Old Kingston is officially dead. After 99 years of buying, selling and swapping, Sam’s Surplus Store in Uptown Kingston is closing their doors.
As a member of the Kogon family, I had the unique opportunity to work in the nostalgic shop, where anyone from local street people to Yoko Ono might have walked through the creaky doors. Originally an Army/Navy supply store, the family-owned business used their unique buy/sell/trade model to see them through the Great Depression, World War II and a host of other historic moments, only to become a victim of the sudden and orchestrated beast that is the gentrification of Kingston.
I could blame the death of Sam’s on a lack of foresight on the part of my family. They rented in the same building at 52 North Front St. for 60 years. Before that, they had several other locations including one on Broadway, one in Saugerties and even an outpost in Cairo. The rent was always fair and they had a good rapport with their landlord. I can remember speaking with my father-in-law Lonnie Kogon (the third Sam) in the 1980s about purchasing a building Uptown when the nicest spot on Wall Street was selling for $150,000. Even just a few years ago, a building could still have been had for around $300,000. There was always a reason not to buy; it was hoped that one day the family might be able to purchase the space they had occupied for over half a century. Little did they ever guess that spot would soar to a price tag of well over $1 million virtually overnight, displacing other family business like the Kingston Clock Shop and Mark Ferraro’s Hair Salon — formerly his mother’s beauty parlor — to name a few. The new owner has quadrupled the rents, making it impossible for small mom-and-pop shops to survive.
Started in 1919 by Zelick Kogon, a shoemaker and gunsmith by trade, Sam’s was passed down through four generations of the Kogon family, ending with my sister-in-law Debra, who has run the shop for the past 17 years. Most longtime Kingston residents have memories of spending time in the shop, perhaps buying their first pair of ice skates or purchasing the guitar that they had placed on layaway months earlier. Though it was never a pawn shop, when times were hard, people were able to sell their property or trade for something they needed. During my year long tenure in Sam’s I made friends with people like “Red,” a homeless gentle giant of a man who would stop by weekly to sell a small radio or other item for $5 to “see me through.” There were also families of hunters who would come down from the mountains to purchase guns and ammunition. (A hunter named Scully once offered to teach me how to cook a skunk. I declined the offer.)
Clifford Weeks, the store’s resident helper and mechanic who worked through three generations of Sam’s, happily walked my baby Miranda up and down North Front Street for me when I’d bring her to the store with me.
Not only did the store benefit the Kogon family, it left a mark on the entire community. It was a hub for locals to come in and browse the unique merchandise that ran the gamut from light pornography (carefully hidden behind the counter) to jewelry and musical instruments. Little old ladies would come in by the dozens to swap or buy the used Harlequin romance paperback books that sat in racks at the front of the shop.
The Kogon family had a long history as musicians with Seymour Kogon (the second Sam) and his son Lonnie both being professionals in that field. My son Sam — the only actual Sam Kogon in the family — has carried on that tradition and credits his success in the music world to having access to any and all instruments from the store. Kogon grandson Robert Perkins, a professional drummer who toured with Michael Buble, is also part of the family legacy, having gotten his early kits from Sam’s. The selection of new and used musical gear attracted the likes of Billy Joel, John Sebastian, The Blues Magoos, Levon Helm, Mountain, Orleans, Robbie Dupree and the aforementioned Yoko Ono to frequent the store. Lonnie Kogon once famously kicked out Dustin Hoffman when he came in during the local filming of Tootsie dressed as a woman. Todd Rundgren even filmed an early music video at Sam’s.
The closing of Sam’s is just another nail in the coffin of the demise of what Kingston had once been. Probably only a handful of people will miss the crammed windows and old showcases strewn with an eclectic mix of cameras, knives and costume jewelry. The new owners of 52 North Front St. have already started renovating the space into something new. The apartment upstairs, where a 92-year-old woman and her daughter had lived for years until recently, will no doubt be made into a high-end unit with granite countertops and sustainable wood flooring, in hopes of attracting a displaced Brooklynite. My best guess is that Sam’s will either become the venue for yet another celebrity chef or “exclusive” lifestyle brand store.
Although my husband Lou and I intend to try to start a new location on Route 32 in Saugerties, the last Sam has left the building.