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Wednesday, June 20

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Detour

There is an accompanying photo essay which you may jump to here.

For crafters, tinkerers and people looking for gag gifts, American Science & Surplus is a candy store. Its location on the Northwest Side is bright and ecclectically decorated, with AC motors jockeying for space against test tubes, dinosaur figurines, telescopes and miles of tape. The company's website and mail-order catalog are staples of the DIY and inventor set, but the store engenders the sort of creative serendipity that might lead you to pick up the electronic innards of a Teddy Ruxpin doll along with the kite-building supplies you came in for.

On a recent visit, an employee was setting out several cases of eight-track albums that had sat unsold in the warehouse for too long. I was told to take as many as I wanted, for free — so I grabbed a couple boxes to put out as party favors for a friend's birthday party that night.

About two weeks prior, I'd been in the Niles warehouse where those eight-tracks had languished. Not open to the public, owner Philip Cable had invited me over for a tour. As we walked through the 70,000-square-foot warehouse, he told me more about the business.

American Science & Surplus began before World War II as mail-order business advertised in the back of Popular Science, offering cast-off optics to the home hobbyist. After the war, the surplus industry took off as many companies began selling excess military equipment, parts and supplies. American Science & Surplus rode that wave, and branched out into other items along the way.

Now the company offers thousands of items — closeouts, mismanufactured items, failed products, novelties and, yes, military surplus. Recent acquisitions included the inventory of a shuttered venetian blind business (basswood is popular with modelers) and 25 skids of pump supplies. Sometimes they buy a month's supply, so little they can't even put it into the catalog; other times they buy a lot of something and have a three year supply of it.

Asked what one of the strangest items they carry is, Cable has a quick answer.

"We've had these for years. They're called 'swim mates,' and they're kind of like boxer shorts — you put them on underneath your swimsuit." he says. "These are for people for who don't know how to swim and need extra flotation and yet, they don't want other people to know that they're wearing a flotation device. So you get in the water and then you surreptitiously blow on this plastic tube to inflate it — and there's actually a cork to stick in the tube, that's how old it is — and then it gives you a little extra buoyancy. I'm sure it's completely unsafe and not approved by the Coast Guard. And then when you want to get out of the water, you can pull that cork out and get all that air out — which is, of course, going to make a lot of bubbles around you, which is another problem."

We pass a section full of "as seen on TV" products. Cable shows me "The Twister," a 1-cup hand mixer with a tornado-like action, and the "Bagmaker Sealer," a Seventies-era version of the vacuum seal bags now on the market, replete with brown and avocado kitchen vignette on the box. There are cases of each gadget stacked 12 feet high.

Moving out of the bulk storage section, we come to the order filling station in the center of the warehouse. Beyond are rows and rows of shelving packed with bins containing all the items in the online and mailed catalogs. Workers fill up to 12 orders at a time using a pick and pack system; the company filled just under 100,000 orders last year.

A bizarre variety of merchandise sits side-by-side on the shelves:
• megaphones
• clamps
• screwdriver sets
• batteries
• plastic bugs
• used gurney wheels
• batteries
• steam engines
• emergency blankets
• binder clips in the shape of teeth
• Albert Einstein action figures

The current best seller is something called the "screaming flying monkey," a plush doll with slingshot-like arms and a voicebox in the chest -- shoot it across the room and it howls as it goes. A line of electronic kits from Wheeling-based Elenco is a seasonal best-seller, sold through Amazon in addition to American Science & Surplus' own catalog; a separate order-filling station is set up in the warehouse just to fill orders for the kits.

"We do OK when the economy gets tight because we appeal to so many frugal people," Cable says. "Half our inventory is crazy stuff that you have absolutely no need for and if you've got the extra cash, you buy it. And the other half is everyday usable products that if you can get at half retail, you jump on it."

American Science & Surplus is nothing if not frugal. Even the boxes the company ships customer orders in are surplus — overruns and misprints of boxes for random consumer products. It's rare that an item the company is bought is thrown out; if it doesn't sell, it's likely to recycled or sold to a wholesaler even further down the food chain.

Near the end of the tour, Cable picks up a 3-foot by 4-foot plastic fresnel lens and holds it up. "You can melt a penny in about three seconds with this. You find the focal length and the sunlight will catch the asphalt on fire."

It's available in the catalog for $129.95.

Click here to view the accompanying photo essay. »

 

About the Author(s)

Andrew Huff is the editor and publisher of Gapers Block.

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