One store on the street is experiencing a jump in business for July and August, and not just from tourists. For the military surplus store at 1541 Haight, the month before Burning Man is their second-busiest season (Halloween is the first).
We stopped by to see how they were faring, since this is about the time their business begins to spike.
We spoke to Manny Bello, pictured above, who’s been working there for about a decade, to find out more about the people, the stuff, and the experience of having a reputation as one of the foremost suppliers of Burning Man essentials.
Manny told us people come from all over – many from Southern California, but also from around America and Europe. They convene in San Francisco for camp meetings before the event, and to raid Cal Surplus for supplies. “Some of them spend hundreds of dollars in one trip. When they’re done they usually look like an extra from Road Warrior.”
So what are they buying? Camouflage netting, for one. He told us that a couple once covered an entire RV in camo netting, “which was interesting, since Burning Man takes place in the desert.”
Also, flags for their camps.
“The unicorn is our biggest seller.”
Also also, bandanas, outdoor toilets, flashlights and headlamps, knives, bullet belts and other bits for post-apocalyptic costumes, big-rimmed hats, and scarves.
But the main attraction? The goggles.
With the wind in the desert, getting sand in the eyes is a constant nuisance. We asked how many goggles Cal Surplus sells for Burning Man, and Manny gave us an estimate of “in the thousands”.
Another former Cal Surplus employee (and Army veteran) told us that he can recall countless hours arguing with Burners about types of goggles and their efficacies. “The customers would say things to me like, ‘you don’t understand, have you even been to Burning Man?’ Like, someone actually asked me that, and I wanted to scream at them, ‘I SPENT 13 MONTHS IN IRAQ!’ Of course, I couldn’t, so I just smiled and explained to them that I really really thought this one pair was superior – from experience. They almost never bought the ones I recommended.”
We asked them if any stories from past Burning Man seasons stood out to them, and they related two.
The first? Manny remembers one couple who bought head-to-toe rubber Russian Chemical Suits. In white. Like bond villains. They didn’t have any in stock for us to get pictures, but they broke out a green one:
What you’re looking at are the chemical boots and the gloves. Picture that, but an entire suit.
The second story they told us is about a guy who comes in for Burning Man every year, several times, and spends “hundreds if not thousands of dollars.” But, curiously, not for himself. “He comes in a few times every season, with different women each time, and just buys them anything they point at.”