Aberdeen's military mini-mall


Knowing she'd be squeezed for time after work taking her son to football practice, Sgt. Patrice Harris stole a few moments for herself on her 32nd birthday to sample perfume and try on shoes.

"I don't need any more perfume, do I?" she said, browsing the selection at the Aberdeen Proving Ground Post Exchange.

But when the Oklahoma native grabbed a bright red package of Donna Karan perfume off the shelf, a whim - or a whiff - got the better of her.

"I want this one!" she said.

Along with Spc. Calandra Guidry, a 26-year-old Georgian, Harris weaved around the jewelry case, past the magazine shelf and around the electronics before finding the shoe section, where she looked for something strappy, perhaps to complement her camouflage fatigues.

Other shoppers were similarly dressed, browsing the aisles of the recently renovated facility, known as the PX. There are deals to be had, for sure, but the thousands of value-inclined civilians who work at the Harford County base have to shop elsewhere.

This tax-free shopping experience - which feels like a Kmart, with the adjoining eateries and service shops akin to a mini-mall - is for soldiers and retired military personnel only.

A Wal-Mart was recently built just outside the proving ground's Aberdeen gate, and PX manager Debbie Armendariz said the gap between the Army-run exchange's discounted prices and those of the outside retail world has been shrinking.

But the PX - the military base Main Street where soldiers have shopped and socialized since the late 1800s - has something big-box retailers don't. With the store passing on a percentage of its profits to support community activities aimed at improving military morale, shopping at the PX serves a patriotic purpose as well.

"I come here to patronize my post," said Don Druelinger, a 77-year-old veteran and Aberdeen resident, as he thumbed through graduation cards for his niece's granddaughter.

The Army and Air Force Exchange Service operates more than 3,100 facilities worldwide, and many feature common off-post eateries such as Pizza Hut, Burger King, Subway and Taco Bell. APG's exchange is about 24,500 square feet, Armendariz said, but exchanges across the country are growing - such as the planned $27 million expansion to 240,000 square feet at Fort Benning in Georgia, including a 700-seat food court and 28 vendors.

Like the soldiers they support, exchange employees, a large percentage of whom are military spouses, can be deployed to foreign countries.

"Our motto is: We go where you go," Armendariz said.

In Iraq, the post exchanges operate out of trucks and tents, providing music, movies, sodas and snacks to help troops get by. But stateside, the products are aimed at filling domestic needs. As part of the $1.5 million renovation, the APG exchange added an outdoor line of merchandise that included lawn mowers, barbecue grills, plants and lawn furniture.

Last week, Chief Warrant Officer Roy Kelly searched for a television for his son's room, and he had specific parameters in mind: a 20-inch set with a built-in DVD player. The exchange's selection is limited, with fewer than a dozen TVs.

"I could probably find a bigger selection [elsewhere]," Kelly said. "But the exchange is here for the soldiers, and the exchange is supporting us."

Past a General Nutrition Center store and a floral shop, Orie Frink Jr. sat on a padded chair with four pairs of worn Army boots at his feet. With a rag wrapped around his index and middle fingers, he vigorously rubbed polish in a circular motion on a size-10 honor guard boot.

"When you go for an inspection, you've got to have that high shine," said Frink, a veteran. "If you're not inspection-ready, you got a problem."

Soldiers can sit on an elevated chair and have Frink buff their shoes under an old-English-style street lamp. But today, he's working on pairs that have been dropped off.

"They don't come in like this," he said, referring to a finished boot that he could practically see his reflection in. He pulled out an unshined boot, dirty and worn.

"They look like this," he said.

Behind him, soldiers filed in and out of "The Cleaners," where Kyoko Fukushima will sew insignias or unit patches onto their hats and breast pockets for $1.75. Down the hall, a soldier chewed tobacco and teased Chief Warrant Officer Daniel Moreno as he got his hair trimmed at the military barber shop.

Back inside the main retail store, Kelly, who was targeting a television for his son, had accomplished his mission. Stuffed into his cart was a large box holding a 20-inch Sylvania with a flat screen and built-in DVD player.

"I'm golden, man," he said.


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