Mel’s Army Navy Store: Chris Frawley
Pearl River, NY
Turns out Chris Frawley and his octogenarian mentor Mel were cut from the same cloth. Chris, who worked at Mel’s Army Navy Store in Pearl River from age 14, through high school, college and those post graduation ‘now what?’ years, returned 10 years later to purchase the town’s retail icon, located adjacent to Mel Liebmann Plaza, named for Mel, who opened his doors in 1955.
Mel’s still stocks legendary work wear labels, crafty utilitarian and ubiquitous pieces designed to weather the rigors of use. Things like Schott peacoats—still Navy issue—a true-to-tradition design made by hand in New Jersey for 100 years, crafted in heirloom quality double-faced Melton wool. The kind of coat you’ll wear for years and years to come—then pass down for generations more. Oxford shirts and Dockers and Carhartt pants that feel like they’re ready to go on an adventure or two right out of the box bin you rediscover them in. Vintage-style Dickies in tough chino fabric and classic colors. Flannel plaid pajamas, a style older than your grandparents that still looks good—are proof that some things really don’t go out of style.
A loan from Community Capital New York made it possible for Chris to buy his boyhood alma mater. He plans to continue to have Mel’s represent a welcome intervention of the steady and the small in the midst of retailers’ national—and more and more, global—mall reach. He’s added women’s wear and Florsheim and Rockport brands to expand what’s stock piled. But the local retailer’s trademark remains it’s one of’s: things like Redwing shoes. 107 years of heritage. 92 skilled pairs of hands. 1 really well made boot. Since 1905, Red Wing artisans from Minnesota have operated late 19th-century sewing machines and it takes 92 of them to put together each and every boot from start to finish.
The lines Mel’s carries are basic, functional and well made. Some items available in limited quantities (a man only has two hands.) You don’t wear them out, you wear them in. What’s not to like? Mel’s is proof positive that some things of the past really do (and should) stand the test of time.
Mel’s Army Navy Store, 25 South William Street, Pearl River, 845.735.3321.
How did you get into the business?
I worked at Mel’s from 1989 through January 2002, through high school and college and a couple of years out of college when I was trying to figure out what I wanted to do with my life. And a couple of years after that. Then I went up to Albany, completed a degree and worked in corporate law in Manhattan. About two years ago I stopped in to see Mel. He was talking about retiring. We went out to dinner and he convinced me he was serious and we worked out the details of my buying the business. A $50,000 loan from Community Capital made it possible for me to do an asset purchase to buy all the inventory.
In hindsight you wish you knew?
I was pretty focused on the business. I knew it was going to be long hours, Monday through Friday from 9 to 7, Saturdays 9 to 6, year round. Still, they are long hours. I’m a Pearl River native, but I commute from Yonkers. Ideally, I would have sold my place first, and moved closer to cut the commute.
How is your business evolving? How has Community Capital New York helped?
According to Mel, when he opened: “ I didn’t have a lot of money. In order to impress the people coming in, I had empty boxes all over the shelves to make it look like we had a big inventory. We’ve come a long way since then.”
Chris: A loan from Community Capital let me buy the inventory. The first step was clearing out some of the clutter—Mel’s been here, and accumulating, for more than half a century. Not a corner was empty. There is a lot of competition now. But a lot of items we carry, like Redwing work shoes, you can’t buy online or at the mall. We supply schools, municipalities and fire departments with steel-toed shoes, and carry brands department stores don’t, like Carhartt and Woolrich. We’re adding women’s wear like the Schott Army peacoat in bright red, and gift items like Swiss army knives. We created a Facebook page, and started posting pictures of new items. Customers come in requesting the item they’ve seen online. We now have more than 200 followers.
The best advice you received?
To take advantage of Community Capital New York’s scholarship program, which provided access to the Weschester Community College Gateway Center’s Entrepreneurship program, a 12-week course designed to help me grow my business.
Your best advice?
You really have to know the business. It has to be something that you really enjoy doing, because once it’s yours, you live it. When I was in the corporate world sitting in a cubicle every day, it wasn’t really appealing to me to do that for another 30 to 40 years. And, you can’t just sit and debate about starting a business. Otherwise you’ll debate and debate and debate about it and lose the opportunity. Consider buying an existing business with an existing customer base. It gives you a leg up.
Expanding some of the brands and eventually to have an online presence. In terms of marketing, I need to counter one of the biggest misconceptions about this store—that it’s strictly blue-collar stuff. So we plan to do more advertising like our holiday ad featuring the slogan ‘Do you really want to go to the mall this holiday season? Mel’s since 1955.’ But the key was the list of logos—Levi’s, Izod, Florsheim (we added men’s dress shoes), Dockers, Rockport (another addition to the inventory I made straight away), Redwing and Carhartt. Right now we need a point-of-sale system that is computerized so we can manage our inventory better. Pen and paper are great, but there are some traditions worth letting go.