By Laurie Paolicelli
Surplus Sids, on Main Street in Carrboro, is a Rorschach Test for the passing tourist, the newly matriculated student, and even longtime residents. Is it a glorious assemblage of curios, or an intimidating accumulation of second-hand junk? And who is the man with the scruffy beard who appears to run the joint? Seemingly unapproachable at first, he turns out to be one of the nicest guys you’re likely to meet in a military surplus outlet. That’s Sid.
Or that’s Barry Keith, actually, but he goes by Sid: Surplus Barrys doesn’t have the same ring to it. And he is the perfect gentleman. He also helps the homeless and, whether you’re a captain of industry or a waiter living on tips, he will listen to your story. Above all he’s an honest man. When students from Asia visit his store to stock up on apartment goods like vacuum cleaners, lamps, and kitchen utensils, they’re sometimes confused by the currency exchange rates. Sid gives them back their yuan and sets them straight on how much they really owe, usually quite a bit less than they thought.
Surplus Sids (no possessive in current use) is an architectural blast from the past, a storefront that appears to have escaped from a different metaverse and never returned. It’s been here for decades. Not everyone loves it, a sidewalk festooned with old but enchanting military gear and other one-of-a-kind items. It wasn’t offbeat, back in the day; it used to be par for the Carrboro course. Now it’s “different,” and there will always be people who love that and those who don’t. But how you cannot love a shop offering everything from armor suits to Dracula’s coffin?
A 1976 graduate of UNC, Barry Keith’s family wanted him to pursue law. But a political science degree, a bit of wanderlust, and an offer from the government took him on an international career that led him to Russia, Central America, West Africa, the Far East, and Europe. He’s fluent in Spanish and Russian and can get by in Arabic and Dari.
After traveling the globe as a “soldier of fortune,” Sid returned home to Chapel Hill in the early 80s and worked for a man named Poor Richard who operated his own surplus store, earning Sid’s affection and admiration. When Richard made the decision to retire and close his warehouse, Sid picked up where he left off. He bought the warehouse, cleaned it out, kept the good stuff, and started his own military surplus store.
That was 1988.
Sid does not reveal many details from his career years, but he will cryptically divulge that he worked for the “intelligence community.” He did a lot of traveling, as evidenced by some of the more peculiar items in his store. Sid likes to get military surplus from all over and he prides himself in knowing exactly where everything is from.
It’s easy to see his passion for history, as well. In a locked glass case in the back of the store, Sid keeps his most valuable military memorabilia, belonging to “quasi-famous people.” In it, you can find everything from General Patton’s riding crop to a hat that belonged to the first Russian to shake hands with the Americans at the Elbe River in 1945.
“A lot of people in retail say you have to narrow down your demographic,” Sid says. “I’ve never been able to do that. My demographic is between the ages of 6-76. Rich, poor, indifferent, otherwise, black, white, blue, yellow, green. It’s whatever’s in this universe.”
Surplus Sids has also had its fair share of celebrity customers, who can be seen on the “gallery of famous visitors” sign at the front of the store. Tyler the Creator, Robin Williams, Steven Colbert, and Kirsten Dunst are just a few of the names written on the little white board.
Sid has stories about all of them. For instance, Robin Williams came into the store in 1998 when he was shooting Patch Adams; the film crew bought camouflage netting from the store to use on set. Robin adorned himself in military garb and, with his trademark maniacal comic invention, approached a customer perusing the tee-shirts and told her he questioned the fabric of the shirts and to be careful what she bought. The woman was confused but Sid found it hilarious.
Sids Military Surplus store is much more than just a thrift store. In addition to selling clothing, military regalia, home accessories, costumes, paintings, books, and yes, junk, it offers something that is hard to find anymore: authenticity, character, and enchantment, along with a curious character who likes to talk politics and international intrigue, passing the day in an old chair out front, eager to listen to what you have to say.
Laurie Paolicelli is the Executive Director of the Chapel Hill/Orange County Visitors Bureau.
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