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Calling All Guys!

Ralph Long Jr. got a kick out of running Army & Factory Surplus for more than forty years.
Mark A. Manger

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."

Dave and Barry, who work at the railroad yards, shuffle through the aisles carrying heavy-duty electrical cords and a basket of tape measures. "I've been coming here for twenty years," says Dave, who's decked out in overalls and safety goggles. "They've got nice stuff. Good prices, too."

"Yeah," says Barry, who's decked out in blue jeans and safety goggles. "The other day, I found one of those hinges where you could latch on something and hold it tight. And I couldn't find one anywhere. I used to come here all the time for salmon snagging hooks, too. It was the real deal in here."

"Yeah," says Dave.

"Yeah," says Barry.

"But I really used to like coming in here for the Army stuff," adds Dave. "Like the fatigues. Then my style changed and now I'm into Carhartt."

"Me too," adds Barry.

"But you knew it wasn't going to last," Dave continues. "This whole place is going to be lofts now. It's all going to be a yuppie area now. I'm sorry to see it go."

So is Steve Rosenblatt. An owner of Charlie's 2nd-Hand Store a few blocks away, at 2227 Larimer, he specializes in used drills, wrenches, screwdrivers, hammers and dozens of other tools that crowd the shelves and dangle from the walls. Rosenblatt and his family have operated the store for 54 years, and in that time they've seen a lot of businesses come and go. But the transformation they've witnessed over the past five years is troubling. Although Rosenblatt doesn't blame landlords and property owners for cashing in on the economic boom, he's worried about the consequences. Besides being a great place to shop, the Army & Factory Surplus was an area landmark, a link to the neighborhood's working-class roots. If it's replaced by lofts, which is the rumor, the neighborhood will lose one of the last building blocks that made it what it is.

"We need more diversity here," Rosenblatt says. "Everyone wants to move to downtown because of its uniqueness. But it's not so unique anymore. All you see are lofts and lofts and lofts. It's losing its small-town feel. It's losing its character. It's losing the reason people came down here in the first place. It's changing too fast. It shouldn't be all about money. At what expense are we selling ourselves?"

Charles Kaufman has run Al's Loan and Luggage pawn shop at 2134 Larimer for 54 years. He, too, sees the closing of Army & Factory Surplus as a major blow. "It's liable to hurt us," he says. "They brought trade down here. When people needed a good tool, they knew where to come. The only thing we've got going for us in our business is that we've got our property bought and paid for."

Chip Thomas, manager of the Butcher Block cafe at 2470 Broadway, can't say the same. "We've been around for 21 years and have survived a lot of the changes," he says. "But we rent. And if someone buys this building, hey, who knows?" The sale of Long's building has given Thomas one more reason to keep his fingers crossed.

"We're a working-class cafe," Thomas explains, slapping a few hamburgers on the grill. "All these places where the lofts are going in used to have people who came in here. With Ben Moore [the paint store], I used to have thirty guys I fed every day. Now I have three. That's how it's changed. Things are coming back now, but when the new people move into these lofts, I'm not sure what's going to happen. And where are the homeless people going to go? That's what I want to know."

Back at the surplus store, the bargain-hunting frenzy continues. Terry Trahn fiddles with a few more price tags. Larry Lordy prowls the aisles for something he doesn't need but will probably buy anyway. Dave and Barry move toward the Army fatigues. Arturo Rascon eyes a display of lime-green tape measures.

"How much?" he asks.

As the merchandise vanishes item by item, a part of Denver history goes with it.

Late in the afternoon, a man will walk into Army & Factory Surplus and make an offer on the remaining stock. Long will usher the last few customers outside, lock the door behind them and hang a sign in the window.

Closed.