UPTOWN — Harvey Abrams has heard through the years that the military surplus store — at least in brick and mortar form — is "a dying business" within a world of online shopping.
"I hear it all the time, and you see them when they disappear, they're gone, they don't come back," said Abrams, whose Z Wallis Army and Navy Store in Uptown will soon join the ranks of those departed shops.
"Usually the families that have these stores, their kids end up with educations and don't want to be there, they don't to work six to seven days a week like I do. My son wants to work five days, regular hours, and I can't blame him," Abrams said.
Signs on the windows offer customers between 20 to 70 percent off merchandise as Abrams, 72, prepares to close his shop in June or July. After 30 years in Uptown, Abrams is ready to retire.
"It's time," he said.
There's no other store like Z Wallis in the neighborhood where people can buy military garb and accessories such as combat boots, gas masks, paratrooper bags, Navy peacoats and officer caps, berets, and patches from across the five military branches.
Since he bought the store three decades ago, Abrams has seen Uptown "go up, seen it go back down, seen it go up and down again, and now it's starting to go up again," he said, adding the $203 million rebuild planned for the Wilson Red Line will transform the area.
Soon, "this will be a completely different area," said Abrams.
Z Wallis' absence will be a big part of that difference to some locals.
"It's just always kind of been there," said one customer, 28-year-old Brad Thompson, who said he's lived in Uptown all his life. "It's hard, impossible to imagine that stretch of Broadway with no Z Wallis."
The store's original founder was Abrams' father-in-law, Zolton Wallis, the "Z" in the store's name who opened it in 1969. Abrams bought him out about 15 years later to keep the store in the family.
Z Wallis has enabled Abrams to provide his children with college educations and the occasional family trip, and a more comfortable life than he had as a poor Albany Park kid in the 1940s and '50s. He was raised in a small apartment with three siblings and parents who "struggled."
His father opened a grocery store on Kedzie and Cullom avenues during World War II. After the war, "the chain stores came and drove him out of business," Abrams said.
From there, a "temporary" gig as a cab driver became his father's livelihood "for the rest of his life," his only means of supporting four children and a wife, Abrams said. Financial pressures aside, Abrams has fond memories of running around the old neighborhood.
"It was a tough life, but it was a good life," he remembered.
Abrams says he never got to spend as much time with his children as he wanted when they were growing up. But his two children, a 48-year-old daughter and 45-year-old son, both have two children of their own and spending time with his grandchildren is the retirement perk he looks forward to most.
Standing in an aisle at Z Wallis Thursday, Abrams described himself as the type of boss who won't tell an employee to do something he wouldn't also do himself. He's also the type of boss who treats his employees like extensions of his own family.
Store manager William Ferguson has been "a faithful employee of the store" since Zolton Wallis hired him 35 years ago, when Ferguson was pondering a move back to his home state Tennessee after the closing of another military surplus store left him unemployed.
The 64-year-old Ferguson, of Uptown, said Abrams is as kind as Abrams' father-in-law.
Ferguson got into some financial trouble when he was 40 — a combination of unpaid bills, owed taxes and child support payments he'd fallen behind on that put him "$15,000-$20,000 in the hole."
"[Abrams] paid for everything flat out, he wiped it all out," Ferguson said.
Despite the store closing, Abrams said "the emotions are kind of up," with all the good things being said about him and his shop by customers who drop in. He's able to focus more on what he's meant to his employees and customers than the thought of shuttering Z Wallis.
"But I know," he said, pointing toward the shop's front door Thursday, "that the last time I put the key in there — it's going to be a downer."