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Army Navy Surplus Turns 70, Still Has That 'Distinct' Surplus Smell

By Ariel Cheung | July 6, 2016 7:04am | Updated on July 7, 2016 8:26am
 Army Navy Surplus has sold military gear and apparel for 70 years from 3100 N. Lincoln Ave.
Army Navy Surplus Salutes 70 Years In Lakeview
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LAKEVIEW — Sometimes, you just need a good zombie-slaying outfit.

Whether it's for Halloween, cosplay or the actual zombie apocalypse that's definitely happening, customers can undoubtedly find what they need at Army Navy Surplus, a 70-year-old family business at 3100 N. Lincoln Ave.

Like a grizzly grandfather's basement, the military surplus store is packed to the brim with apparel, outerwear, camping supplies and handy knickknacks. Its customers range from military veterans looking to replace battle-worn gear to doomsday preppers to thrifty hipsters.

"It's people who just want to show their pride for the military or think all this fashion stuff is cool," said owner Adam Hirsch. "It's anything from 5-year-old boys who just think this is the coolest place to walk into to the new scene of buying American-made, quality goods."

One of the top distributors of military surplus in the country, Army Navy has adapted to a changing business model with a hugely popular website. Still, the place is teeming with that old, musky scent of decades past — peacoats and ponchos lifted from the pages of history.

A customer tries on a hat at Army Navy Surplus, 3100 N. Lincoln Ave. [DNAinfo/Ariel Cheung]

"Surplus has a distinct smell to it, which is a great smell if you love surplus," Hirsch said. "If you've been going to surplus stores your entire life, you walk in and you just know."

In ways, the store and its massive warehouse are the de facto basement of Hirsch's grandfather. Sol Schreck started working in the Army Navy Surplus business in 1946 after getting out of the Army.

The store got its start with leftover, mostly used equipment from World War II, which the government resold to the public after the war ended. Soon, unused extra supplies were put up for sale, too, and surplus ventures like Schreck's scooped up huge quantities to distribute to retail stores.

Hirsch's grandfather started off next to the Biograph Theater before he started renting extra space above the furniture store that used to be at Lincoln, Barry and Greenview avenues. When the furniture store went out of business, Schreck bought the building. The family hasn't moved shop since.

"People who remember coming here in the '70s remember my grandparents, my grandpa saying, 'What do you want? Buy and get out!' " Hirsch said. "It's very family run."

Adam Hirsch, 32, is the third-generation owner of Army Navy Surplus. [DNAinfo/Ariel Cheung]

Schreck mainly dealt in wholesale, and the business didn't do much retail until Hirsch's parents took over decades later. The family launched ArmyNavySales.com in 1999 and now handles most of its business online. It also deals to retail-focused shops like Belmont Army in Lakeview and Wicker Park.

"What we have [in store] is a small sampling of what we sell online," Hirsch said. "We have 5,000 more products that we just don't have space for here."

Even what the store can fit inside is fascinating and, typically, affordable. Along with racks of military coats and apparel are boots, backpacks and loads of camping accessories. Dig long enough and customers can unearth rare items. The coolest item, though, is proudly displayed: A World War II-era drone perched on the ceiling near the cash register.

Marine veteran and TV host Rob North tries on boots at Army Navy Surplus, 3100 N. Lincoln Ave. [DNAinfo/Ariel Cheung]

Hirsch grew up in the family business, playing in the warehouse with his toy Army Ants as a kid. After Hirsch's mom died eight years ago, his dad decided he needed a change and wanted to step down. But Hirsch, his brother and his cousins "always wanted this to continue," Hirsch said.

"I never really thought about it until I got a little bit older," he said. "My brother is more artistic and creative. I was the person in the business sense, so I came and joined up."

Now, Hirsch and his uncle run Army Navy. It remains on Lincoln Avenue, a relic of the old Lakeview, with its peeling paint and massive window displays.

In his four years running Army Navy, Hirsch has furthered its modernization, updating the website and retail operations. During Halloween, he brings out a binder filled with costume ideas and orders accessories like toy guns to add final touches.

Over the decades, Hirsch's family watched as the many antique stores on Lincoln moved out. Restaurants like Bakin' & Eggs and stores like Waxman Candles have started to fill the void, but progress is slow.

RELATED: 'Stay Tuned' For Revitalization At Lakeview Whole Foods Corner, Tunney Says

Hirsch said changes to Lakeview like the new Whole Foods and the Wrigley Field renovations will likely have a positive impact on his strip of Lincoln Avenue.

The return of the No. 11 bus will also help bring more foot traffic to the street.

Regardless, Hirsch is certain Army Navy will weather the change as it always has — with an eye on the past, even as it moves forward.

A World War II-era drone perches on the ceiling near the cash register at Army Navy Surplus. [DNAinfo/Ariel Cheung]

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