Sam’s Army and Navy sign was front and center on Main Street in Brattleboro in 1975.
Paul Carnahan/Vermont Historical Society/Creative Commons (BY-NC-ND) license
Sam’s Army and Navy sign was front and center on Main Street in Brattleboro in 1975.

End of an era

Over the course of a century, three generations of a family pivoted, keeping Sam’s an anchor of Brattleboro’s vibrant downtown economy and experience. For the daughter of a proprietor of an Army and Navy store in Brooklyn, its loss will hit home.

BRATTLEBORO — Now that it has been confirmed that Sam's Outdoor Outfitters on Main Street will be closing in April of 2024, there are so many ways to think about it.

We could think about the big retail hole it will leave on Main Street, where it has been losing business for years.

We could think about the dedicated Sam's employees, some of whom have worked for the owners, the Borofsky family, for decades, who will be losing their jobs and their sense of community. Waiting for them to finish their conversation so I could buy some things was a time-honored tradition at Sam's.

We could think about the current social devastation on Main Street, where panhandlers, people struggling with drug dependency, and those who have no home vie for sidewalk space. We could think about the impact the whole of this environment might have on small retailers already struggling with the business and economic climate. The whole of these complicated problems makes many shoppers so fearful they refuse to come downtown anymore - or, at least, that's what they tell me.

We could think of the other big retail losses downtown and try to create a group narrative when there really isn't one.

Hotel Pharmacy closed because of predatory pricing by pharmaceutical middlemen. The downtown M&T Bank? Management said its customers no longer like coming down to Main Street. Delectable Mountain? The longtime owner, who built a fabric store into a destination shopping experience, retired.

Restaurants on Main Street come and go and go, but some stay, don't they? We could be grateful to the new owners of Shin La, and to Yalla and The Works and the various iterations of Amy's Bakery.

Or we could write about the sales tax, which Sam's current owner, Brad Borofsky, the third generation in the business, blames for the decision to close the flagship store while keeping the other two, in Swanzey, New Hampshire and Hadley, Massachusetts open while he tries to sell them.

But oddly, what I think about first is Kagan's Army & Navy Store in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn.

It was my family's store, and I deeply loved it.

* * *

In the early 1900s, the United States of America was flooded with European immigrants seeking safety from religious and political persecution, hunger, and poverty. As they struggled to survive in the New World, a great opportunity opened for them in the aftermath of World War I.

The U.S. military, needing to unload a huge amount of surplus clothing and equipment, began cleaning and baling used shirts, pants, and jackets to sell as rags. Some of those canny immigrants bought the bales, sorted through the merchandise, sized and priced it, put it on pushcarts, and peddled it in the streets.

On paydays, they would usually sit outside of the doors of factories and sell to the men and women who worked inside. For many peddlers, the "rag trade" turned out to be a good business.

Eventually, tired of working in the rain and snow and cold, they opened small stores.

My grandfather, Issac Kagan, from Odessa, Russia, who until then owned a gas station in anti-Semitic Connecticut, grabbed my father, Harry, right out of high school and started taking him to the auctions.

What was for sale? Army cots. Long wool coats. Trunks. Socks. Woolen watch caps. Long underwear. Bell bottoms. Mess kits. Belts. Shoes. Peacoats and flyers' jackets. Denim pants and jackets. Canteens. Scratchy wool blankets.

Soon, almost every neighborhood, whether in a large town or small city, had at least one Army and Navy store. The owners brought in all sorts of surplus merchandise to sell. When they ran out of military surplus, they started selling workers' clothing.

The Kagans found a corner store on Fifth Avenue in Brooklyn within walking distance of the Brooklyn Navy Yard and opened up shop.

The shelves were jammed with merchandise. The wooden floors creaked. The bathroom was out of a horror movie. A big brass cash register stood on the counter, next to the New York Daily News, which my father read religiously every morning.

* * *

My grandfather eventually retired, and my dad took over, running a very successful business selling surplus and some fairly upscale men's clothing to Brooklynites as well as to foreign sailors from the yard. His pickled assistant, "Morris the Drunk," kept bottles of cheap booze stashed under piles of men's shirts.

Harry Kagan was known as a seriously good salesman. People liked to say he could sell a traveling seaman an empty trunk and then fill it for him. It was a cash-and-carry business and my dad ran two sets of books, and soon the family was doing well enough to join the middle class.

When I was old enough, I helped out in the store on weekends, although it made my dad uncomfortable for several reasons: a) The customers were all men and the conversation was - how shall I put this - kind of salty, b) I had boobs, and c) you sold jeans by measuring inseams.

When the 1960s happened, things exploded. Well-to-do young people suddenly wanted to dress like the working class. The demand for dungarees - soon called "blue jeans," or just "jeans" - so strongly outpaced the supply that the larger manufacturers, Levi Strauss and Lee and Wrangler, could not meet it.

They serviced their longstanding customers, the Army and Navy stores, first. This brought a new wave of customers.

My dad was able to retire to Florida in his 50s, and my brother took over the store. He moved the merchandise even more upscale, so Puma and Adidas sneakers and Timberland boots were being sold along with with metal-toed workshoes.

But you could still buy a green Army cot at Kagan's, right until the end - which came after a devastating fire destroyed the building.

Instead of reopening the business, my brother paid off all the bills, moved up to Woodstock, New York and became a Realtor.

