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.

Recent Stories

Opposition Mounts Against Public Hotel Garden Revamp on Chrystie Street

The 28-story Public Hotel hopes to reconfigure its garden area along Chrystie Street. Neighbors are not having it. Posters in the immediate vicinity display the opposition to the liquor license modification. Claiming that the new garden format would be an “open air eating and drinking playground for the rich.” According to materials submitted to the […]

Developer to Close Lands End II Parking Lot by Month End for New 700-Foot Towers

Not two months after the Appellate Court overturned community lawsuits stopping the Two Bridges mega-developments, one of said projects is now moving forward. Tenants of the Lands End II housing complex were informed, via letter, that the rear parking lot will close by the end of April to make way for the 700-foot megatowers by […]

An Art Show to Benefit the Educational Alliance

A new art exhibit to support the Educational Alliance and its Manny Cantor Center kicks off this weekend. Drawing inspiration from the recently-deposed Hester Street Fair, “CONTINUE TO BE” is a celebratory show welcoming the warmth and hope of springtime in the city, featuring both new and old work from local photographers who have documented life […]

Clayton’s Corner: Shine a Light on the Dark

Since the outset of the coronavirus pandemic, nights are especially dark on the streets of the Lower East Side. Fewer businesses, less activity, less overall light. In this latest installment of Clayton’s Corner, the neighborhood documentarian shines a light on the darkness.

City Officially Breaks Ground on $1.45B East Side Coastal Resiliency Project

After an initial delay, the contested $1.45 billion East Side Coastal Resiliency Project is set to break ground in the coming days. All against a backdrop of legal filings and vociferous community opposition. “Building a recovery for all of us means fighting climate change and investing in resilient communities,” Mayor de Blasio stated in a […]