Two guys you might never expect to find in the same place at the same time -- a skinny, balding white fellow in preppy shorts and sandals and a heavyset black man in grease-stained blue work pants and a grimy T-shirt stretched taut over his considerable girth A are staring quizzically at a peculiar machine resting atop a table in one of the cluttered aisles of the Dade County Store. The object of their attention looks like something from Dr. Frankenstein's lab: a compact blue electric motor about the size of a loaf of bread, which might or might not be a pump of some sort, haphazardly connected by two clear plastic hoses to a large glass bottle on a low pedestal. The bottle is calibrated in milliliters. The men are inspecting the contraption closely not because either is particularly interested in buying it, but because they cannot figure out what exactly it is.
"Something medical," the black guy guesses. He lifts his tattered baseball hat and uses it to scratch his head. "What d'you think?"
The white guy shrugs. "Damned if I know. It's like these things here," he says, gesticulating toward a box of chrome gauges.
"Regulators," explains the black guy. "Like for oxygen tanks."
"Oh, yeah," says the white guy with a nod. "You buy a lot of stuff here?"
"Whenever I find something I can use. Why d'you ask?"
"I'm writing an article about the store, and--"
"What the hell you doin' that for?" the black guy snaps, tugging his cap back on and backing away. "Then everybody'll know where it is."
"We're in the junk business for the county," explains Clinie Ford, manager of the County Store and, according to the plaque near the entrance, the Dade County General Services Administration's Outstanding Employee of the Fourth Quarter of 1989. Located at 980 W. 84th Street in Hialeah, the combination thrift shop/warehouse where the county unloads its surplus and "found" property is open to the walk-in public five days a week from 9:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m.
"Don't say 'stolen,'" Ford admonishes. "It might have been stolen property, but it also might have been personal property that went unclaimed in the property room for a period of time, or it could have been confiscated from prisoners or come from the jail. A lot of jewelry comes in like that. It's found property. Not necessarily stolen." As she emphasizes this distinction, her left hand rests upon a display case containing roughly two dozen "found" car stereos.
According to Ford, the County Store's first priority is to try to distribute the property it receives to departments that need it. By her estimate, 25 percent of the warehouse's inventory eventually finds a new home with the Dade County bureaucracy. "But as much as I try to reallocate whatever comes in for county use, there's times when you just can't," she says. "A typewriter or a fax machine or a desk is one thing, but you can't allocate something like perfume. No one better come in here and say, 'I want some perfume for county use.' Most of them know me. They wouldn't dare try that."
The caseful of car stereos isn't a likely candidate for reallocation; they're priced for outright sale. And whoever buys them might as well be stealing them. The County Store is willing to sacrifice an $800 Nakamichi deck for $121, a couple of Blaupunkts for less than $100 apiece, and a Kenwood for $69. If that's still too pricey, there's a Sanyo for two dollars. (It was originally marked at six bucks, but the County Store adheres to an infallible pricing structure: if an item has languished on the shelf for more than ten days, Ford takes ten percent off, and continues to do so until the item sells.)
At Ford's discretion, high-ticket items -- camcorders, diamond rings, antique pocket watches, video security systems, et cetera -- are often sold through an informal bidding system rather than via direct pricing. Bids are collected over the course of about three weeks and then the merchandise is sold to the biggest spender.
Surplus items such as desks, chairs, file cabinets, office telephones, word processors, copiers, shelves, and credenzas occupy the bulk of the store's space. Perfume, jewelry, radios, and watches fill the glass display cases near the warehouse's front door. While Ford and her co-workers know where nearly everything is, there is no real order to the place. But the absence of any discernible floor plan is part of the County Store's considerable charm.
"Most of our business is repeat customers. They come here once and they're hooked," Ford laughs. "It's addictive, like the flea market. In fact, lots of the people who peddle things at the flea market shop here. We have daily customers, they get up every morning and this is their first stop. Then I have my couple-times-a-week regulars, my weekly customers, and some who come in a lot but not on a regular basis. It's all kinds."
Metal racks sagging under the weight of surplus books from the county library system dominate the store's northwest corner. Where else can you buy an entire Encyclopaedia Britannica (albeit a decade or more out of date and missing a few volumes) for a dollar a volume? From popular novels like Jacqueline Susann's Once Is Not Enough and Ken Follett's Eye of the Needle to page-turners like Marketing Opportunities in Japan and Ventilators and Inhalation Therapy, there's bound to be something to fit everyone's reading list here. And the prices are unbelievable: ten fiction books for a dollar; nonfiction four for a dollar. (Ford's justification of the higher price for nonfiction: "It's reality. It costs a little more.")
