By Alan Prendergast
By Michael Roberts
By Michael Roberts
By Amber Taufen
By Patricia Calhoun
By William Breathes
By Michael Roberts
By Melanie Asmar
In a crowded surplus store in downtown's ragged, industrial backyard, Arturo Rascon hits pay dirt.
"How much for these?" he asks, appraising two wooden crates of Russian pipe wrenches.
"These?" replies Ralph Long Jr. "Well, let's see."
Long, the store's proprietor, holds up one of the tools, which promptly breaks. "This is why that submarine sunk," he chuckles. "Give me $25."
Rascon, a flea-market entrepreneur who's already bought Long's entire inventory of 116 Swiss Army knives and 67 leather tool pouches, folds his arms. "Deal," he says, moving toward a box of sledgehammers. "How much for these?"
During these final hours of Long's Army & Factory Surplus, everything is priced to move at 50 percent off. Cash registers bleep like video games. Customers picking through the shelves resemble tourists at an all-you-can-eat Las Vegas buffet. Freeze-dried chicken and rice. Waterbed repair kits. Sponge mops. Army knapsacks. Boxer shorts. Pocket calculators. Everything must go. All of it.
For 47 years, Army & Factory Surplus supplied construction boots, camping equipment, tools and hardware to the working men and women of downtown Denver. But earlier this year, Long accepted an offer on his aging brick building at 2300 Walnut Street -- located in the heart of what's now known as the Ballpark Neighborhood -- for a price he'd rather not disclose. When he signed on the dotted line, he joined a string of mom-and-pop shops that, over the last decade, have disappeared from a neighborhood known for its folksy storefronts since the late 1800s.
Army & Factory Surplus opened in 1953 after Long's father, Ralph Sr., bought a load of used government-issue tools and hauled it to what had once been a wagon factory. Five years later, Ralph Jr. joined the surplus outfit. The Longs were the first in Denver to have the idea of selling discount motor oil and spark plugs -- and when they did, they were swamped. "We sold oil at 29 cents a quart in those days," remembers Long, a friendly man with bushy white eyebrows and thick forearms. "There were so many people in here on Saturdays, we had to have a guard. We had to hide the oil behind the doors because the oil companies were mad at us."
It wasn't just the low prices that kept the parking lot full. It was also the eclectic assortment of merchandise. On any given day, you could find everything from an Israeli bazooka to a pair of casino dice to an earthquake survival kit to a jet pilot's helmet to a religious candle to a black lightbulb to a machete to a 1937 English military range finder. "When you go into places like Home Depot, it's not much fun," Long says. "We tried to make this fun. Especially for guys. This is a guy store. We have knives and camping equipment and a World War I mule harness and an airplane hanging from the ceiling. We tried to have stuff that no one else had."
And they did. As a result, they also had loyal customers. Three generations of shoppers navigated the maze of chambers inside the store, which also features what Long believes to be Denver's oldest operating freight elevator. "We've had people coming in who say their grandfathers brought them when they were kids," Long says. "For years, we were the work-wear store in Denver. When Sears and Wards gave up and went foo-foo, we hung in there."
But now it's time to move on, he says. The building is getting older and harder to maintain. The neighborhood has changed, too, with lofts and offices taking over spaces that were once businesses and shops. But that's not why the store's closing. Long simply received the right offer at the right time.
He still has surplus stores in Boulder, Glenwood Springs and Fort Collins, so he's not leaving the business entirely. And he still has a wholesale shop at 32nd Avenue and Larimer, so he's not leaving the neighborhood entirely. But after working for over four decades at this spot, he's ready to say goodbye.
His customers aren't so sure.
The Army & Factory Surplus was the first store Terry Trahn visited after he moved to Denver from Colorado Springs several years ago. He thought it was "so cool" that he decided to work here. "This is a real old-time general store," he says, fiddling with a price tag. "There's nothing quite like it anywhere in the entire state. And I travel a lot, too. There's one like it in California and maybe Texas, but not Colorado. A lot of people have been coming in here saying it's sad. And I think it's kind of sad, too."
Larry Lordy is a little gloomy as well. When he ran the production line at the nearby Breckenridge Brewery six years ago, he headed to the store whenever he needed a spare part -- which was practically every day. "I was always in here grabbing fittings, screws, tubing, whatever," he says, standing before a heap of Army knapsacks. "Ninety percent of the repairs I made, I created on the spot. And whatever I needed to rig it, they had it here."
The surplus store had plenty of things you didn't need, too, but somehow you always bought them anyway. "My wife came in here the other day and bought a half-inch hose repair kit," Lordy says. "But we don't have any half-inch hoses. So now we have to buy some half-inch hoses and break them just so we can use it."