“I’m a surplus guy!” says Lable Horowitz, explaining how Church Street Surplus came to be stuffed to the gills. Over the years, he has bought odds and ends of anything and everything, from sirens to buttonless dress shirts, from extremely girlish boy dolls to an Uncle Sam sculpture from the Spanish-American War, from railroad trestles to hospital traction bars. Much has been sold off, and much is still around: Look behind the racks at 327 Church and you’ll see stacks of boxes; look up and you’ll see a mezzanine level used for storage. (The railroad trestles are the mezzanine’s floor; the traction bars were used for the dressing room.) Church Street Surplus now focuses mainly on military clothing and other vintage apparel.
How did you get started in this business?
I was in the Army from ’55 to ’57, and then I was doing trucking for my brother, who owned a few stores. After I got married, my father-in-law suggested I get into used clothing. I started in 1964 at 11th and Avenue B in Alphabet City, and I moved to Church Street in 1971.
Drugs were becoming a real problem in Alphabet City, and this area had surplus stores—there were a bunch on Canal, even one that sold airplane parts. Hank Matthau, Walter’s brother, had a used clothing store on Broadway off Canal. I was born on Grand Street, and when I was 10 years old, I sold ice cream during the summer outside the AT&T building [32 Avenue of the Americas].
Where do you live now?
Chelsea, since 1972.
What’s the most satisfying part of what you do?
Finding old World War II clothing.
Where do you source stuff?
There are many sources. Some people advertise to sell it, some call here. Military shows. Auctions are good: government auctions, city auctions, customs auctions. I’d buy 60-70 containers of surplus at a time. And I used to go to thrift shops.
Most popular item?
Camo and green military shirts and other clothing. In winter, overcoats and watch caps. And ties and belts.
I suppose people like things that they can try on without undressing. What’s the most expensive item?
Leather pilot jackets from World War II—they go for around $3,500 and up. An original camo jumpsuit from World War II. Anything that’s seen battle.
Least expensive item?
Ties, five for $20. Military patches for $4 each. NASA commemorative space coins for $2. I bought a thousand pounds of the coins in ’74 or ’75, and I’m still selling them.
Your very favorite item right now?
These embroidered souvenir jackets that soldiers brought home from the Vietnam War. This one says, “When I die I’m going to heaven because I served my time in hell.” That was a common phrase.
How has your business changed?
We used to get more people looking for surplus when there were more surplus stores on Canal. Now Canal is so empty.
What percentage of your business is local?
About 60% is from New York City. Costume designers for the movies, TV, and theater like to shop here. They’re wearing our vests in “Newsies.” The new TV show “Vinyl” bought a lot of dresses. The new musical “Cagney” has our clothes. Woody Allen’s dresser was in here. The young tech guys who work in the AT&T building shop here—so do the young workers at the fancy stores. Musicians come but we don’t know who they are. Also a lot of tourists, especially from Japan. We’re in every guidebook.
Tell me a crazy customer story.
There was a woman who bought $4,000 or more on all kinds of things. I had no idea what she was going to do with it—nothing fit her! She said, “I’m going to max out my ex-husband’s credit cards.” And Betsey Johnson came in on roller skates during the late 70s or early 80s. She climbed the ladder while wearing roller skates. I told her never to come in again.
What does the future hold for Church Street Surplus?
I’ll be here till they carry me out.
Photographs by Claudine Williams, who specializes in business, personal branding, and glamour portraits.