Town Topics — Princeton's Weekly Community Newspaper Since 1946.
Vol. LXIV, No. 21
 
Wednesday, May 26, 2010
Coldwell Banker Princeton Office

Prudential Fox and Roach, Realtors

Gloria Nilson GMAC Real Estate

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N.T. Callaway Princeton Office

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It’s New to Us by Jean Stratton


ENDURING DENIM: “We adapt to the times, but always keep the same focus on quality items at affordable prices.” Michael Bonin, owner of Princeton Army & Navy store, is holding a pair of the very popular stone-washed Levi’s Slim Straight #514 jeans. “Denim continues to be the most popular item in the store,” he adds.

Longtime Princeton Army & Navy Store Is Highlighted by Quality, Value, and Service

A young man recently stopped in at the Princeton Army & Navy store at 14½ Witherspoon Street. It was a chilly day, and he quickly walked toward the back of the store, selected a blue hooded sweatshirt, paid for it, put it on, and left!

“I didn’t realize it was so cold out, and I wasn’t dressed warmly enough,” he explained.

“This is typical,” points out owner Michael Bonin. “People stop in to get what they need, they find it, and often wear it out the door.”

Customers know they can count on Princeton Army & Navy for the basics — quality merchandise, knowledgeable service, and reasonable prices. And in these times of “here today, gone tomorrow”, this Witherspoon Street store is one of the few in Princeton that can point to 60-plus years of service to the community. What was once a frequent occurrence on the retail scene is now unique: a downtown family business that not only has stood the test of time but has successfully survived the onslaught of the malls.

Three Generations

“The store represents three generations,” notes Mr. Bonin. “My grandfather, Joseph Caplan, started it in 1911 as a clothing and gift shop. It closed for a while, then reopened as an Army & Navy store in the 1940s, and my late father, Alvin Bonin, took over the operation in 1960.”

It has been located at several spots on Witherspoon Street, moving to its current site in the 1960s. Michael Bonin became owner in the late 1980s, when his father retired.

“I really grew up in the store,” he recalls. “I worked here on weekends and after school, and as a little boy, I was hardly as tall as the counter. I can remember customers saying, “that kid can’t reach the cash register.’”

After studying business in college, he began working full-time at the store, and he emphasizes that the family tradition has continued. “I’m the third generation in the store. I also have three daughters who work here occasionally. I’ve been here 31 years full-time, and I remember people coming in pushing kids in a stroller. Now, the ones in the strollers are pushing their own kids in a stroller!”

Basic Clothing

In its early days as an Army & Navy store, it offered surplus military apparel as well as Army and Navy insignia and patches, explains Mr. Bonin. “It gradually began to expand, offering more variety. We added work clothing, khaki pants — basic quality clothing with discount prices. We still offer that as well as casual and recreational clothing and accessories, including outerwear, jeans, shirts, sweats, footwear, socks, underwear, gloves, hats, and camping gear.

“There is no actual military connection. We are individually-owned, and each Army & Navy store has its own direction and focus.”

A full selection of spring merchandise is now available, including short-sleeved shirts, denim shirts and jackets, T’s, and shorts.

“Khaki pants are another staple item, and we also carry the popular Carhartt heavy-duty workwear, primarily pants. They have crossed over into recreational wear now.”

Other popular brands include Dockers pants and shirts, Columbia Sportswear, and there is a selection of the popular cargo-style shorts.

Topping everything else in sales, however, are the jeans, Levi’s, in particular. “Denim just keeps reinventing itself,” says Mr. Bonin. Right now, the slim straight leg is popular, especially #514; other favorites are the straight leg zipper-style #505, and the original #501 Levi.

Element of Luck

Mr. Bonin has seen styles come and go over the years. As he points out, “I’ve seen things come, go, and come back again! For a while, the baggy look was very popular, and now there is the switch back to a sleek, fitted look with slim, straight legs.

“Also, I remember my father had salesmen come every week with the sailor-type bell bottom pants, and he wasn’t sure about them. Finally, he said OK, and they sold immediately. There’s also an element of luck — having the right thing at the right time.”

The apparel at the store is primarily for men, but many women buy the jeans, T’s, sweat shirts and sweat pants. “We have waists in jeans at 28 and 29, and women can wear these. Also, there is a unisex look to a lot of our things,” points out Mr. Bonin.

Princeton University insignia items, featuring sweat shirts, sweat pants, tee shirts, and shorts are all in demand.

The store’s eclectic selection also offers the long-time favorite Converse hi-top sneakers (also, low) in a variety of colors, as well as other assorted men’s footwear, including Timberland.

Duffle bags and backpacks are available, and such accessories as Swiss Army knives, flashlights, compasses, and sun glasses are always on hand.

Military-Style

Colorful bandanas (popular for dogs and their owners!), socks, underwear, belts, and the ubiquitous baseball cap, along with many other hats, are also all in stock.

Although Princeton Army & Navy no longer offers military surplus, there are military-style camouflage jackets and pants and fatigues.

The store’s down-to-earth, friendly atmosphere appeals to new shoppers, as well as long-time customers. The discounted prices offer many bargains, with bandanas at $2.49, T-shirts from $6.95, baseball caps at $7.95, and sweatshirts at $24.95.

“We have a wide customer base,” points out Mr. Bonin. “All ages — teens, students, faculty, tourists, and a lot of international customers. There are many regulars from Princeton and beyond. We also get people coming back for reunions, who come in and say, ‘You are one of the few places that are still here.’

“So much has changed around us, on the street and in town,” he continues. “And the introduction of the internet has changed business and increased competition. But I want people to know that we will be here as long as people come here to shop. We feel we are a part of the community. It’s real hands-on ownership. You can call on Monday, and you’ll get me; and you can call on Friday, and you’ll get me. If you ask a question, you will get an answer. I think this sets us apart from today’s emphasis on chain stores in big malls.”

Princeton Army & Navy offers gift certificates, and is open Monday through Saturday 10 to 5, Sunday 10 to 4. (609) 924-0994.

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