By Harold Henderson
Among the more than 1,200 items listed in the November catalog of American Science & Surplus is a “great novelty keychain that plays a ringing telephone . . . IF it plays! It turns out that some of these don’t work.”
That’s right, says owner Scott McCausland. “Part of our deal with the customer is that in exchange for a real cheap price, sometimes you gamble. We’re selling it to you on the premise that it might not work. If it does, you’re lucky.
“I have never seen another company sell an item in “six colors, but we get to pick which.’ We’re not going to sort them. We’re telling our customers, “You’re getting a deal. Don’t force us into spending extra money.”‘
People seem to like the arrangement. “We started advertising on the radio four or five years ago, and we heard from our customers. They said, “Please stop! We don’t want other people to know about you!”‘
The ads are still running, and this odd duck in Chicago’s retail world is still quacking along. In three area stores or by mail, fax, or modem, American Science & Surplus will sell you any of 5,000-plus useful items and assorted odds and ends, including pre-WW II periscopes, a collection of three-quarter-inch plastic pigs, pads of notepaper made from recycled topographic maps, tiny brass gears with 14 teeth each, the 1,100-page 1990 edition of the Nonprescription Drug Handbook, the “electronic innards of a pocket Scrabble game,” mechanical pencils with misprinted business names, 10,000 kinds of lenses, ant farms, and stackable bins in red, blue, or yellow–their choice of color.
The seemingly endless miscellany comes with an attitude that’s not for everyone. The pitch is deliberately nonglitzy. The company’s store at 5696 N. Northwest Highway has narrow aisles, a worn wooden floor, and goodies packed tight in cardboard bins, each with a chatty label. Its bimonthly catalogs are 64 newsprint pages long, full of close-set type illustrated with drawings, no photographs.
But sometimes nonglitzy can go pretty far. “People send us pictures of stuff they built,” says McCausland. “It’s kind of a family thing. The Society for Creative Anachronism wrote us about how they used our surplus tubing so that their “knights’ could sip lemonade without taking off their helmets. The North American Druids asked to reprint my description of Celtic Tape in their newsletter–I had to call it that because 3M doesn’t make any mistakes, so we weren’t allowed to call the telescoped rolls of tape they sold us Scotch Tape.”
Shopping at American Science & Surplus feels a bit like belonging to a club. Come to think of it, didn’t I see some secret decoder rings the next aisle over?
MARBLE SLABETTES. Marble bases with small imperfections. But hey, who among us doesn’t have a few? Made from a beautiful white marble, they were intended as trophy bases but can be used to display art, small science projects, etc. They come in three sizes, and some boast soothing cork bottoms to protect the furniture. Made in Italy.
25707 Marble Base 2 $2.00/pkg (2)
25704 Marble Base 2 $2.50/pkg (2)
25701 Marble Base 3 $1.75/each (2)
According to its catalog, American Science & Surplus was established “about 1937.” McCausland explains: “I called up Al Luebbers, the founder, and asked when he started it. That’s what he said. I said, that’s good enough for me.
“He was working for Western Electric, and the company next door was throwing away lenses that had hairline scratches and other small defects. Al had a passion for optics. He asked if he could buy their rejects. “No,’ they said, “but you can have them if you’ll take them away.”‘ Optical glass, it turns out, is extraordinarily hard, and hard to get rid of. “So he and his wife sat around and polished them up. They put an ad in the Tribune, ten lenses for 50 cents. Then he thought he’d try pricing them at ten for a dollar instead. “Maybe people will think they’re better and will buy more.’ They did, and that was the beginning of the business,” which at that time went under the name American Lens & Photo. Increasing the price is not as odd a beginning for a discount business as you might think; the company’s survival still depends on figuring out exactly what its idiosyncratic market will bear.
Luebbers accumulated more lenses than he sold. One corner of the American Science & Surplus warehouse still has shelf upon shelf of small plain brown cardboard boxes, each box painstakingly labeled in pencil with the lenses’ diameter, focal length, count, and manufacturer if known. McCausland figures he has about 22 million in stock.
“After World War II, unlike those who went the camping route, Al focused on technical and optical surplus from the military.” He got to know Norman Edmund, who had similar interests and whose family firm became Edmund Scientific Co. in New Jersey; the families have remained friends and the companies still sometimes do deals together. Edmund, however, sells relatively little surplus these days.
In the postwar period, “Al got into industrial surplus and opened the Chicago store [then called American Science Center]. His son Jerry bought him out in the 1970s, opened the Milwaukee store, and started the catalog.” McCausland credits Jerry with the catalog’s use of humor and its emphasis on words over pictures. “Jerry had been a classmate of mine, and I joined him in 1988. He died shortly after that, and I bought the business.” McCausland has opened a third store in west suburban Geneva and a site on the World Wide Web.
McCausland grew up in Hyde Park and the North Shore. (“My father’s office moved to Des Plaines, and in the 1950s you couldn’t commute there from Hyde Park.”) He got an undergraduate engineering degree and in 1966 went to work in Robert McNamara’s Pentagon. For seven years he was a manager for Princess Cruises, then worked in housing and as a management consultant. “Consulting exposes you to a lot of different business situations. But I’m not sure any of it helped much in deciding what to do here.”
