Surplus Love, or How the Community Rallies Behind a Beloved Shopkeeper

Posted on: December 28th, 2020 at 5:00 am by

Army & Navy Bags, the decades-old surplus store at 177 East Houston still hangs by a thread. Yet, embraced by a loyal customer base, and a community unwilling to let it fail, the business, and owner Henry Yao, soldier on.

The New York Times profiled Yao over the weekend, highlighting the origins of the shop and ongoing struggles through this pandemic year from hell.

Thanks to a summertime crowdfunding campaign and simultaneous “cash mob,” the store raised more than $25,000 and further spurred sales. The plan now is to hold steady, and “reassess the future as a storefront” in January.

A few excerpts:

Sales at his shop, Army & Navy Bags, had never been robust, even before East Houston Street emptied. He had focused less on margins and more on simplicity: sturdy bags, upbeat service.

Mr. Yao never fully realized the depth or span of his reach. He never saw the Yelp reviews that raved about the “tiny little hole-in-the-wall shop with the absolute sweetest man alive.” He did not realize that he had slowly created a community willing to come to his aid if he should ever need it.

Then, on July 14, just when Mr. Yao figured he was in his last month of operation, came a shifting of the stars.

That’s when Mx. Thibodeaux launched a GoFundMe campaign for Mr. Yao, tossing in the first grand. Mr. Yao had never heard of crowdfunding. He was touched.

Mr. Yao was thankful to still have a cushion from the July sales and the GoFundMe, although he knew he could not expect a flurry of support like that again.

In January, he will reassess his future as a storefront.

Army & Navy Bags has been on the Lower East Side since at least 1959. Almost fifty years later – in 2007 – Yao took over. At the time, he was working as an umbrella salesman, and one of his clients was Zygmunt Majcher, whose family ran the business since the beginning.

This isn’t the first instance the Lower East Side community rallied around the store, either. The threat of closure was real after word leaked in 2012 of an imminent rent hike. The landlord ultimately acquiesced.

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