Thursday, April 23, 2009

Say It Ain't So, Al!

Here is an artical from The Daily Breeze that has been coming for some time now.

Union War Surplus store may be marching into retirement
By Donna Littlejohn Staff Writer
Posted: 04/22/2009 08:04:46 PM PDT

An employee and a customer complete a transaction at San Pedro s quirky surplus store, Union War, which is likely putting a period to decades of selling oddball items from woolen boot socks to personal urinals. Stocked with thousands of oddball items - World War II mess kits, water pumps, camouflage underwear, woolen boot socks and fire-resistant overalls, to name a few - San Pedro's Union War Surplus store has been a quirky staple of the downtown shopping district for 63 years.

But Union War's owner, "Cheerful" Al Kaye, whose familiar, bearded visage has been synonymous with the business for decades, is now 84 and has decided to retire.

Beginning May 1, Union War will launch a 40-percent-off liquidation sale while transferring much of its name-brand work clothing to Urban Feet, a neighboring business.

"It's an icon in San Pedro," Kaye's former business partner, Tom Thomas, said of Union War, housed in an old Woolworth's store at 355 W. Sixth St. "There are three generations of people who will tell you their father brought them into this store when they were kids."

Whether the store will go away for good, however, remains unclear. Thomas, 45, and others are hoping to find a way to revive Union War.

Kaye was not available for an interview this week and no final closure date has been determined, Thomas said.

But for now, items are being cleared out and everything is 20 percent off leading up to the May 1 liquidation sale.

"It's kind of like a museum," said Jeff Daquila, the store manager who has worked at Union War for 19 years. "If you walk into Target, everything is sterile. This is organic. We have kids who came in here with their fathers and now they're coming in here with their sons."

Many locals have done stints at Union War's cash register during summer vacations.

Thomas began working in the store in 1976 and became a business partner of Kaye's in 1989.

They separated in 1991 when Thomas went on to run a prison-supply warehouse.

Walking into Union War can be a jolt to the senses.

With its creaky wooden floors, the store features aisles that are packed floor to ceiling with stacks of work and camping clothes, gear, and the more than occasional oddity such as a porcelain-plated personal urinal or a Czechoslovakian dental kit from the 1960s.

There are old military duffel bags, thermal underwear, jackets, canteens, helmets and new ice chests. Mosquito netting is going for $3.99 and tents are marked now at 40 percent off.

"There's some military surplus that's obviously been around for years," said Thomas of Rolling Hills. "We have wool pants on sale for $2 each. We have lots of knives, camping equipment, backpacks, duffel bags, we have a tremendous amount of sweats."

There are reading glasses, shot glasses, bandannas and car decals.

The 5,000-square-foot basement also is filled with merchandise, including old parachutes, emergency 55-gallon water drums, waterproof flashlights and earthquake preparedness kits.

The store opened after World War II when San Pedro had a strong military presence. Kaye's brothers, Ira and Dick, and cousin Robbie were the first owners, with Kaye taking over when the others moved away. All were World War II veterans.

The store has moved three times since it opened, but has always been on lower Sixth Street.

The sign hanging over the front door brags that customers can buy anything from a "battleship" to camping knives.

Years ago, the store sold old military barges and also bunk beds and military clothing. Union War supplied many of the local ships when the shipping industry thrived.

"The only time Cheerful ever got mad at me was when I had my restaurant and I wanted to put up a sign that said people could buy a submarine there," said neighboring business owner Mike Caccavalla. "I thought it was funny. But he didn't like it."

Cannery workers and other locals often cashed their checks at Union War.

"We'd cash paychecks at no charge, making four to six bank runs a day," Thomas said.

Thomas won't rule out somehow keeping the store afloat down the road. The building for now remains in the Kaye family.

"I've been sick to my stomach over it," Thomas said of the closure. "I was raised in that store, I worked there for many, many years."

Many of us attended San Pedro High with many of the cousins that made up the Kaye and Robinson family.

If you are or every aspire to be a Real San Pedran then you have spent countless hours shopping at Union War Surplus during your lifetime.

If you couldn't find what you wanted at Perry's on 8th Street, you could find it at Union War Surplus.

I visited Union War Surplus just after the Hahn Parking Meter Fee Increase went into effect.

The store was already holding a 25% or so off everything just to try and attract more business along 6th. Street where we had to feed, feed, and feed, the meters.

Most certainly Mr. Al Kaye has more than earned his retirement. But would he have considered staying around a bit longer had the meter increases not happened?

This 'change' to the business community in downtown San Pedro is not the type of 'change' too many people in OUR community are crying for.

We will barely nod or notice the loss of Starbuck's at the Centre Street Lofts.

But if and when Union War Surplus finally locks its doors for the last time, it will be widely noted and be very sad.

Perhaps all the "newbies" (folks who weren't born here or can't trace their roots to Komiza or Ischia) may be happy.

It's just one more sign that the "newbies" want San Pedro to become more like Marina Del Rey or Santa Monica.

As the months and years pass, there will be more "newbies" than us.

Maybe it is time for many Real San Pedrans to gracefully exit OUR beloved town and look for more comfortable places.

In the end we all should rejoice that we had Union War Surplus in our lives.

For little San Pedro Boys, we were all G.I.Joes in that store.

For the workers throughout OUR community, it is and was a place to buy essentials for work.

For campers and outdoors men and women, it is and was the store to visit.

Cramped and crammed isles. The sound of our shoes on that hardwood floor. All the stuff we needed help in lowering down from it high storage spots.

Most importantly it has always been the place where great and friendly people worked.

For so many members of OUR community, it was so much like home. Familiar. Warm. Entertaining. Imagination. Growing up as the store grew more stocked. Peace among chaos of all that stuff for sale.

Gosh! Wasn't it the best?

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