... quickly sold out of flags, gas masks, BDUs ...
"It was kind of crazy," Mike said. It was the day that terrorism hit America's homeland.
It was like we were preparing for war, I thought, as I talked with Mike White, owner of the Melrose Army-Navy Store. Yes, this is the same store that was started in World War II by Percy Glaser. Percy, who approaches his 100th birthday, who finally sold the landmark store on Main Street to Mike four years ago.
"On Tuesday (Sept. 11), there was no business," Mike related. "People were too shocked to go shopping, and stayed home.
"I was going to close at 3:00, but then we started getting calls, asking if we had BDUs and other uniform parts you know, military pants and blouses, boots and camos. So, sure, I stayed open for them.
"Most of them were members of some medical group that had decided, just like that, to go to New York to help. They stocked up on clothing before they left, Tuesday night," he said. Most of them were from out-of-town.
"And then there were reservists who thought they were going to be called up, and they wanted extra camouflage pants and jackets."
"Do you carry regulation army uniforms" I asked. "Sure," he said, "at least the BDUs". Over on a large display were two piles of army helmets, one the new Kevlar style and the other a pile of steel World War II pots. With liners, some with camo covers. Cost, if you want to buy a helmet, is $80 for the Kevlar new ones, $28 for a WWII model.
"The hottest item all over town were American flags." he said. "We sold out in short order, and then got a new shipment on Friday, something like eight or ten dozen, and they were gone in a half hour. People wanted piles of them.
"That Friday we got 30 dozen flag-bandanas, too, and they were gone by 4 p.m. Anything with a flag motif - pins, patches, stickers, t-shirts - were gone, sold out.
"Army-Navy stores are unique, especially when something happens, something menacing, like a storm or tragedy," Mike continued, "and we get busy. I remember during one hurricane, the Red Cross needed 50 blankets, so Percy opened the store for them."
Dog tags were a hot item too. While Mike and I were talking, twice customers came with orders for military dog tags. "I had a chance to buy a used punch machine," he said, "and I've had about 600 orders in the past two years." They cost $8 a set, with four standard lines.
One time, after a Roxbury youth had been shot to death, a group of friends ordered 60 of his dog tags as a memorial. They all wore his tags.
"And we sold out of water purification tablets. Boxes of 30 to 50 tabs, that sell for about ten dollars, were gone in no time. That box would purify eight to twelve gallons. We don't take advantage of runs during emergencies, we keep our prices right in line with what we have to pay for the goods." It's a policy that Percy Glaser established, a policy that has made long and lasting customers over the past 60 years.
"We had about 20 gas masks in stock," Mike continued. "And they all went quickly. People from Manhattan left New York to get away, and bought most of them." And suddenly he had orders for 500 more, as people got panicky. "I called every distributor in the country," he said, "but they were all out too." Finally one supplier called to say he had located 28,000, that he was going to sell in lots of 250, to the highest bidders. He told Mike that the going price now was $20 each, wholesale. So Mike got on the phone to his growing list of gas mask customers; some wanted six, another wanted 38 for his whole firm.
He said he sold his original stock for $17 to $25 each, but that was the wholesale price he"d have to pay for replacements. He also said he saw some on sale, early on, on E-bay on the Internet, for forty bucks.
By this time in the interview it was now 10 a.m. on a Saturday morning, business became too busy to talk to reporters. That's okay, I had enough.
October 5, 2001