Vancouver Barracks PX still in business

Army may have left, but shoppette highly valued by military families remains at its post

By Tom Vogt, Columbian science, military & history reporter

Published:

 
photoVictoria’s Secret products are among the merchandise sold at the Vancouver Barracks shoppette. The store remains open, even though the Army has moved to a new site in Vancouver.

Sales to civilians

If you work up a thirst while exploring the Fort Vancouver National Historic Site, you can buy a soft drink, a bottle of cold water or some other nonalcoholic beverage at the Vancouver Barracks base exchange. You also can buy a ready-to-eat snack.

While most exchange customers have military PX privileges, the general public can pick up a few items that don’t require an ID card.

They’re referred to as “consumables,” said Patrick McGhee, general manager of several exchanges in Washington and Oregon.

“Anything consumable, like a Coke and a sandwich, can be purchased by people who aren’t ID cardholders,” McGhee said. “But you can’t get a 12-pack of Coke. We get people who say they can consume a six-pack of beer: That doesn’t quite count.”

People working on construction projects on the Vancouver Barracks campus often stop in to grab a pastry and a bottle of Starbucks frappuccino for a quick breakfast, said Mychella Daily, who manages the Vancouver Barracks store.

The exchange is just north of the building that fronts East Fifth Street, across the street from the entrance to the Vancouver Land Bridge trail.

The exchange is open from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Saturday, and from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday.

— Tom Vogt

If you go

The Vancouver Exchange will have an Armed Forces Day Event at its barracks store Saturday. From 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., the store on the east end of Hatheway Road will offer food samples and free items.

Interactive map and more

Vancouver Barracks

The birthplace of the U.S. Army post exchange system is getting another distinction: It will be the only one in a national park.

The first PX was established on Nov. 29, 1880, when Col. Henry Morrow, commander at Vancouver Barracks, decided local merchants were overcharging his soldiers. The troops left the site in September, when the final Army Reserve and National Guard units moved to the new Armed Forces Reserve Center.

Some customers feared that the post exchange might follow the troops out of downtown Vancouver; they don’t have to worry, however. Even though the vacated barracks buildings will become part of the Fort Vancouver National Historic Site, the store will continue to … well, hold down the fort.

“We had to get government agencies to work together,” said Patrick McGhee, the exchange general manager at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, just south of Tacoma. McGhee also is in charge of exchanges at several Army posts and Air Force bases in Washington and Oregon, including the Vancouver Barracks outlet.

The two agencies were the Department of Defense, which oversees the Army & Air Force Exchange Service, and the Department of the Interior, which oversees the National Park Service. Their agreement allowed the Vancouver facility to stay in business even though it’s no longer on a military installation. But it still serves a military clientele.

“It serves a vital mission to our current customer base, which is mostly military retirees,” McGhee said.

Worried customers

“We were real worried,” said Jimmy Davis of Vancouver, a retired Marine. “A closure would take this away from some dedicated customers.”

That includes Tonya Bower, a Clark College student who is a military spouse.

“It’s important for this to be here,” she said during a recent shopping trip. “My husband is medically retired, and we can’t afford to shop in this economy. There are a lot of retired military families here.”

The Vancouver site is just part of their exchange shopping.

“We go to Joint Base Lewis-McChord every three months or so and grocery shop,” Bower, a Kelso resident, said. “We take two cars and stack them to the hilt.”

The Vancouver Barracks outlet doesn’t do that level of business. The sign along Fort Vancouver Way, telling drivers to turn left on Hatheway Road, refers to it diminutively as a “shoppette.”

Its inventory features familiar convenience-store standbys such as beer, snacks, soft drinks and cigarettes.

Tobacco and alcohol account for about 75 percent of the store’s business, said Mychella Daily, who manages the Barracks exchange.

But there is some merchandise you won’t find at the corner quicky-mart, including vodka and tequila (although liquor soon will be available in Washington grocery stores).

Tactical shopping

There is a “tactical” section where soldiers can buy military-related items such as packs, as well as patches, pins and insignia for their uniforms. They also sell a couple of clip-on neckties a week, Daily said.

And there’s a clothing label you don’t usually associate with the military: Victoria’s Secret. The women’s wear collection features the numbers “17” and “75.”

They’re not jersey numbers, Daily explained. The two numbers represent the start of the U.S. Army, which marks June 14, 1775, as its birthday.

Daily represents an important aspect of operating the exchange system, since her husband is an Army officer. About 30 percent of its employees are military family members.

A military member, spouse or retiree can save an average of 22 percent on most items by shopping at an exchange, McGhee said; the discount isn’t that steep on liquor.

Most of the earnings go back to the military personnel and their families, by the way. In the 2010 fiscal year, the multiservice system had $9.9 billion in sales, with earnings of about $390 million. About $260 million -- two-thirds of the earnings -- went to family services and morale, welfare and recreation programs.

But the system started as a way to serve American troops wherever they happened to be, and that’s still something that Daily takes seriously.

One of her favorite customer experiences came when she was working at Joint Base Lewis McChord, and a transport plane landed with a unit returning from Afghanistan. The soldiers were afraid they might have arrived too late get sandwiches, but the exchange took care of them.

“I can’t tell you how exciting it was to see them eat a sandwich,” Daily said.

Tom Vogt: 360-735-4558; http://www.twitter.com/col_history;tom.vogt@columbian.com.