History

 

The Narrative Version


ira photo

Hi. I’m Ira from Champaign Surplus, and I am the second of three generations that have owned and operated our wonderful, locally grown, family-run Outdoor Store.

Our story begins way back in 1925, when 12 year-old Leo Weisel would take the Chicago street car to the very last stop so he could join his Boy Scout troop for campouts in the Forest Preserves surrounding the city. He fell in love with nature and camping.

Jump ahead 15 years. Leo had to give up his time in the woods in order to provide for himself and his wife. He ran a small appliance repair business on Michigan Avenue, but when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor he enlisted in the Navy and had to close up shop. After WWII, unemployed and a father, he and his wife Anne have a dream. They wanted to leave Chicago, own their own home and build their own business. Where should it be? Leo had cousins in Champaign-Urbana, Illinois, 125 miles south of Chicago, where houses were affordable and opportunity great.

In 1945, Leo and Anne opened an appliance store, but had difficulty finding appliances to sell, as US manufacturing was slow to get back up to speed after the war. In 1947 they converted their shop to an Army-Navy Surplus Store. And, so began Champaign Surplus.

The Boy Scout in Leo Weisel still loved the outdoors. Who knew more about camping outdoors than veterans of WWII? And, what camping equipment was more available than WWII surplus? Not only did the small Surplus Store sell clothing, boots and working gear, but also tents and packs. It took a few years — 20 or so — before the camping department became the focal point of the store. But from 1947 to 1967, if customers wanted good quality camping equipment at reasonable prices from a store that understood the difference between goose down and man made fibers, or between heavy canvas and rip-stop nylon, they shopped at Champaign Surplus. An icon was born.

As time passed, generation two entered the business. In 1975, Leo and Anne’s daughter Lynn and her husband Ira (that’s me) joined the enterprise. While the “surplus” part of the business was the store’s roots and still an important part of our business model, the “outdoor” side of the business became the store’s passion. By 1983, Champaign Surplus had outgrown its second location, and needed to move to its current, 20,000 square foot location in order to have space for all the new and innovative gear from The North Face, Columbia, Patagonia, Snow Lion, Walrus, Eureka, Kelty, Camp Trails and a number of the other original outdoor companies. As generation two, we made sure to take the time to use what we sold. We paddled the Boundary Waters, climbed western mountains, and hiked in Europe, South America and across the United States. We also taught our children to love and protect their planet while exploring its wonders.

Beware what you teach your children because they just might listen! 2010 arrived and so did generation three. Ira and Lynn’s daughter Shira and her husband Dan signed on to lead the “family farm” into the future. They bring with them their own passion for hiking and climbing as well as their own dedication to core outdoor values, environmental and business ethics.

dan and shira photo

 

Champaign Surplus is more than our name and the products we sell. We are family and community. Champaign Surplus is three generations, with a shared vision of treating our customers as our friends – offering quality merchandise, unequaled personal service and the highest level of expertise.

 

yellow awning

 

The Timeline Version


1945
Leo and Anne Weisel open an appliance store in downtown Champaign, at 115 South Neil Street, just one mile from the University of Illinois campus.

leo and anne photo

 

1947
Military surplus merchandise is added and Champaign Surplus is born.

1950
Lynn Weisel is born on March 18 and cheerfully begins her lifetime tenure as a loyal employee on March 19.

lynn photo

 

1954
Camping merchandise is introduced and camping shows are held at Illini Grove.

1955-59
A shoe department is opened in a newly remodeled basement, and is immediately destroyed in a flood.
Champaign Surplus also becomes a bomb shelter outfitter.

1963
The mix of merchandise is expanded to include more extensive camping lines, and raincoats, denim shirts, belts, used field jackets, combat packs, and 40-inch parkas — the college student uniform of the 60's.

1966
The store moves to a larger downtown location at 40 East University, Champaign.

Old Store Location at 40 East University Ave, Champaign

 

1969
John starts to work at the store – he is still with us, over 40 years later! – and is the first employee ever to keep up with Mr. Weisel.

john photo

Ira also starts to work nights and weekends, and is the first employee to ever keep up with Mr. Weisel's daughter – and he still does, over 40 years later...

 

1973
Shira Wachtel is born on May 12 and cheerfully begins her lifetime tenure as a loyal employee on May 13.

1976
Ira records his first "Hi, this is Ira from Champaign Surplus" radio commercial — and he hasn't stopped since!

1981
Ira & Lynn purchase the business from Leo & Anne and become "Generation Two".

1983
Champaign Surplus outgrows its footprint and moves to its present location at 303 South Neil in downtown Champaign.

Melvin is hired as extra help for the big move. He does such a fabulous job that he's asked to stay on permanently — and is still with us over 25 years later...

 

john photo


1991
A 2000 square foot covered deck is built for special events and the display of tents, canoes and kayaks.

1992
The first of many brand concept shops is opened, along with an expanded Military Surplus retail area.

1994
Sue starts work at the store — and remains our fabulous General Manager over 15 years later...

2003
Our beloved founder, Leo Weisel, passes away on December 7th. We still miss him.

2007
Dan visits Champaign with Shira for the first time and sees the store. He immediately daydreams about a career change and getting to wear his favorite gear to work every day.

2010
Dan & Shira move back to Champaign and purchase the business from Ira & Lynn, becoming "Generation Three". The store gets a new logo and a new eCommerce site is launched.

2012
In October, Champaign Surplus celebrates its 65th anniversary!

Keen Osprey The North Face Smartwool Columbia Sportswear Patagonia Mountain Hardwear Merrell