuring me that the one i found was most likely the only existing one they had.
despite it being too large, i couldn't ignore the fact that in a packed dungeon full of decades-old forgotten items, i managed to find the only coat of its kind. a true needle in a haystack. how do you leave that behind?
it's not pretty by any stretch. and i don't know much about it, aside from that if it kept some guy in east germany warm, it would certainly carry me through any conditions colorado has to dole out this xmas. if it could only get me to DIA and back..