Editor's Note: We have corrected the identities of the Ritters in the attached pictures.
WATERLOO — Gen. Douglas MacArthur once said “Old soldiers never die, they just fade away.”
That’s just what a 104-year-old military surplus store in downtown Waterloo is doing.
Robin’s Surplus, a staple in downtown Waterloo since 1913, will wind down its business and close over the next two months.
“It’s been an awful good run,” said retired former owner Gary Ritter. But he and Brian Ritter, his son and the current owner, have seen business trickle away to internet sales and big-box retailers over the past 10 years.
Business typically picks up in a tide of patriotism following events such as the 1991 Persian Gulf War and after 9/11 and the onset of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars in the early 2000s. However, surplus is now about 20 percent of company business. The store deals heavily in cold-weather gear and apparel. Unlike generations ago, military personnel have to turn in most of their gear upon leaving the service.
But tell-tale signs of the company’s history and heritage are apparent: The rack of World War II-era uniforms; hooded sweatshirts with the colors and emblems of the various military service branches; service baseball caps embroidered in gold letters bearing the names of U.S. Navy ships, military outfits or eras of combat; a comprehensive display of military decorations and service ribbons available for replacement if a vet loses one.
There are also canteens, mess kits, knives and other tools, ceremonial swords and other items. Merchandise is stacked high on shelves off a traditional wood floor little kids love to run back and forth on just to hear their own footsteps while their families shop.
For a military history buff or military equipment aficionado, Robin’s Surplus has been a treasure trove through its five generations in business under two different families.
The business has had several different locations. Initially located on Commercial Street, the business moved to the 723 Sycamore St. in 1940. Displaced in the early 1990s by construction of the Black Hawk County Jail, it moved to 104 E. Fourth St., then moved to 110 E. Fourth in the late 1990s for construction of the Waterloo Industries office building — now The Courier Building — at 100 E. Fourth St. An old hand-painted business sign from the Sycamore Street store, created by longtime Waterloo sign company entrepreneur Searles Hayden, hangs behind the counter.
“We have customers that come in that say they’ve been coming in since they were with their grandfather,” said employee Cinda Johnson. But such shoppers are now less frequent. “We get customers that never even knew we were here. We like to joke with them — ‘We’ve been here 104 years. What’s taken you so long?’”
“My dad always said this is a word-of-mouth business,” Brian said. “People just knew about it, so you didn’t have to spend a lot of advertising dollars.” It offered personal service with a small staff, which included longtime manager Donna Roethler, who passed away a few years ago.
The business sells “work boots, work clothing, work wear” and cold weather gear, Gary Ritter said, but the surplus business is less and less. In its early years, the business sold bib overalls and other work clothing to farmers, but that business petered out.
The Ritters bought the business from the Herman Robins family in the early 1980s. Brian moved back to the area in 2001 and gradually took over daily operations and then ownership.
“Basically we’re kind of a destination store,” Gary Ritter said. “People have to know we’re here in order to come to us. But we’ve been gradually decreasing in business over the last 10 years. We’ve noticed the decline, based on internet sales. I even polled my kids and asked where the bought all the Christmas stuff and the bought it on the internet.”
“Besides the unique military items you can pick up from a wholesaler or somebody that brings stuff in to sell to use, the rest you can buy it online,” Brian Ritter said.
“It’s a sign of the times,” Gary Ritter said.
The closing is bittersweet, Brian and Gary said. While they’re sad the business is closing, not many businesses last 104 years, and they’re looking forward to the future. While there were four military surplus stores in town at one time, their’s is the last in operation.
“Herman Robins’ family ran this through three generations. We’re in our second generation. The business has lasted five generations,” Brian said.
Brian owns Advantage Screen Print & Embroidery in Fletcher Avenue and plans to devote his energies to that venture.
“We’ve had an awful good run. It’s been nice,” Gary said.
“I feel like we’ve been a staple downtown,” Brian said, “which is a testament to what Herman and my dad did.”
“I made it work” Gary said. “I’m happy the way it turned out.”