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I will confess that I have driven past the Armie Navie store, across from I.C. Norcom High School, a billion times, but I have never ventured in until this week, so I wasn’t sure what to expect. Wow, was I surprised! I felt like I was walking into a store of all the current Carhartt & Dickies apparel & necessities, and yet also a museum of eclectic unique antiques and collectibles.
From left, three generations behind Armie Navie Marc, Lucille, and Irving Frank.
I also half expected someone to school me on how I needed to create a bunker to survive the times, but instead I was met with the two most charming men who have genuine love for and roots in Portsmouth. Irving and Marc Frank, father and son team who run the Armie Navie store at 1817 High Street, are the second and third generation in charge, with the first generation being Joe and Lucille Frank, the original entrepreneurs behind the name. Lucille Frank will be celebrating her 100th year birthday in just a few months, but that doesn’t stop her from still weighing in on the legacy of Armie Naive and Portsmouth. “The city has been very good to me…to all of us.” Lucille Frank smiles. “It is a wonderful city to live in.” Their slogan of “We don’t remember those days, ’cause it’s still those days.” goes back years…to the year 1947 to be exact. The Armie Navie store actually started out as a corner grocery store, in a time when corner grocery stores really were in every neighborhood. Joe & Lucille Frank bought the “Red Front Market” at the corner of High & Kirn Street. Imagine a time when there were no big box grocery stores and each neighborhood had their own little store that carried produce, essentials, and whatnot. The corner store soon expanded.
The original sign can be seen inside Armie Navie today.
“People would come to our grocery store and ask, ‘Can you get socks?’, ‘Can you get this or that?’ Over the years it expanded into clothing.” Joe Frank knew a guy who was in the military surplus business and they started bringing in those items as well. “In 1955, we built an additional building next door and created one of the best grocery stores in the city, the sign of which is hanging right up on the ceiling. I found that sign in our warehouse here.” Marc said as he motioned towards the sign hanging up. “In the mid 60’s, on advice from our accountant, we were advised to get out of the grocery business. We were losing business and the big box stores were moving on in. That’s when we went strictly into clothing and military surplus items. When they did the redevelopment of Mt. Hermon in the 70’s, we moved down here on High Street. This building was originally Portsmouth Electric Company, there is still a sign for them on the back of our building.” As Irving explained this history, I noted all the customers, both young and old in the store.
Bargains are to be had in the Portsmouth Armie Navie store.
One man, who came in to buy some Dickie pants, mentions that back in the day he used to sell Armie-Navie his used uniforms. Irving remembers, and replies that he used to buy them for a quarter a pair back in those days and they all chuckle. Many of the customers come in to not only replenish their essential items, but also to relive the history that the store has never let go of. “Growing up, my grandparents were a staple in this community.” Marc reveals as he adjusts the clothing racks. “Customers have shared with me over the years that Armie Navie was one of the first stores in Portsmouth to offer credit to black families, at a time in
A customer recalls years past shopping in Armie Navie.
the 60’s when many other stores would not offer credit. My grandmother or my dad won’t mention this because they don’t like to talk about themselves, but when customers come in and share those types of stories, well, I think it is huge! Customers talk about how nice Ms. Lucille was, or how my grandfather helped a man buy a house by renting to them until he bought it, with no interest…just a payment plan… and just on a handshake! These families still live in the Mount Vernon area; they were able to start a life and raise families of their own in part from how my grandparents would help the community through real estate opportunities, work clothes, or credit.”
“Now this isn’t a knock to my dad or my grandparents, because at the time, this was just their work”, Marc Frank explains. “and to my dad, this is still just his work…,but I see the history of it. None of the things you see up here, none of that was here when I was a kid. It was all just boxes of inventory up there.”
The first two photos feature Joe & Lucille Frank circa 1973. The last photo features Joe & Irving Frank circa 1982.
“As the years went on and I started finding cool things in our warehouse, and my grandma was giving me things, I just started putting it all up on display. I’m the worst Armie Navie store owner ever – I’m way too nostalgic to sell any of the good, fun stuff; anytime I find anything old and good, I’m like I don’t want to sell this.”
