By Sofie DeWulf
Two young men, college students by the look of it, walk by the store, eyes wandering over the array of furniture out front. One pauses. He looks intrigued. “Is it a junk store?” he asks, like his friend might have the answer. His question can be heard inside. The scratched and faded black door that marks the entrance is old and doesn’t do much to keep sound out. I notice that Sid pretends like he doesn’t hear him. He knows what people think about his store at first glance. He laughs about the elderly woman with blue hair who came in a few weeks back, looked around for a little bit, then turned to him and said, “God, there’s a lot of shit in here.”
She’s certainly not wrong. At first glance, the store seems a bit overwhelming. Every square inch – the walls and cabinets and shelves and floors – is covered in stuff. Stuff that, without really looking, seems like just a whole bunch of junk, the kind you find in a yard sale exclusively featuring odds and ends, or in an older relative’s attic that really needs to be cleaned out. There’s a strong connection to the latter, for the store smells like the mix of mothballs and worn leather one often associates with the elderly.
It’s not simply junk here, though, or “a lot of shit.” You would need to do some serious browsing, but there’s plenty to be found. There’s a suit of armor from the 1500s next to a collection of old rifles fixed on the wall. In the back, there’s a room full of costumes. Not to mention all the military items, including multiple displays of military buttons, a whole cabinet with helmets worn by soldiers in wars past and rare, old uniforms hung up around the store.
However, it isn’t just the items that make Surplus Sids interesting. Carrboro’s own military surplus store attracts a plethora of characters. Everyone from the owner Sid and his “sidekick” Gary Messenger to the wide range of customers that walk into the store is a character. Sid’s story, the story behind “the junk” and the stories that happen when a place has been around for so long are what makes Surplus Sids so special.
The man behind the store
If Surplus Sids took a human form, it would be Barry Keith. Barry, otherwise known as Sid, seems like the type who’d own a military surplus store, simply based on his appearance. His staple clothing item is a brown leather jacket with a skeleton pin on the lapel and the word “infidel” written in orange on the front. He has long, slick-backed hair with a full moustache and beard that are fading from a reddish-orange to white, betraying his age of 62. He wears glasses that rest low on the bridge of his nose and folds his hands when he talks, completing the look of a slightly younger Santa Claus who also happens to be a biker.
A native North Carolinian, Sid went to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and became the first person in his family to earn a university degree, studying political science and history. He graduated in the mid-‘70s and spent the next three to four years as a “soldier of fortune.” He doesn’t reveal a lot of details from these years, but he will mysteriously divulge that he worked for the “intelligence community.” He did a lot of traveling during this time to Central America, West Africa, the Far East and Europe. His love of foreign cultures is reflected in his language skills – he’s fluent in Spanish and Russian and can get by in Arabic and Dari Afghan – and in his choice to marry Tatiana, a beautiful Russian woman 15 years his junior.
This love of the foreign cultures can also be seen in the items in his store. Sid likes to get military surplus from all over and he prides himself in knowing exactly where everything is from.
“Look at this shirt,” he says, pulling clothing on a rack to the side to reveal a blue and white striped shirt hanging amongst a few others like it. “These are Russian.”
He walks to another part of the store, “These are Yugoslavian military pajamas.” Then he nods at a red, leather jacket, “This here is from the Italian Air Force.”
He continues to make his way around the store and point things out to me: “These khakis are the from U.S. Foreign Service. The red tunic hanging there is from the Irish Guard. That hat over there with the stripes on it is Hungarian. And this one with the lighter green is Swedish.”
It’s easy to see his passion for history as well. In a locked glass case in the back of the store, Sid keeps his most valuable military memorabilia, which belonged to what he likes to call “quasi-famous people.” In it you can find everything from General Patton’s riding crop to a hat that belonged to the first Russian to shake hands with the Americans at the Elbe River in 1945.
After his years as a “soldier of fortune,” Sid tried to settle down. He was in the restaurant business for a few years in South Carolina, but eventually decided to sell his restaurants. He came back to Chapel Hill in 1988, the year he started Surplus Sids.
