The ‘go-to’ store in Carrboro
I can’t pass by an army surplus store without walking in and seeing what is for sale.
So it was good news for me when Barry Keith, who opened Surplus Sid’s in Carrboro in 1988, told me, “I plan to be here for a long time. Honestly, they’ll have to carry me out.”
The other day, Keith was in front of the store working on a pole decorated with a dragon, one that would break apart into two swords.
“We have developed a reputation as sort of a go-to place,” Keith said. “If you need it, we can find it or make it.
“I keep a lot of spare parts around. A few months ago a high school group was putting on a play set in the1930s. They needed a microphone from that era. So, out of spare parts we put together something that looked like a 1930s microphone. We didn't have it, so we made it.
But military surplus is still Surplus Sid’s core business. Keith got his start while he was a student at UNC-Chapel Hill. He collected hats, “not caps, like baseball caps, but derbies, fedoras, military hats and helmets.”
When he visited a surplus store called Poor Richard’s to see if he could find something to add to his collection, he met the owner, Richard Levin, a Chapel Hill legend, according to Keith. He and Levin talked about hats and struck up a friendship that led to Keith working in the store.
“He probably hired and fired me three or four times,” Keith said.
Levin took Keith to surplus trade shows in Las Vegas. “He showed me around and taught me what to buy and how you buy. Levin introduced me to the people and to other places to acquire these items. I made a lot of notes about things, what all to do, and I filed those notes away.”
After a few years away from Chapel Hill, including time owning restaurants in South Carolina, Keith came back with a stash of money and a commitment not ever to work so hard again. “I made plenty of money,” he said. “But I didn’t have any time to spend it.”
Back in Chapel Hill, Levin was in declining health. He had closed Poor Richard’s and put all the remaining stock in a warehouse.
Keith told him, “Richard, I love you to death. I would never come in here and compete with you, but if you're going to retire and hang it up, I'm going to pick up where you left off.”
Levin would be proud and maybe a little jealous if he could see Surplus Sid’s today, full of military clothing and equipment and lots of costumes for sale or rental to college students on Halloween. “Not just college students,” Keith corrected me, “it’s younger kids and everybody else. And not just Halloween, people come in for costumes almost every day of the year.”
Across the street from Surplus Sid’s is a new hotel. “There were four wedding parties over there last weekend,” Keith said, with a very big smile. “And we had groups of them coming over to check us out. And we had some things they liked well enough to buy.”
If Carrboro’s renewal means existing businesses like Surplus Sid’s are stronger, it is a good thing for Chapel Hill folks, too.
It means Barry Keith can be doing what he loves and I can keep on visiting his store for a long time to come.
D.G. Martin’s regular weekly column appears on The Herald-Sun’s editorial page on Wednesdays and online at http://www.heraldsun.com/opinion/opinioncolumnists/martin.