It broke my father's heart.

* * *

By the time Walmart and the other big-box stores and discounters began to threaten small retailers, most of the original Army and Navy stores had run their course.

The immigrant founders had mostly retired or died, and most of their children, well-educated and inhabiting the professional classes, were uninterested in taking over the businesses.

Today, very few Army and Navy stores survive. Of the ones that do, most are quite different today from their humble origins. They sell new merchandise now, including stylish clothing, outdoor gear, and expensive running shoes along with their Carhartt work clothes.

One of the most successful of these stores is Sam's, which went from being Sam's Army & Navy Store in the Depression years to Sam's Department Store to what it is today, Sam's Outdoor Outfitters. It won the 2012 Vermont Retailer of the Year award from a state trade association.

* * *

When I moved to Brattleboro 35 years ago, I felt an immediate affinity for Sam's because its backstory - although adjusted for New England values - was the same as my own.

In 2004, I interviewed second-generation owner Samuel "Pal" Borofsky for a Vermont Business Magazine profile. When I learned that his son would be closing the store, I looked up the story.

"My father started the store," Pal Borofsky told me then. "Sam Borofsky, his name was. He came from New York. He had a delicatessen in the city, and he peddled ice and fuel for starters with my grandfather. They were immigrants from Russia. They came over about 1911. He peddled fruit and groceries for a while, then went into the delicatessen business. He sold that business to his brother-in-law, and I guess he might have peddled after that.

"Then my uncle in Keene had a store. He bought the Brattleboro store from a guy in Northampton and asked my father to come and work with him.

"My father said, 'Look, I can't work for anybody else. I got to work for myself. Either I buy the store from you, or I'll find something else.' So he bought the store from my uncle. That was in 1932, and the rest is kind of history. It just grew and grew and grew."

The name changed with the business.

"My father called it 'Army and Navy' to begin with," Borofsky said. "But there were a lot of Army and Navy stores all over, so he put 'Sam's' on it. Then he had 'Sam's Army & Navy Department Store.' And when I came, I made the 'Sam's' bigger and the 'Army & Navy' smaller.

"I hated to get away from it because it had been successful. First we answered the phone with, 'Army & Navy store.' When I started, I said, 'Good afternoon, Sam's.'

"The customer would say, 'Is this the Army & Navy store?'

"After a while, I said, 'People want the Army & Navy store. Let them have it.'

"Finally, one day I picked up the phone and said 'Army & Navy' and they said, 'Is this Sam's?' And I realized we had made the switch."

The business was forever changing, Borofsky said.

"Ever hear about the farmer who lifts a little calf every day?" he said. "He lifts the same calf, and one day it's a full cow and he lifts a full cow. I think that's what happens in this business when you grow into it and it expands around you, and you enjoy what you do."

There is precedent for closing the Brattleboro store. The Borofskys once had a Sam's in Bellows Falls and closed it in 2010 after 63 years in favor of expanding along an established commercial strip in Hadley, Massachusetts, at the edge of the University of Massachusetts' flagship campus and near four other colleges in the Connecticut River Valley - and their combined 30,000 students.

"You find out what you're doing wrong every single day," Pal Borofsky told me. " There's always something you're doing wrong. There's always something you can do better. But you can always do something different."

* * *

When I was a reporter for the Brattleboro Reformer, I covered Pal Borofsky often because he played an outsized role in making sure that Brattleboro continued to thrive. He twice served three one-year terms as selectman, once in the 1970s and once in the 1980s.

He served on the Planning Commission, too, but stopped when he realized, "Every time I said yes to somebody I said no to somebody else, and that wasn't good for my customer base."

He was the Brattleboro Area Chamber of Commerce's 2002 Person of the Year. He served on the District Two Environmental Commission and was active in the Elks and the Jewish community.

When Walmart decided to build a store across the river in Hinsdale, New Hampshire, in 1992, he brought in an expert to teach local business owners how to compete.

"We went to Walmarts all over," Borofsky said. "We saw the type of merchandise they got, and how they put it out, and how they did business."

He made important changes.

For example, Walmart carried some of the same merchandise as Sam's, so Borofsky phased out some of it. But he also retained some.

"We try not to mix as much as we can, but there's certain stuff we've carried for a long, long time, and we do a better job of presenting, and we carry a fuller line than they do," Borofsky said. "We have a strong customer base for a lot of that stuff."

Sam's changed its refund and exchange policies.

"We made that much easier for customers to be satisfied," Borofsky said. "We remodernized the bathrooms, made them more acceptable. We changed our hours so we were open more hours, like Walmart. We did other things that needed to be done."

Other towns hollowed out and caved in when Walmart came to town, but Brattleboro thrived.

The scrappy downtown that fought and won against Walmart (and, later, Home Depot) now doesn't have to worry about ever seeing a big-box store again, because none will ever be built in Brattleboro. Except for a few locations like Brown & Roberts, it's pretty much a tourist town now.

Brattleboro is going through a hard time, but storefronts are still mostly full and new businesses are opening.

But Sam's? Its closing will mark the end of several eras. A lot of American history - and a lot of it my personal history - will close with it.

Joyce Marcel, an award-winning freelance business journalist and columnist, contributes frequently to The Commons.

This Voices column by Joyce Marcel was written for The Commons.

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