The beginning of Surplus Sids
To understand how that happened, it’s important to know that Sid worked for a surplus man named Richard when he was in college. Sid had a hobby of collecting hats, a lot of which he got from Richard.
“I’m not talking like baseball caps or anything,” he said. “I’m talking real, honest-to-God hats, like bowler derby hats and fedoras and other military hats like that.”
By the time Sid returned to Chapel Hill, Richard’s health was failing him. He was retiring and closing down Poor Richards, his warehouse.
“Well, if you’re going to retire,” Sid told him, “I’m gonna take off where you left off.”
So, he bought the warehouse, cleaned it out, kept the good stuff and started his own military surplus store. He knew what and from whom to order from working for Richard and dealing with different militaries, so he started ordering.
“That was 1988, and I said I figure I’ll do that for about five, or six, or seven years,” he tells me, but Surplus Sids passed the 30-year mark on May 15, 2015..
For all that time, Surplus Sids, with its eclectic mix of outdoor gear, “Frankenstein furniture,” thrift items, toys, costumes and military surplus, has catered to every customer imaginable.
“A lot of people in retail say you have to narrow down your demographic,” Sid says. “I’ve never been able to do that. Mine’s been ages 6-76 and whatever else in between. Rich, poor, indifferent, otherwise, black, white, blue, yellow, green. It’s whatever’s in this universe.”
Visitors from every walk of life
Often, it’s college students. Surplus Sids does a lot of business with theater and film, and there’s always students looking for costumes for parties or Halloween. Savannah Putnam, a sophomore at UNC-Chapel Hill, came in last year to buy a cowgirl hat.
“I actually went during a torrential downpour and the whole back of the store was flooded,” she said. “But Sid was very helpful and welcoming.”
Sid likes to point out how his store attracts bizarre characters. There’s Steven, a young man with schizophrenia who loves coins and brings in a bag every day to trade with Sid. There was the 12-year-old boy a few years back who bought a real Egyptian sarcophagus from the store because he wanted it in his room. Gary Messenger, the 68-year-old character who’s worked alongside Sid for the past six years, likes to recall the story of the old couple that came to the store in 2012 looking for survival stuff “back when the Mayan calendar said the world was going to end.”
Kenny Azecusky, a bartender at Krave in Carrboro, decided to stop by Sids before his shift started at the bar down the street because he was “looking into stuff recently for the concept of a character.” I discovered that Kenny is into LARPing, or live action role-playing. According to Kenny, a lot of the items in the store, such as the molle vests and old license plates, would make a great post-apocalyptic look for his upcoming zombie LARP.
Surplus Sids has also had its fair share of celebrity customers, who can be seen on the “gallery of famous visitors” sign at the front of the store. Tyler the Creator, Robin Williams, Steven Colbert and Kirsten Dunst are just a few names written on the little white board.
Sid has stories about all of them. Robin Williams came into the store in 1998 when he was shooting “Patch Adams,” because the film crew bought camouflage netting from the store to use on set. Sid says, “He was on the whole time he was in here,” trying things on, making comments and cracking jokes.
Sid shows me a photo of Kirsten Dunst taken right outside of the store. She’s wearing a blue dress and smiling. “Sid, love your store,” is written in pen on the photo. The actress was in town because she was dating a guy in a band who was playing at Cat’s Cradle. She came into Sids with her boyfriend and bought a jacket. A little while later, Sid says, he turned on the TV and saw her wearing that same jacket at an event during fashion week in Paris.
I no longer wonder why this place has lasted as long as it has. There’s a lot of history and culture amidst “a lot of shit;” and there are the customers, who always bring something new to the table. Sid has yet to grow tired of it. In my time with him, I never asked about the future of the store, or when he thinks he’ll give it all up and retire, because he seems like the type of person who doesn’t like to think about that kind of stuff. At some point, though, he gave me an answer: “If it ever stops being interesting, that’s when I’m gonna stop doing it.”
Edited by Molly Weybright