Walter Brill's eyes would light up when a customer at his Army-Navy surplus store in Minneapolis asked what use a particular gadget had.
Brill, who as a U.S. Army sergeant during World War II pondered what use civilians might have for surplus equipment when he returned home, died Friday in Minneapolis. He was 91.
In 1976, Brill, owner of American Army and Navy Surplus Store in downtown Minneapolis since the mid-1950s, took a reporter for a tour of the store. He showed him outerwear, Western wear, stuff for outdoor adventure and military surplus.
"Practical, practical," he said in the Feb. 1, 1976, Minneapolis Tribune article. "That's the watchword here."
At 4th Street and 1st Avenue N., where he had moved the store in 1985, a torpedo symbol over the doorway welcomes customers. Many of those customers -- scouts, outdoors sports folks or the college-bound -- are the children or grandchildren of people who shopped for the same kinds of sturdy gear and clothing when they were young.
The surplus store was the place to go for all manner of gear, such as Dutch Army pants, gas masks, Swiss Army mittens, a military rucksack to double as a book bag, military coats from various NATO allies and nowadays MREs, or meals ready to eat.
Or a dummy hand grenade. Not practical? It serves as a paperweight, Brill would tell you.
"He had an eagle eye for value," said his daughter Toby, of St. Louis Park, who now runs the store. "He knew when he had done a good job, because the customers were looking for the same items their parents bought."
In the early 1930s, Brill worked at his uncle's surplus store on the site of what is now the downtown Minneapolis Public Library. They sold World War I military surplus items.
During World War II, Brill rose to sergeant in the Army, working in medical supply in Alaska's Aleutian Islands.
"From the minute I got in [the Army], you might say I was casing the joint. I would look through a lot of folders for practical items that would be useful to me when I got out, and I got a good, useful bead on the subject and it gave me a good lift about what I would do when I got out," he said in a Jan. 5, 1985, Minneapolis Star Tribune article.
The family firm also operates American Custom Uniform, begun by Brill in 1965.
He never entirely retired, but did hand the reins over to his daughter Sandra Berg in 2001. She died in 2005. Until recently, he worked at the store part time.
Brill, a 1935 Minneapolis North High School graduate, once played the French horn in the old Minneapolis Working Boys Band. He continued to enjoy brass band concerts, especially at St. Paul's Como Park.
Aside from his family and business, "he loved Sousa's music," said daughter Toby.
His wife of 20 years, Margaret, died in 1973.
In addition to Toby, he is survived by his wife of 30 years, Joy, of Minneapolis; a son, Ronald of Tampa, Fla.; another daughter, Susan Schreck Greer of Skokie, Ill., and 10 grandchildren.
Services have been held. Shiva will be held this evening at 4401 W. 25th St.