Need a bicycle? The County Store's got racks of them. Schwinn, Hunter, Raleigh, Murray, Boss Cruiser (a "comfort bike, for people with buns like mine. Don't print that," says Ford) -- you name the brand, they've got it.
"Since we reduce the price of everything until it sells, if we have a doubt about what an item is worth, our price might start out a little bit high," Ford admits, scanning the two-wheelers' tags. "It's always lower than what you'd pay somewhere else, but sometimes not that much lower. This bike here," she says, examining the tag on a Schwinn Super Le Tour in what looks to be very good condition (dusty, but apparently mechanically sound), "started at $149. Now it's $108. For a very nice bicycle. Make a nice Christmas present."
As would much of the County Store's wares. Nintendo machines, fourteen dollars. Bins full of watches priced from one to fifteen dollars. New (still in the box) barbecue grills, $29. A Kenmore microwave oven, $49. A Sears compact stereo with AM/FM receiver, dual cassette deck, turntable, and equalizer, $39 A elegant Formica-finished display rack included!
Dozens of typewriters, from decrepit old IBM Selectrics to sleek Xerox Memorywriter 6010s start at $30. ("They may look like junk, but we sell a lot of them for parts," responds Ford to a comment on the weathered-looking state of disrepair into which many of the machines have fallen.)
TVs? You want TVs? The County Store has a twenty-inch RCA for $129 and a nineteen-inch Sony Trinitron for $19 (a dollar an inch!). You figure out the disparity. Pick up a brand new Genie screw-drive garage- door opener for $125, a Weed Eater for $29 (a Black & Decker version of the same tool is priced at ten dollars less, while a heavy-duty Homelite model sports an asking price of $99).
But wait, there's more! Typewriter ribbons. Copy-machine toner. Automobile engine blocks. Videotapes: Purple Rain, In the Heat of the Night, and that ever-popular trilogy, The Best of Dark Shadows, The Best of Barnabas Collins, and The Resurrection of Barnabas Collins.
The list goes on and on. An EICO 1030 computer backup power supply for $55. A wide range oscillator, $39. A Phone Mate answering machine, fourteen dollars. A primitive Craig "microcassette" player/recorder the size of a large shoebox (no price marked). Calculators, three to ten bucks. A Juliette AM/FM eight-track stereo with turntable, nineteen dollars.
For a paltry $47, no home should be without a test-tube centrifuge. Or a six-dollar lifetime-certified, jewel movement Tycos sphygmomanometer. Sierra T1 spanning repeaters sell for fourteen dollars; prehistoric 16mm projectors will set you back anywhere from $34 to $69. Manual punch-in time clocks, $29. And you can make off with an entire case of twelve-ounce bottles of Vidal Sassoon clear body finishing rinse for eight bucks.
They got your eighteen-inch gas oven lines for $4, Sloan valves (two for a buck), a $29 porcelain sink, and a $19 toilet bowl. A Baldor industrial motor chugs in at only $95, old-fashioned PA systems and police dispatch radios for $42. Or maybe you need some tile -- the County Store offers Colormassa Italian tiles at twelve dollars and up per 27-piece box.
Even if Ford's bike idea doesn't spin your gift-giving wheels, the County Store can be a savior during the holiday shopping season. Imagine the delight on your loved one's face when he or she unwraps that Yanni CD, coral bracelet, JVC remote control, or the ultimate present for the party animal in your life: an authentic blood-alcohol Breathalyzer sent over from the Metro-Dade police department's narcotics division (you might want to replace the yellowing plastic breathing tube; the mouthpiece has been thoroughly chewed).
As you might expect from a government-run enterprise, the County Store imposes a lot of rules on shoppers. Most of them are scribbled on makeshift signs strategically located to ensure the least visibility possible: No smoking. All sales cash and carry. No deposits, no holds. Shirt and shoes required. Checks accepted with proper ID. Cashier reserves the right to refuse to sell any item he/she feel [sic] is mis-marked. No pets. Items without prices will not be sold. If you have seen an item which you feel is priced too high, stop back at a later time. We periodically mark down the prices of our merchandise. Prices are non-negotiable. All items sold as is. No refunds or exchanges. No guarantees.
Caveat emptor, in other words. But with a twist: in many cases the County Store will let you test an item on the premises before you pay for it. "If you want to buy a car stereo, we'll let you bring the car and hook it up to see if it works," explains Ford. TV sets, radios, typewriters, calculators, telephones A the County Store will gladly let you perform a test run if you bring your own cables, wires, speakers, and accessories. Just don't expect a lot of help setting everything up.
