Surplus store offers up stuff that just won’t fly
TSA does not like to say they confiscate items.
By Billy Baker
CONCORD, N. H. — As the busy holiday travel season arrives, so too does the infrequent flyer. That means a very particular secondhand market is about to start booming, one that depends on people who, more than a decade after the Sept. 11 attacks, still do not know that you cannot carry a machete onto an airplane. Or a baseball bat. Or scissors. Or hammers. Or . . . you wouldn’t believe it all.
But if you’d like, you can see it all.
And you can buy it real cheap.
The New Hampshire State Surplus Store in Concord has become a hub of this secondhand market, the spot where the bulk of the items people surrender to security at New England’s major airports is resold to the public for pennies on the dollar. (They also sell the things people forget while going through security, in case you’re in the market for a belt, a watch or sunglasses.)
“It’s amazing what people travel with,” said Rocky Bostrom, an employee at the store who spends a good part of his day going through boxes of items and shaking his head.
“I like to say we get soup to nuts, heavy on the nuts. I’ve got a bullwhip under my desk right now. I can’t put it out in the store because it’ll take out someone’s eye.”
And with the holidays, the inventory in the store will swell, as the quantity and savviness of airline passengers changes.
“With Thanksgiving and the holidays, you’re going to have more infrequent flyers, people who are less familiar with travel than your business travelers, which leads to more issues with the carry-on rules,” said Ann Davis, a spokeswoman for the Transportation Security Administration, which oversees airport security.
TSA does not like to say they confiscate items. “They’re surrendered,” Davis said. “Passengers have options.”
For all but the most serious incidents, such as a loaded gun, a passenger can leave the security line and bring the item to their car; give it to the person who dropped them off; and, at many airports, they can mail the item to themselves. They can also, of course, choose not to fly.
But short of that, the options require time, something many travelers do not have, so the prohibited items are simply left with security, an accidental gift to the government.
A look around the surplus store, an oddball series of rooms in an old dairy farm surrounded by cornfields, reveals a menagerie of items that fall into categories.
First, there are the accidental things, the sort that travelers might understandably forget they had in their possession. The core of this cache is pocketknives and tools, such as screwdrivers and corkscrews. They get them by the thousands, so many that there is an entire subculture of resellers who start waiting in line two hours before the surplus store opens so they can pounce on the newest inventory and then turn it around on eBay.
“Once in a while, there’s some pushing and shoving,” Bostrom said. “They just charge through the door, reach over each other, and then complain that everything is priced too high.”
Many visit the store — which is open Monday, Wednesday, and Friday from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. — three or four times each day. The store also, as the name implies, sells the state government’s surplus items, everything from used snowplows to old office furniture and fax machines.
TSA collects so many miniature multitools and Swiss Army knives that each model has its own bin at the surplus store, where they sell for $2.
The next major category is the laughable, which has two subcategories: those items people can’t possibly think they can bring on an airplane and those items that can’t possibly be prohibited on an airplane.
Saws, pick axes, a prison shank. Come on, people.
Snow globes. Come on, TSA.
The ban on snow globes, which were outlawed along with many liquids and gels in 2007 after an apparent terrorist plot in London to use liquid explosives on US-bound planes, has long been the subject of ridicule and a source of bewilderment for souvenir-toting passengers who are not aware of the edict.
Though the agency relaxed its standards this summer to allow snow globes that contain less than 2.4 ounces of liquid, the surplus store still gets enough of them that you can buy 10 for a dollar.
Another laughable item they see a lot of is bowling pins, usually covered with autographs, from bowlers returning from tournaments. These are usually bought by a sheriff’s department, which uses them for target practice.
The final category is those items that are, you might say, unforgivable. “We get tons and tons of boxcutters,” said John Supry, who is the store manager. “That’s really how it all started” — boxcutters were a key weapon for the Sept. 11 hijackers — “and yet people still carry them.”
TSA says it makes every effort to reunite passengers with items accidentally left at security; they keep them for at least 30 days. But the employees of the New Hampshire State Surplus Store say there is simply too much to be in the match-making game.
Occasionally, they can be persuaded by someone who surrendered something of sentimental value. They have helped couples find engraved wedding cake serving knives and recently received a nice thank you note from a woman who was reunited with her grandmother’s heirloom silverware.
But for the most part, it’s people who call and say, “I lost my Swiss Army knife.”
Sorry, there’s no way they’re looking for it. But if you want one, come on up. They have boxes full of ones just like it.
And take some of these snow globes while you’re here.