Back in the day, before fast fashion and cheap online shopping, repurposed military gear was all the rage. Now that tastes have changed, what’s keeping our remaining military surplus stores open? Jack Marshall reports.
The authorities found Isabelle Asbridge waiting for the Russians at the docks. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989, she had been buying from these Russian boats; they’d catch fish in the Pacific before quietly docking in Wellington to offload their other, less official goods.
The police “thought I was doing some sort of drug deal”, remembers Asbridge, owner of Wellington’s Comrades army surplus store on Cuba Street. “They were wondering why I was meeting these Russians on the boat. Maybe they thought I was a prostitute.”
For their part, the Russians would “take the money I gave them and buy sewing machines and stuff and take it back to Russia. They brought me military uniforms, hats, peaked hats, badges and medals knowing I would buy [all of it] off them.”
For decades, army surplus stores have been a feature of our biggest cities, yet they remain something of a mystery. Can you buy real military equipment inside? Is it legal to wear the uniforms? And who is buying this stuff?
Almost everything in Comrades is for sale: complete Bulgarian army captain’s uniform, backpacks from the French army, 19th century display pistols. Not all of it is useful, exactly, but the gear encapsulates Comrades’ motto: “Nothing you need, but everything you want.” One of the few things not for sale is Asbridge’s framed portrait of Vladimir Lenin which once hung on the cabin wall of a Russian boat. After the fall of the USSR sailors would trade anything, Asbridge says, even if it was bolted to the floor. The fishermen once unscrewed their ships’ mounted binoculars to trade with her.
Comrades’ customers are a revolving cast of army nerds, collectors, and those guys who wear camouflage down the street. Now, the Russian invasion of Ukraine has brought another kind of customer to surplus stores. James Hale, store manager at Karangahape Road’s Army and Outdoors, says that during the early days of the conflict, New Zealanders going to fight in Ukraine had stopped off in his store to buy protective equipment and cold weather gear.
“Nobody’s been particularly open [about their plans], which is fair enough. There must have been a good 20 to 30 that came into the store during the first few months with claims of gearing up to go, but I can’t confirm that all of them actually did.
“Most come in asking for body armour and helmets but the surplus market has dried up due to all stockpiles going into Ukraine.”
One thing you won’t find in our surplus stores is current New Zealand army gear. Military police even make unannounced visits to stores to check that nothing’s on sale that shouldn’t be. Under New Zealand law, you can wear military kit as long as it’s not current issue. You can’t wear patches of a specific military unit, and you’re not allowed to impersonate a serving member of the forces. And if soldiers sell their old gear they usually remove any identifying details.
One item for sale at Comrades did have details of its owner. Inside an original WWII great coat with buttons so shiny they look like they were pressed yesterday was a service number and the name PALLO. Assuming the owner was long dead, I requested his military history from the New Zealand Defence Force archives.
Instead of a service record, I was given a phone number.
“It was just a question of disposing of items which I no longer had a use for,” Gerry Pallo tells me over the phone. His answer was neat and efficient, as you would expect from a former army engineer. It turns out Pallo did not actually serve in World War Two but was issued the coat in 1950 when he underwent compulsory military training, a practice that only finished in 1972.
Conscripts underwent 14 weeks of intensive training, three years of part-time service and six years in the Reserves. “It was interesting,” says Pallo, when asked if he enjoyed the training. “When you’re subjected to constant discipline it’s hard to say it’s enjoyable but, you know, you cope with it. You certainly benefit physically as a result.”
His great coat, which ended up in Comrades, was put to good use on more than one occasion during training in Wellington’s inhospitable winter weather. Pallo recalls a mission in the Remutaka Ranges installing a Bailey bridge – “I certainly remember wearing the coat on that day.” Pallo stayed in the army’s engineering core for some 15 years, reaching the rank of major, before retiring from the force.
Nothing lasts forever, not even New Zealand’s love for reasonably priced camouflage jackets. In the past few years some eight surplus stores have closed in Wellington alone, according to Asbridge. Things are much the same in Auckland. Army and Outdoors is the only real surplus store in town after Onehunga’s Army and Leather Shop closed in January 2021.
Hale says most of the Karangahape Road store’s business happens online now. “It pretty much saved us. Our website outdoes us by so much because we ship internationally. If it wasn’t for the online shop we would’ve had to close during Covid; we would’ve been out. That’s how we remain the only Auckland surplus store.”
But it’s not only changing tastes and interests that have done for the army surplus industry. Hale says the supply of surplus has started to dry up. “As militaries modernised, a lot of them decided that it’s probably best not to surplus out their uniforms so they end up destroying a lot of them.”
Hale says modern New Zealand gear is hard to find, but you can “get a few bits smuggled out to collectors’ hands”. As for older kit, most of it is bought by one man: Sir Peter Jackson. “He’s basically cleared out everything that’s World War One and Two related which he uses for productions.”
The majority of military surplus sold in New Zealand comes from overseas. Asbridge regularly travels to France to buy European equipment, filling a 40-foot container to bring back to her warehouse in Petone. “It could be big ammo boxes, lots of jackets and trousers, but it could be blankets, gas masks – all sorts.”
Asbridge got into the surplus business by chance. In the early 90s, with two small children at home, she took a job at an army surplus store in Porirua to help cover the bills. When her boss lost interest in the store he asked her if she wanted to take over. Three decades later, she’s still here, running the last surplus store in Wellington.
So what’s kept her in business when so many other surplus stores have gone bust? Secret suppliers? Connections in the army? A passionate devotion to the military way of life?
“I think it’s because I’m not into the stuff,” she says. “I mean, I like what I sell. But I’m not…”
“Most people who do these sorts of shops are fanatical about it. They don’t want to sell what they have because they like it too much. I do it as a business. I think that’s the only difference.”