It’s helped some. “Jerry and his father ran the business on a pack-rat basis: buy what looks good and keep it forever, just in case someone wants it. We still buy heavily what we think is good. But if it isn’t moving, I say, “Let’s start marking it down.’ Occasionally we even give stuff away. At some point it’s not worth keeping.
“I don’t care if someone comes in six years from now and wants it. I think it’s important to always have new things coming into the catalog. That’s partly my business background, but it’s also the quiet desperation of the manager of an almost-full warehouse.
“No, there isn’t anyone else we can sell it to. We’re at the bottom of the food chain!”
NOTHING. Empty paperboard box, 2 cubed. Made from shirt cardboard weight material, white on the outside. Tuck flaps, top and bottom. They come folded flat, and after you “assemble” them, you can put things in them. Got it??
23337 Cardboard Box $2.00/pkg (40)
The company is still selling prisms and optics left over from World War II, and it buys telescopes, microscopes, science kits, and novelties straight from the manufacturer like any other store. But most of its merchandise comes from the surplus subculture. Its stock-in-trade is the going-out-of-business sale residue, the distributor’s excess inventory, the factory overrun, the game or puzzle that never caught on. There’s another element too: industrial motors, switches, and the like that aren’t usually consumer items at all. Edmund Scientific chief operating officer Dave McGonigle says, “They take items that were part of some manufacturing process, find some alternative uses for them, and offer them to the public–items that wouldn’t be available to most people in private life.”
McCausland says his company doesn’t have to seek out sources of surplus. “We’ve been around a long time, we have good credit, people know us. They call up and say, “Help, I’ve got 20,000 bottles!’ We tell them, “Send us a sample and we’ll give you a quote.”‘ The quote is not always welcome, however. One company took four years and four identical offers before they could swallow the bitter pill.
“Some things we don’t buy. No housewares, no clothing,” though the occasional T-shirt or jacket slips in. When American Science & Surplus gets items in a big purchase, it may try to wholesale them to someone else. But, McCausland says, “There are not many people in the country who will touch surplus.” If you’re one who will, you have to buy low and be ready for anything. “We just bought a hobby-shop wholesale distributor. In order to get a good price on a deal like that we have to take it all. So we need acres of inexpensive warehousing. We might have a four-year supply of lab glassware.”
Or they might not. Customers have a special incentive for impulse buying: the company cautions browsers at its Web site that “when a surplus item is gone, it is gone. So if you see something you love, best get it now since we may not have it tomorrow.” McCausland says distraught wives have sometimes asked him to cut their husbands off because the garage is already full. “I don’t cut them off, but I do send a sympathy letter.”
ANTIGRAVITY DEVICE. A.K.A. Shelf support. White plastic, designed to be pushed into a dia hole in a piece of wood. It has a sq. support surface for the shelf, which is braced down at a 45 angle. You’ve seen them a thousand times before at some ridiculously high price for an odd number (three short of what you need) in the hardware store.
21373 Plastic Shelf Supports $2.00/pkg (40)
“Science” and “surplus” are not an odd couple, says McCausland. “If you think of a kid doing a science project, there are two options–buy a kit and do the same experiment a million other kids have done, or buy a solar panel, a socket, a bulb, a switch, and build your own.
“If you want to be creative, we have the stuff. I saw a kid at the store who wanted a magnet to grow a plant in a strong magnetic field. Now his parents might be tinkerers, inventors, the kind of people who build their own barbecue grill and want a motor to drive the spit. They’re not couch potatoes.
“Our customers tend to be above average in education, above average in income. A lot of them are technical or professional or academic, a lot are teachers or home educators. They’d rather play sports than watch them, rather write poetry than read it. Surplus is not a down-market business, surprisingly enough. It’s actually an up-market business.”
McCausland says each of the company’s three retail stores has its own personality. “Milwaukee is a different market, more German. You can hear the pennies squeak. Geneva is more affluent, more interested in finished goods than the technical items. Chicago has the most technically sophisticated customers. Some science supply houses don’t even open their returns, even though there might be nothing wrong with them, just the customer changed his mind or got the wrong item. [When we buy them,] those things usually do better in Chicago.” McCausland figures that the stores and the catalog each account for about half of the company’s $5 million in annual sales.
THE CASE OF THE MISSING CLOCK CASE. Electric clock works, no case. The works work, except we can’t seem to get the alarm to work, which may just be our ineptitude. The motor drives mechanical mechanisms to provide a digital display with numbers. 5/16 “high x 2” wide opening (in total) and with a neon lamp on each side to illuminate the face. The whole thing is roughly 2″high 3 1/4″deep x 5 1/2″wide, and runs on household current. Shikoku Seiki calls them LTP-4025. We call them take-outs waiting for you to build them a case, or incorporate them into a project needing a timing mechanism.
10759 Clock Mechanism $2.50/each
The catalog listings and store labels are humorous, friendly, self-deprecating, can-do. You and I are in the club, they imply; if everybody wanted this stuff we wouldn’t be selling it, and if you were like everybody else you wouldn’t consider buying it! So we can tell you the truth and not be pushy.
