Stepping through the doors of the Harry J. Epstein Co. hardware and surplus shop in downtown Kansas City, Missouri is like stepping through time.
At first glance, Epstein’s looks like an old-fashioned, everyday hardware store. The shelves are lined with packages of bolts, and bins are stocked with piles of steel hand tools.
But not all of the items are what you would find in an everyday tool shed. Some of Epstein’s more unusual products would make even the most proficient garage guru green with envy.
Many of their quirkier surplus items have tales of their own — like the bomb tether, which looks like a little ring with a carabiner attached.
It takes a whole history lesson for Jori Sackin, the fourth-generation owner and webmaster at Epstein’s, to explain the story behind it: In World War II, these bomb tethers linked bombs together in clusters to attack submarines.
"You know, they needed these like crazy until they didn’t," Sackin says. "Until the war ended.”
Surplus and the internet
Selling leftover odds and ends, like bomb tethers, is one of the key aspects of a surplus business.
Sackin says that one of the challenges of Epstein’s is taking something that is no longer used for what it was designed for and figuring something else to do with it.
“One guy in New York used these to hang Christmas lights, some construction workers will use them for hammer holders,” he says. “Some people just like it for the object and the story that goes along with it.”
The internet has played a key role in helping Epstein's owners manager their inventory and sell niche items. Sackin says that online sales now account for 50 percent of their business.
“We’ve gone from just selling locally to the contractors, construction companies, people here in Kansas City to selling all over the world,” he says. They have customers as far-flung as Canada, Thailand, Australia and England.
Online sales even prompted Epstein’s to start a new department.
Custom box art
When customers place an order online Epstein’s offers to paint custom art on the package.
It all began with one modest request in the comments section: “Please draw a flying dolphin on my box.”
Committed to seeing the request through, Sackin quickly sketched up his best flying dolphin.
“I did that and posted a picture online,” he says. “And then maybe three weeks later someone else wrote in, ‘Please draw this’ and so it just kind of just picked up steam and so now we have a box art department in our shipping.”
This is the internet and all, so people aren’t afraid to submit weird art requests, says box artist Matt Taddy, like a dragon-elephant combination or "two dogs working on a tractor while one dog is being lazy and the other is drinking lemonade."
“I think they want to play stump-the-box-artist," Taddy says, and he's up for the challenge.
Nearly a century of history
Crazy art requests aside, Epstein's is just as quirky now as it was in its beginnings.
In the 1930s, after the dissolution of the United States Cavalry, the original Harry J. Epstein jumped at the opportunity to buy a bunch of decommissioned spurs, which were being sold in large quantities for cheap.
“When my grandmother found out that he’d spent all the family’s money on these spurs she was ready to kill him,” says Steve Sackin, third-generation owner and Jori’s father.
While those spurs may be long gone, the old-time charm and assortment of tools and oddities still attracts a lot of people, like Bill Carter, who is wandering the aisles one weekday morning.
“I come down with my friends every once and awhile,” Carter says. “We just like to look at their stuff. I’m retired as a millwright at General Motors so I work with a lot of tools and this is just an interesting place to come and look at.”
Carter also appreciates Epstein’s dedication to selling tools made in the United States.
What is that smell?
Old hardware stores like Epstein’s have a unique scent. Some might call it musty, but Steve Sackin says a lot of people find it nostalgic.
“The smell you’re going to get in a Lowe's or Home Depot is not the same as the smell from a building that’s been here for over 100 years, that has wood floors and a lot of leather in it,” he says. “Maybe it’s just the smell of history. The smell of dirt and oil and grime and leather and cardboard.”
Coy Dugger is an intern for KCUR's Central Standard.