Survivalists have been replaced by “preppers.”
The semi-automatic weapons hanging on the wall are now “modern sporting rifles.”
Times have changed at military surplus stores, at least at Wichita's oldest – the Alpha 1 Drop Zone at 21st and Tyler. Owner Brad Yates still caters to folks who could outfit their own militia, but he also keeps up with teen fashions, changes in state law and the Internet.
Halloween, Christmas and hunting season are his busiest times of year.
Yates opened Alpha 1 in 1991, a couple of years after he started buying and selling military surplus at flea markets. His father-in-law, Mike Mohr, ran it until his death, then Yates’ wife, Patty, took over.
“Her background is flowers,” Yates said. “Going from that to this was a shock.”
Yates has run the place himself since retiring from the U.S. Postal Service a couple of years ago.
When he started, Yates said, surplus items were harder to find. Today the Internet has made that easier, but “a lot of people want to feel what they're buying,” and Alpha 1 has a lot for them to feel, including guns, knives, clothing, emergency surgery kits, clothing, ammunition, gas cans, camouflage nets, patches, posters, flags, backpacks, waterproof notebooks and sleeping bags.
Compiling inventory Tuesday, Yates guessed the neatly organized, 2,000-square-foot store holds about 10,000 items.
That seems low.
About 60 percent of what he sells is genuine military gear, he said, bought from former servicemen, suppliers or online auctions. People appreciate surplus items because they tend to be durable, Yates said.
“For a while it was cool for girls to wear Army boots to school,” he said. “That kind of went away.”
He has a World War I 2nd Infantry patch and an “Ike” coat from World War II on his shelves.
Navy pea coats are perpetually popular. Leather flight jackets are often sought by foreign pilots who come to Wichita for training. There’s a kids section with scaled-down clothing.
Old medals aren’t just popular for nostalgia’s sake. People often use them to create shadow boxes or other displays for family members who’ve lost the medals they earned in military service. Yates has a machine that converts dog tags into personalized luggage tags.
“Preppers” – a nickname for people who like to prepare for emergencies – are one part of his customer base, buying everything from MRE food kits to high-quality flashlights.
“They're preparing for icy conditions, tornadoes and all that stuff,” Yates said.
In response to the state’s concealed carry law, Yates recently renewed his federal firearms dealer’s license. He sells a variety of handguns and long guns and also serves as a transfer agent for third-party sales over the Internet.
“It brings in new people that didn’t even know we’re here.”
He also sells a variety of switchblades and other knives, legal because of a law that changed last July 1, Yates said.
Yates, who served in the 82nd Airborne Division, said the military seems more popular than ever among the general public, which he appreciates as a veteran and businessman.
“You go out and you see more and more places flying flags,” he said. “Patriotism is big.”