“I think part of the company’s appeal is that in some ways we buck modern retailing,” says McCausland. “We don’t sell things all sanitized and have to turn them over in two weeks. There is a market for little dirty motors.
“And some things are mismanufactured. At the right price they might be OK.” Hence the catalog’s unique tone of voice. “You need in my opinion to give people permission to think of these items as something else.” For instance, the tiny braceletlike miniature leather belts, inches wide and five inches long, recently selling at 12 for a dollar in the Chicago store. “We call them “hamster collars.’ Stop thinking of this as something you don’t want!”
VELOCIRAPTOR BOWLS. As you no doubt learned from Jurassic Park, velociraptors need to be fed carefully. We have some very sturdy 18-8 stainless steel bowls, 6 dia (5 inside the flange) deep, that we think will be super for tendering meat scraps to your baby V’s! They hold about 12 oz of fluid, which translates into a heaping double handful of solid. They are used but you would never know it. So, at our price they are a steal of steel.
23159 Stainless Steel Bowl $2.00/each
Even a company at the bottom of the food chain can feel the earthquakes shaking the American economy. “Thirty or fifty years ago, if your factory needed 100 widgets, you’d buy 110, figuring that you might screw up 10 of them,” says McCausland. “If you only screwed up three, then that was seven for the surplus dealer. There’s less of that going on now. Just-in-time manufacturing is our nemesis. People who are good at it don’t have any leftover stock.
“Besides–and people are always surprised to hear me say this–things have fewer parts today. In the 1950s and 1960s, cars had springs and levers and knobs all over. Not now. Remember the distributors car engines used to have, with a little motor that drove a tongue around and connected sequentially to points to fire each cylinder? It’s all been replaced by an electronic black box.”
Changed merchandise-distribution patterns can hurt too. “When a place like Home Depot goes overseas and buys a containerload of tools, they go straight from the manufacturer to the store. If Home Depot can’t sell them, it just marks them down and stops the supply. The leftovers, if any, are in China.”
Though he won’t be specific, McCausland says that product-liability and federal regulations have caused American Science & Surplus to give up selling a few products it would have handled five or ten years ago. And some manufacturers use government regulations to control distribution. “Medical manufacturers, for instance, don’t want anyone showing up their huge markups. One item the government surplused; we bought it from them. Then they came back and said we couldn’t sell it, because the manufacturer had come to them and complained we weren’t licensed. So we threw it away.”
Change closes some avenues and opens others. McCausland has great hopes for the company’s new site on the World Wide Web (http://www.sciplus.com/). “These should be our kind of people. Before, we were listing just the name of our catalog at a Web site along with 1,300 other catalogs, and getting more than a thousand requests a month.”
Some of his headaches are comical, at least in retrospect. “One peculiarity of this business is that we have no back orders. If we run out of something in the catalog, it’s gone. We then want to print a refund check automatically. But try to explain that to business software vendors. They kept asking, “Well, why don’t you get more?”‘
YUCKY RUBBER “WIZARD OF OZ” PARTS. We have hearts and brains available, you will have to work out your own courage. More or less life size, they are of a molded squishy floppy rubber, hollow inside, fairly heavy, and elicit satisfying comments like “Oh! Gross!’ from most adults. The brain is grey, of course, and about 6 long, by 3 wide 4 high. The heart is vivid red with purplish veins or arteries on one side (they are molded, but uncolored on the other) and measures 6 high, 4 left to right and 2 back to front. The mold seams are a bit prominent, and the dimensions are not anatomically correct, but we doubt if the Scarecrow or Tin Woodsman will mind.
10744 Rubber Brain $6.95/each
10777 Rubber Heart $7.95/each
“It’s hard to say what our best-selling item is,” says McCausland, because the company’s inventory comes in all price ranges. One favorite is a Russian microscope he describes as “fabulous. If it was made here or in Japan, it would cost $2,000 or $2,500.” It comes in a metal case with four different objective lenses offering up to 1350 magnification. “People love it–it sells for $499.”
At the other end of the best-seller spectrum is one of the few items American Science & Surplus buys in the normal wholesale market, with its own logo imprinted: the $2.50 “Tornado Tube.” A little red plastic tube, it narrows at the center and is threaded at each end. You supply a pair of empty two-liter plastic pop bottles (not glass!). Fill one of them two-thirds full of water, and screw the tube into its top. Then screw the empty one upside down into the other end of the tube. When you turn the assembly over and give it a rotating shake, the water forms a vigorous whirlpool as it flows into the lower bottle. “Kids love ’em. Teachers love ’em. We sell thousands.”
It may be easier for a poet to explain Tornado Tube physics than for a former management consultant to make sense of American Science & Surplus. “I’ve got an MBA from Harvard Business School,” laughs McCausland. “I still don’t understand how a company can survive by selling $2,000 microscopes and five-cent plastic pigs. It’s not possible!
“But I like it. After all those years of consulting for big American corporations, I have to say I really enjoy profiting from their screwups.”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photographs by Randy Tunnell.