No, the County Store is not for the shopper who needs a lot of hand-holding. There's no knowledgeable salesman to guide you through the pluses and minuses of, say, the 300-amp Hobart 220-440 volt welder compared to the 400-amp, 230-460 volt model. Or to demonstrate the FATS (Firearm Training System) or the Kango Impact Hammer Drill or the heavy-duty inboard boat motor in the shipping crate. And don't expect a lot of help with the Ingersoll-Rand air compressor, the Deutz diesel engine, or the Sioux steam cleaner. It's a pretty safe bet, though, that the warranty on the 100-year-old Excelsior twenty-inch drill press has expired.
For the Nineties Guy, the County Store presents a veritable bonanza. Somewhere out there Roger, Nino, Hector, and Martin are running around with nameless charm bracelets. Let their loss be your gain. If you prefer to make a more intellectual statement, there are always the "Poverty Sucks" and "Live, Love, Laugh" charms. And if the object of your affection is a Virgin, Betty, Lisa, or a Dannett, you're really in luck. Buy her a gold nameplate for her necklace and tell her how many car payments it set you back at Zales or Mayor's. If that doesn't do the trick, pick up a white Candice Candice fringed skirt and matching bustier top (size large) for $39, or the same outfit in black for $31. What woman could resist such lavish gift-giving?
Rings are a little trickier. The majority of the store's selection breaks down into either initials or zodiac signs; the former may prove difficult to match with the name on your new charm bracelet. A reliable alternative is to opt for the traditional Playboy bunny. You have to wonder how the guy who lost that ring is doing now that he no longer has his fine taste in finger-wear to advertise his class and sexual prowess. Just imagine the hordes of sophisticated fashion models who will flock to your side when they catch a glimpse of that elegant rabbit adorning your pinkie. And all for a pittance.
Once you've got "Poverty Sucks" on your wrist, a Virgin wrapped around your neck, and the potent sexual lure on your finger, you'll no doubt want to complete the transformation into the new swinging you with the proper scents and fragrances. Luckily, the County Store is stocked. Salsa shampoo by Raphael can be had for a paltry three dollars per eight-ounce bottle. Apräs bain, you'll want to dab on a little eau de toilette. For hommes, there's Beretta (look like Robert Blake or just smell like him)cologne by Parfums Delphes of Paris, only fifteen dollars for a 100-milliliter bottle. For women, a variety of enticing odors: Exetera, Lovely, Gianni Finzi, Rosa Bella, Sablon, Rose Rouge, and Rose Love, all for the same low fifteen bucks. Should something domestic be more to your nose's liking, Lady Stetson rides along at ten dollars for a two-ounce supply.
What outfit would be complete without the latest sexy electronic gadgetry to round out the accessories? The County Store can have you swaggering down the street in no time, a walkie-talkie ($29 to $149) strapped to one side of your belt, a Motorola beeper ($19) clipped to the other. And don't forget the radar detector ($14 and up) and the BellSouth Mobility telephone for your car. Never skimp on the status symbols.
Clinie Ford maintains a small library of guidebooks to help her price the merchandise, but it's no easy job and she admits that a savvy buyer might occasionally profit handsomely at the store's expense. There's a rumor of a rare book, for example, purchased for 25 cents and resold to a collector for more than $1000. And while Ford will test the diamonds, gold, and silver for weight and authenticity, she is often flying by the seat of her pants when she assesses their value.
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"I use a lot of reference manuals," says the manager, rolling her eyes. "Sometimes I have to take a trip to JC Penney to verify things."
Ford's duties extend beyond the wall of the warehouse. She also helps with the General Services Administration's vehicle auctions A buses, garbage trucks, and so forth. The warehouse is too small to house these vehicles, but negotiations are under way to secure an adjacent lot to store heavy equipment. Meanwhile, Ford distributes flyers advertising such upcoming sales.
But while her purview may exceed the warehouse's four concrete-block walls, nothing that goes on inside escapes Ford's scrutiny. She's a benevolent dictator, and make no mistake about it A the County Store is her turf. No one who enters this domain avoids an appraising glance. When a customer who has located a $75 laser printer wants to pay with a check but can only come up with one form of ID, it is Ford who plays the heavy and nixes the transaction. Polite but firm. It's easy to see why she got that Outstanding Employee of the Fourth Quarter of 1989 plaque.
You wonder if they really ought to be offering the Diebold cannonball safe they received from the Dade tax collector. It's the old-fashioned kind, big as an NFL lineman, and it cuts an imposing figure near the door. With deals like these, they could use it to hold all the loot. And to make sure none of the proceeds become found property.