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Doug Clark: Best Buy Surplus is a hidden gem frozen in time

Best Buy Surplus, 2516 E. Sprague Ave., is celebrating its 70th birthday this year. Or its 71st birthday, depending on what source you believe.

But it doesn’t really matter. The great thing about this Spokane landmark is the sense of timelessness you feel when you wander through the front door.

Scuffed floors. Worn mahogany and glass counters. Original brass cash register. Vintage military goods, guns and knives, and rows of fishing gear …

Going to Best Buy Surplus is like going to the museum, except that the old stuff here is for sale, plus you get to pet the coolest dog in town.

His name is Jackson, a 90-pound Labrador with the patient disposition of Mother Teresa.

Jackson’s only job is to hang around the front counter all day and entice customers into coming to the store to scratch his ears or bring him a treat.

Jackson’s really good at his work and will often shake hands with people as part of his doggie ploy.

“Employee of the Year seven years running,” Bill Condon, the store’s second owner, says of his pal.

Being a Spokane kid, I’ve had a special fondness for this quirky place.

I bought my first baseball glove at Best Buy Surplus back in the 1950s. My first backpack and camping gear came from Best Buy Surplus a few years later.

Today when I wander in here it’s as if nothing has changed.

Yet for all the longevity, Best Buy never gets as much attention as that certain surplus store up on Division. You know, the one that cornered the market on Expo ’74 memorabilia.

Condon, by the way, is a first cousin to Spokane Mayor David Condon, although these days I’d be careful with whom I share that.

Cousin Condon’s a burly, soft-spoken 47-year-old. He’s married to Bridget and they have a 16-year-old son, William.

Condon says he worked at White Elephant for 13 years, learning the ins and outs of this complex business from a true master: store owner John Conley Sr.

“I literally walked into White Elephant one day in the early ’90s and asked him if he had any work available. ‘See you tomorrow at 9,’ ” Condon says he was told.

“There was no cross-training program. No preparation. John had a strict ‘sink or swim’ policy,” he adds.

“It was Old School 101.”

That experience led him to purchase Best Buy Surplus in 2007 from Margaret Rudisile, the widow of Red, who founded the store in the mid-1940s.

The Rudisiles were wonderful folks. I used to take my family to the store on Christmas Eve and encourage everybody to buy something on me.

I took home a hatchet one year. My son, Ben, bought a Navy wool shirt. My lovely wife, Sherry, bought a cast- iron cornbread pan, and my daughter, Emily, found a flannel shirt.

I heard that Margaret, who died in 2014, got a real kick out of these Yuletide visits.

Condon, to his credit, left Best Buy’s vintage vibe alone. Well, almost. He says the store’s technology when he took over amounted to a telephone and one fax machine.

It wasn’t long before he brought the place into the computer age, but not so anyone would notice.

Condon dropped $7,000 into restoring the vertical neon sign out front. The reader board was OK until the top of an oversized moving truck clipped it.

Now it reads like an illiterate tweet:

“Pain Geap Tapps …” it says, probably meaning Rain Gear Tarps.

This probably won’t be changed anytime soon. The misspellings and scrambled verbiage attract grammarians who act as if they were the first to notice.

Sometimes, Condon adds with a sly grin, they stick around long enough to buy something.

Condon has two employees, Jeff Gibson and John Diomede, to help keep a handle on this vast, disparate inventory. A 15-year-old story from the Spokane Journal of Business put it this way:

“Best Buy Surplus is a cross between a sporting-goods store, an army surplus store, a hardware store, and a work-clothing store, with interesting odds and ends scattered through its shelves that don’t fit well into any of those categories.”

That last line certainly fits the dark green Refueler Nozzle Tester. “Everyone needs one of these things,” says Condon between laughs.

From what I gather, the boxlike device was used by the U.S. Air Force to check the special nozzle that extends out the back of a KC-135 when it refuels other aircraft.

Or maybe it’s an “atomic destabilizer” last used by the Ghostbusters.

The only thing for certain is that “no one’s even given me an offer for it,” says Condon, adding that “the government paid $55,000 for it.”

Firearm sales, transfers, etc., make up a good portion of the Best Buy Surplus income. Seasonal sales of water-related items help the bottom line. Heck, you can even buy brand-new, American-made pressure cookers here along with military garb, old and new.

“Every day you have to be a specialist in something else,” Condon says.

Speaking of which, for your plumbing needs Condon recently began leasing a section of his cavernous store to the firm “Bill the Fauceteer.”

If you go there be ready to spend some time gawking. Just don’t forget to first introduce yourself to Jackson.

“You can’t change what he is,” Condon says of his dog, “but he’s as close to human as it gets.”

Doug Clark is a columnist for The Spokesman-Review. He can be reached at (509) 459-5432 or by email at dougc@spokesman.com.


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