For Lower East Side merchant Henry Yao, it all started with an Instagram post.
On a sweltering day in early July 2020, Yao lay on one of his large, military-grade duffle bags. Dressed in beige flip flops and a blue and white striped t-shirt, he absently flipped through his smartphone, waiting and hoping that someone, really anyone, would walk through his door.
Yao, a wiry 59-year-old with jet-black hair, is the owner and sole employee of Army & Navy Bags, a small military surplus store on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. The modest storefront is nestled between a 99-cent pizza slice joint and the iconic Russ & Daughters appetizer shop.
The interior of the cramped store is an organized chaos. Backpacks, jackets, t-shirts, hats, boots and duffel bags line the floor, hang from the ceiling and cover the walls, each crowding one another in a desperate quest for space. The window, the only display in the store, is filled with rows of gloves and belts, so many that only a few slivers of sunlight can filter through.
Although cramped and dark, the store has become a second home – and is in many ways a dream come true for its owner.
But on this day in July, Yao began to face the possibility of having to abandon his store. The lack of business due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the exorbitant rent – $6,500 a month – had turned Army & Navy Bags into a financial black hole, making it increasingly difficult for Yao to take care of his business. wife and her three children.
“It was too good to let go. But reality told me that I couldn’t survive the pandemic. I felt so bad because I like military stuff,” Yao said. “But the love can’t bring home money.”
The COVID-19 pandemic has only furthered the decline of New York’s mom-and-pop stores which are already feeling the brunt of giant online stores like Amazon and rising rental prices.
“Mom-and-pop stores are like family,” Yao said. “It’s a different feeling than ordering from Amazon. Family stores are important for the city, for the neighborhoods.”
The GoFundMe campaign to the rescue
On July 14, 2020, one of Yao’s loyal customers set up a GoFundMe campaign to help him stay in business. Although he didn’t know the logistics of crowdsourcing and doubted it would help him keep his store, Yao was grateful.
A week later, New York “unofficial talent scout” Nicholas Heller, known as New York Nico to his 800,000 followers, stopped by the store after hearing about it from a local photographer.
Heller took a photo of Yao, in his flip flops and striped t-shirt, and uploaded it to his Instagram. In the caption, he wrote a brief description of the store’s financial troubles and included the GoFundMeCampaign link in his Instagram bio. The effects were almost immediate.
In just a few days, Heller’s photo was reposted over 27,000 times. The GoFundMe campaign raised over $25,000 and soon lines started forming outside Yao’s store. Hundreds of people from around the world – from Australia, Denmark and France to Norway, England and Sweden – waited in 90 degree weather to buy a jacket, bag or sweater to show their support . In just two days, Yao had sold out his entire store. (As of March 2022, the GoFundMe campaign has raised over $61,000.)
“Sometimes you think it’s the end but sometimes there’s hope or maybe another opportunity,” he said softly. “I’m so lucky. All I can say is thank you. Thank you so much.”
Enthusiasm with a smile
It’s not hard to see why a man like Yao is able to impact those around him.
We sat together on one of the large, sand-colored duffle bags that lined the floor of the store for nearly two hours, swapping stories about our childhoods and our families. In the meantime, he interacted with customers, always offering a kind word, suggesting what colors of clothing complemented their skin tones, and signing each interaction with a loving “take care” and “thank you for your support.”
Yao likes to wear black slides with white socks around the store in the colder months and navigates the cramped space with fluid, practiced ease. He is a die-hard Mets baseball fan and was wearing one of their face masks on the day of the interview.
In fact, Yao is not only a huge sports fan, but he himself is incredibly active and a decorated athlete to boot. He was a forward for his high school football team, was a regional badminton champion for five years, and is an accomplished martial artist. He still practices kung fu every day for 20 to 30 minutes because, he says, it keeps his mind disciplined and his body nimble.
“Do you know how flexible I am?” he said proudly as he sorted through a new shipment of gloves. “At my age, you can’t believe how flexible I am. If you saw it, you’d be like ‘holy moly!’
Yao lives and breathes everything and anything military. As a child, he spent countless hours in China’s Guangdong province collecting Japanese and Chinese World War II uniforms and weapons. At the time, the country had no military surplus stores, so Yao bought his items from parents and grandparents of friends who had fought in the war.
“My mind is military. I love military stuff,” he said. “People, they buy toys. Me, I buy military stuff. I appreciate. I love my work.”
Yao immigrated to New York in 1982 at the age of 19 with his mother and siblings. This is also around the time he got into his smoking habit. Even though he knows it’s bad for him, it’s a guilty pleasure he can’t give up. He smokes Chinese cigarettes, not because he prefers them, but because a pack costs $3 while regular ones cost $14. In the city, he quickly found a home in the Chinese community that was there for him when he was homesick or when his broken English made it difficult to navigate the chaotic streets of New York.
A whirlwind experience
Yao made his way to Army & Navy Bags in 2007, first as a salesman, then eventually becoming an owner when his original owner, a Polish immigrant, retired. The store itself has been a neighborhood institution since 1959, and now Yao has also become a staple, fondly known for his friendliness and dedication to his business. (Although he lives in upstate New York, Yao drives nearly five hours a day to and from the store, which is open 10 a.m. to 8 p.m., seven days a week.)
But over the past year and a half, Yao has become much more than the owner of a popular neighborhood boutique. It is now a social media phenomenon, attracting dozens of international TV stations, newspapers and celebrities to its picturesque doorstep.
A profile of him in The New York Times, published on the front page on Christmas Day 2020, had an instant international reaction. For weeks after, Yao received over 800 Christmas cards in the mail from people around the world. Some contained sincere notes, but most carried checks. He kept as many as possible as well as a worn copy of his feature film which he proudly shows to each customer.
More recently, however, Army & Navy Bags has welcomed the likes of rapper Lil Uzi Vert, who entered the store in October 2021 with an entourage of four bodyguards and a black bulletproof vehicle. Green bought five of everything Yao had to offer, a purchase that amounted to $1,250. At the time, Yao had no idea a celebrity was standing among him. All he could think of was the two bodyguards inside the store, the two guards standing outside, and the giant duffel bag on his counter full of hundred dollar bills that Green was using. to pay Yao.
Vert, who heard about Yao from Heller’s post, has visited the store five more times since October. He buys something after each visit. Yao only recently discovered his identity when he showed his eldest daughter a photo that Vert’s bodyguard had taken of the two of them.
“When he first came, I thought I was in the deepest of trouble. There were so many bodyguards,” Yao said as he sat on a gym bag in his store. “I was shocked because [Vert] walked in and already knew my name!
Yao still marvels at the turn his life has taken. He met incredible people from all over the world and kept his store alive thanks to their kindness. He is currently focused on staying positive by maintaining sales and continuing to form meaningful connections with everyone who walks through his door.
After all, if anyone can do it, it’s Yao.