When Mel Liebmann first opened Mel's Army-Navy Center in 1955 on S. Williams Street in Pearl River, he found a creative way to stock the shelves.
"I remember distinctly I didn't have a great deal of money at the time," Liebmann said. "In order to impress the people coming in, I had empty boxes all over the shelves to make it look like we had a big inventory. We've come a long way since then."
Mel's became a Pearl River institution over the last 57 years, one that will continue under new ownership now that Liebmann is headed for retirement. Pearl River native Chris Frawley bought Mel's Army-Navy Center effective Sept. 1, though Liebmann is staying on for the time being to help with the transition.
"I would like to see it keep going," Liebmann said. "I didn't want to say we're closing the store after all these years. It's very hard to sell an independent store these days. This store, it's different. This had a background and a track record."
"It's a great store," said Frawley, an Albertus Magnus High School graduate who worked at Mel's for 12 years. "Besides the history, growing up working here, it was always something I wanted to do back then. I didn’t think about it much until he put it up. To keep the store going in this town is a good thing. It would be a shame to see it disappear."
Frawley plans to keep the store's name and style, something that has made customers happy. He said that Liebmann will be helping him with the transition for six months to a year.
"We hear it all the time," Frawley said. "People stop in and say it's good to hear the store isn't going anywhere. They've been coming here for 50 years. It's a third generation store now. To keep that tradition going is a great thing.
"Mel's a legend. They named the street after him."
He added that there will be an open house at Mel's from 10 a.m. to noon Sept. 15, with many local officials invited to attend.
The legend started off selling hats at a time when people rarely went out without one, but he needed to find a new way to make a living when that business faded.
"That business tanked and I had to look for a new one," Liebmann said. "I looked at this place and I liked the look of the town. I said we'll take a shot with it. From the day it opened, it clicked. There was a need for this store at the time. We carried basic products people needed for work. Shoes and work clothes. It as not fashion, just a basic store."
Liebmann takes pride in the role he and the store have played over the years.
"The store has meant a lot in the sense that we serve the community well," Liebmann said. "Kids grew up in this store.
"You don't satisfy everybody, but we went out of our way, bent over backward for customers. Gave good, quality merchandise at good prices. That was the secret."
Mel's was much smaller when it first opened. The current space was once four stores.
"We broke the walls down and made one store out of four," Liebmann said. "It's 5,000 square feet, which is good size for a retail store."
It is a unique, old school store, and not just because of the cash register near the entrance. There is a mix of many types of merchandise, with hand-written signs all over. One reads: "Free Ride in Police Car. If you steal anything from this store!"
There are items that are hard to find, such as short-sleeved sweatshirts and packing trunks. There also brand names that are not often found in an Army-Navy store such as Florsheim and Rockport. It also offers hunting and fishing licenses and Boy Scouts items.
Liebmann said a large part of his business is not even over the counter in the store. He has supplied many little leagues over the years and recently got an order
"We have things that make this store unique," Liebmann said. "We do stuff like the town of Ramapo, we supply the t-shirts for their summer programs. It runs into the thousands. The same for Haverstraw. I got an order for 600 t-shirts printed up for a breast cancer run. We're known for that."
Get Liebmann talking about the store and the salesman in him comes out, but so does his affection for Pearl River.
"I love the people in this town. It's a great town," Liebmann said. "It's a place that you feel you want to have a business, in a town like this.
"It's (been) a wonderful experience. I enjoyed it, enjoyed being here and serving the people and meeting some wonderful people. If you like what you are doing, you will succeed at it, and I like what I'm doing here."