Every town has its share of small business mainstays and anchor institutions. The services those businesses provide are the glue that holds communities together. In Bayonne, one of those businesses is Herbert’s Army and Navy. It opened in 1927, selling army and navy supplies, work clothes, and outdoor gear of all kinds. The store’s owners, Maria and Skip Upinieks, stay true to their roots, but the store has changed over time with the community’s clothing demands.
The building’s tin ceiling remains intact, as does the classic hardwood floor, where cigarette burns are still visible from when smokers stomped out their still-lit butts. Maria said she considered replacing the floorboards but decided against it when a customer survey showed that her patrons prefer them. A wall in the back that now displays work boots used to be cordoned off for gun sales, while the front section that now displays sports and swim attire once housed a circa-1940s Singer sewing machine. That machine is now in Maria’s office behind the boot display, where she’s been performing free alterations for school uniforms since she started.
“I’ve been sewing for as many years as I’m here,” said Maria, who came onboard in 1974. “That machine, I don’t think I could sew on anything else.”
Maria began working at Herbert’s 43 years ago through Bayonne High School’s former summer work program. It was the summer going into her senior year of high school after working in the legendary Maidenform factory the summer before. The previous owners stored items behind the desk in cardboard boxes, a tradition since discontinued. They now use the boxes for open cubbies that can display the items much better than old boxes.
“I’ve been sewing for as many years as I’m here. That machine, I don’t think I could sew on anything else.” – Maria Upinieks
Maria and Skip have owned the store for 15 years and sell uniforms to schoolkids. Late summer is the busy season. Everything is marked down 20 percent from last year. While Skip is down the shore, Maria goes back and forth trying to enjoy the scattered vacation of a business owner. She and Skip have sold uniforms every year since the district introduced them in the 1990s.
“So we’ve been doing all our own embroidery, screen printing, and alterations all these years,” Maria said. In the backroom, underneath a pile of “Bayonne Board of Education” polos and a plastic cover is one of her many screen-printing machines. “It’s all done right here in house,” she said. “I think some people might think I order them, but we put in a lot of work.”
Customers, mostly parents with kids, come in and out constantly during the summer, stocking up on uniforms and getting their kids fitted for just the right one.
“I’m a good businessperson, and I bend for my customers,” said Maria, who greets customers as they walk in and waves goodbye as they leave. “If there are problems, I work with them,” she said.“With anything, even beyond the store.”
The value of Herbert’s goes beyond school uniforms. Maria characterizes it as a David and Goliath story, In which Goliath could never provide the same quality of goods and personal service that Herbert’s can.
She points to the “original fit” workman’s Dickies and Levi’s that line the wall. She rubs the materials together. “See, right here,” she said.“Quality makes the difference. We’re all about quality here. With malls and big box stores, they won’t give you this quality. If they gave you the same quality, they’d put every mom and pop store out of business. They give fast fashion.”
Herbert’s fits a lot of merchandise into a small space. In winter, when the swimming trunks and golf polos are put away, the thick Carhart jackets and fleece-lined denim comes out. “It gets tight in here,” she said. “But we fit everything, and we’re always changing our stock. We listen to what the customer wants.”
Despite the store’s name, Maria and Skip no longer specialize in army and navy supplies, except for the pocket knives, military hats, and some pants. However, she can make special orders and encourages anyone interested in those styles to simply ask. A customer cannot peruse Herbert’s without a friendly staff member appearing to help find an item, a welcome relief in the densely packed, but organized store.
“We always ask first,” Maria said. “We’re just friendly that way.”
Rory Pasquariello can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him @rory_louis on twitter.