At 198 Abeel Street on the Rondout waterfront in Kingston, tucked between the Hideaway Marina and Block Park at the foot of Hunter Street, there stands a cluster of three old industrial buildings whose nondescript exterior hides a wonderland within. Timothy Smythe, Jr., who runs P&T Surplus with his father, Timothy Sr., calls the place “a big kids’ toy store.”
The Smythes proudly proclaim that their company “buys and sells just about everything,” at deep-discount prices. “We buy predominantly reusable metal,” says Tim Jr. “We sell nuts and bolts by the pound.” Secondhand tools are much sought-after items. Customers come in not only to get a much better deal on hardware than they’ll find in big-box stores, but also to discover all sorts of miscellaneous objects to incorporate into construction and art projects: tarps in every imaginable size, sheets of zinc plate, bungee cords, vintage prismatic stickers, ham radio components, heavy-duty work gloves, enameled copper buttons, compartmented plastic trays. “Some of the stuff, we don’t even know what it is.”
The business got started on this site – a former foundry dating back to the days when the Rondout was full of busy shipyards – in the late 1950s, founded by Tim Sr.’s uncle, Phil Riley, and his partner David Hines. At first it was all about taking apart outmoded mainframe computers from IBM and Remington Rand and reselling the components. The original owners would get “two or three tractor/trailer loads a day of one mainframe. It was all state-of-the-art back then,” Tim Jr. explains.
When IBM shut down its Kingston facility in 1995, there was a brief flush of material to sell, including plenty of personal computers. Then came hard times for the founders of the business, so the Smythes stepped in to take it over. “Dad has been working here for 60 years, and owned it with me since 1997,” Tim Jr. relates. “We had another run in 2000, when IBM was starting to leave Fishkill. It was like the Second Coming: very lucrative. The computers had that exotic metal that artists like.”
According to the Smythes, artists have been an important component of P&T’s customer base over the decades, with faculty and students from Bard and SUNY New Paltz making frequent pilgrimages to the warehouse in search of sculptural materials. “The art community has been great for us for years; also collectors,” Tim Sr. notes. For some years, the warehouse even hosted an annual Nuts & Bolts Art Show of pieces put together from components acquired there – many by Tim Jr. himself, who’s quite the tinkerer.
It’s also a goldmine for props for theatrical productions and film sets. Tim Jr. recalls how Headless Horseman Hayrides in Ulster Park once bought up a whole shipment of old microscopes for a hospital-of-horrors diorama. “Everybody loves mannequins at Halloween time,” he adds. Reusers and upcyclers, not to mention families needing parts and ideas for school science-fair projects, all find inspiration here. Got a kid on the autism spectrum who’s obsessed with STEM subjects and loves to take things apart and put them back together again? P&T Surplus would be their idea of Paradise.
Like many businesses, P&T hit lean times when COVID struck. “The last couple of years we struggled a little bit. The pandemic was hard on us,” says Tim Sr. “Masks helped keep us in business at the time.” Indeed, in the earliest days of the pandemic, when masks were hard to find, P&T’s well-established supply chain made it one of the few places in Ulster County where they could reliably be obtained. That brought the store and its enormous stock of fascinating oddments onto the radar of many who hadn’t discovered it before.
It also created new streams of incoming goods, as stir-crazy homeowners used the lockdown time to clear out overstuffed garages, basements, attics and barns. People came to sell and stayed to buy. “There are a lot of people struggling out there,” Tim Sr. observes. “When money is tight, they come looking for bargains. We get a lot of contractors and do-it-yourselfers coming in.”
“Once people find out about it, they come back,” says Tim Jr. “People think of this as their store. They don’t want to miss anything.” There’s even a raccoon who’s a regular visitor, climbing down from the rafters into the office, which stays warm at night. “He’s eating my desk chair. He’s checking it out every night, no matter what.”
One loyal human customer is Charles Vincent, proprietor of Kingston-based Northeast Shelters. “I’ve been coming here for 20 years. I believe in doing local business,” Vincent says, as he purchases a pile of screw-eye hooks. At Home Depot or Lowe’s, “This would cost you $3; here I pay 50 cents. I come in every couple of weeks and see what they’ve got…. I come in looking for one thing and I leave with five. Every time you come in, you see something different.”
“The real story is, the customers love my father. It’s like a club sometimes; they talk his ear off,” says Tim Jr. But, while he’s still often to be found on premises, Tim Sr. has recently had to scale back his involvement in the business following a stroke. And Tim Jr. remains in the midst of his own long-running health crisis: “I’m doing dialysis three times a week due to Stage 5 kidney failure. I’ve been waiting on a transplant for six years.”
As a result, P&T Surplus got way behind on paying its bills, and was in danger of going out of business altogether before starting a GoFundMe campaign in February. The community has rallied around the Smythes, with $21,780 raised of the $35,000 goal raised as of early this week. On March 3, Tim Jr. posted an update: “So far, we have been able to pay down the Central Hudson bill, the gas bill and some of Tim Sr.’s medical bills. After speaking to New York State tax people, we hope they are going to give us an installment plan. Unfortunately, it’s for $40,000 as of right now, but we hope to get it down some.”
To contribute to the crowdfunding appeal, visit https://gofund.me/93ad3938. To make a purchase, come to the store – hours are a little irregular at present due to health issues, so it’s best to call first at (845) 481-4329 – or visit www.pandtsurplus.com. (Make sure to check out the FAQs on the website, which reflect the Smythes’ wry sense of humor by answering such vital questions as “How many planets can I buy?”) The P&T Surplus Facebook page at www.facebook.com/people/PT-Surplus/100063661238622 is the place to go for updates on the latest shipments of goods, practical or improbable, that are now available.