Shopping in the military's bargain bin

January 10, 1995|By Shirley Leung | Shirley Leung,Sun Staff Writer

Bob Wagner paid the same price for a loose-leaf binder as he did for an armchair: $1. For another buck, he could have gotten a broken 25-inch Magnavox TV.

The source of these yard-sale bargains is a dingy Fort Meade warehouse with an off-putting name -- Defense Reutilization and Marketing Office.

The surplus retail outlet opened for Monday-through-Friday operation yesterday. Previously, building T64 had opened once a week.

"I stop by here every week to see what's new," said Mr. Wagner, 49, a Coast Guard retiree. "It's not a place you go to to look for a particular item. You just go and see what's on hand, see if there's anything you like."

All are items unwanted by the Department of Defense or any other federal and state agency.

They stack up in warehouses on military bases such as Fort Meade, Aberdeen Proving Ground and the Patuxent River Naval Air Station.

Yesterday Mr. Wagner bought two pumpkin-orange armchairs to match the one he bought earlier at the military outlet store. He says he lops off the wooden arms, reupholsters the plush seats and puts them in his family room.

His wife doesn't like the arms, explained the Severn resident, adding, "For a buck, who cares? If it falls apart, the worst is to throw it away."

DRMO staff members quickly carted out the chairs before Mr. Wagner could change his mind.

They had been trying to peddle the last of the orange office furniture for six months. They even slashed the price from $2.50 to $1.

What keeps people such as Mr. Wagner coming back is the prices, even though none of the 252 items for sale carries Uncle Sam's guarantee. Everything is sold "as is" and "cash and carry only."

But you didn't have to tell that to the stream of customers who walked out with shopping bags full of old rotary and push-button phones.

"Four for a dollar. . . . If just one of them works, it's good," said Staff Sgt. Dennis Chatham, who cradled four beige phones in his arms.

Others -- many of them veterans at picking over the government's excess -- returned for the computers and electronic equipment, which can also be bought at rock-bottom prices. An IBM laser printer or a Sony CD-ROM drive priced at $30, for example.

DRMO computers are so inexpensive that Sgt. Maj. Wayne Baier bought one for each of his two sons. In all, he spent $350 for two IBM-compatible computers.

He came back yesterday to buy an upgraded computer for his 7-year-old.

"They love them," said Sergeant Major Baier, who is in the Maryland National Guard in Towson. He planned to give the old computer to his sister-in-law.

Not everyone comes to the warehouse to buy something in working order.

Les Ruffner, 60, of Millersville peruses the goods for parts.

One of his best bargains, he said, was a broken fax machine for $5. When it was working, it was worth $23,000.

"It didn't work. I just tore it apart," said Mr. Ruffner, a tinkerer and retired Westinghouse executive.

The odds and ends on the warehouse floor account for about 15 percent of the surplus goods in storage, said Michael Green, property disposal specialist at DRMO.

The warehouse's new hours, 8 a.m. to noon Monday through Friday, are an effort to empty five warehouses crammed with Defense Department leftovers.

But some things, such as old medical books for $2 and spools of industrial-grade thread for $2.50, may be hard to get rid of.

"We can't pick and choose what goes on for sale," Mr. Green said. "We're limited to what's available."

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