Joe Frank in the Red Front Market June 25, 1952
One look around the room, and I am transported back in time. “We have so many customers who have never been here before and then we have some customers who have been coming in for 70 years. It’s weird to be the thing everyone knows about but also the thing no one knows about, and because of that, people’s idea of who we are can be different. There are people who come in here and know my grandma’s name and call it “Joe Frank’s” and people who come in here who don’t know the history and don’t know the impact my grandparents had on the community. They used to pick up people from the port and bring them here to get work clothes. They didn’t realize what they were doing at the time, but they were helping to build a community. They had a huge impact on this end of the city. They did more than just open up everyday. I don’t think it was as clear to them, but it is evident when I hear the stories from customers about how Joe Frank gave them their first job or how Joe Frank helped them out and how much it meant to them. It means that people love my family without even knowing me, and it makes me proud to have my last name. At the end of the day, I know what is in me and I know what I’m good at…and where I belong.” It is clear Marc Frank is invested in not only Armie Navie, but in Portsmouth as a whole.
New generations of shoppers find the brands they want at Armie Navie.
“We not only do large government contracts and supply entire shipyards with uniforms, but we are also one of the largest independent Carhartt retailers in the state and other popular brands. Carhartt is something that the kids all like, and don’t realize this is a hundred year old company that their father and their father’s father wore.” It’s funny how good things are just made to last through the generations.
Redoing the store to make it a little more organized without taking away from the Armie Navie characteristic of piles of stuff everywhere, is Marc’s trajectory. “We have stopped selling used items, following the market. We do carry the vintage items, and I hand pick unique items that have a more vintage kitsch with a niche or museum feel. We work at branding this store to be a destination for more than just people coming to get uniforms, big and tall clothes, or work clothes. We have customers that come from Virginia Beach, Richmond, and Petersburg because of the unique items we carry and the brands that we carry. Because of that, our business has done quite well and we continue to grow.” As Irving wraps up a sale of two pairs of work boots, he takes a lighthearted jab at his son, “See, that’s how it’s done. You sell one pair, but the old man sells two!” They both laugh, but Marc adds “Maybe it was the sale I’m running on shoes that sealed the deal?” “No, I’m pretty sure it was my personality!” Irving adds with a chuckle. The lighthearted father/son banter has the customer laughing as well while he checks out the new waterproof watches in the display case next to the Larry Bird, Dennis Rodman, and Scottie Pippin basketball cards. There seems to be a steady stream of customers popping in and out and the lively banter is surely what keeps bringing them back.
Marc Frank has visions for the future of the area. “Being a stakeholder in the Innovation District really points to our longevity and impact on the area. When we were invited to meet with the Planning Committee regarding our desires and ideas for the area, it felt like we were truly valued by the city. They took our thoughts and ideas, applied them to their plan for the corridor, and it feels like for the first time in a long time, they are on the same page as the communities they serve. For a business as old school as we are, we try to innovate and create new things through our business as much as we can. We reached out to the city and made it known that we believe in the intentions of the innovation district and we want to be a driving force behind the redevelopment of High Street. We plan to assist the city with building an Entrepreneurship Center as well as a new development called Joe’s Corner, an area that will provide the Midtown neighborhoods with the opportunity to once again enjoy the glory days along High Street by creating new and exciting business opportunities and build support for our city’s wave of creative talent!
Keep up with Armie Navie: facebook.com/armienavie
Armie Navie is one of the largest independent Carhartt retailers in the state along with other popular brands.
Austin Morris is the artist behind the Armie Navie mural.
(Portsmouth, VA) A new addition to the Armie Navie store on High Street is the mural designed and painted by Austin Morris, a United States Marine Veteran who just graduated from Howard University this past month. His ode to black and brown service members throughout the different wars from the Revolutionary War to current missions was an image he had back when he was fresh from serving in the Marine Corp. “I want my art to be a sum of all the experiences I have had so far. I also wanted to poke fun at some of the hardships and issues in the military of being a black man. When Marc Frank and I started talking about doing the mural on the wall of the Armie Navie store, I updated the sketches a bit and pushed a little heavier on the history and heritage. I also upped the humor a little bit, so people see on the first pass that it’s a cool image, but when they come and really look at it, and really see the details, it will just grow and people can learn more and start that conversation.” Ultimately, Austin Morris is looking to build a creative co-working gallery studio and this area is where he wants to set down his roots. The mural is just the first step.
Austin Morris’s design of the Armie Navie mural.
The Armie Navie Legacy – Final Copy by Sheila Janes