National Debate Has Austin Stores Asking: Should We Stop Selling Confederate Flags?
After a tragic shooting at a historical black church in Charleston, South Carolina this month, there’s been a growing national conversation on whether or not to display or sell symbols of the Confederacy.
National retailers Walmart, Amazon and eBay have all announced they will stop selling Confederate battle flag merchandise. Here in Austin, while some stores are also ending sales of Confederate flags and merchandise, others say they will continue to sell the products.
"Took mine down, and they're out of here," says Ed Hall, owner of The Quonset Hut, a military surplus store just north of the University of Texas at Austin campus.
Hall says his store is known as a place to buy historical military gear and memorabilia, which until this week included the Confederate battle flag as a Civil War history item. “In lieu of what’s happened recently, it’s kind of driven us to rethink that," he says. "And we’ve removed them from our shelves.”
Hall says that after the shooting and deaths in Charleston and seeing pictures of the shooter Dylann Roof posing with the Confederate battle flag, he changed his mind on selling the flag.
"He's taking what is historically significant, and he's turning it into a symbol of what people have been trying to bury for so many years," Hall says. "We were trying to carry it as a symbol of the history of the Civil War, but it’s become now such that people are propping it up again as a symbol of hatred and one-sided-ness, you know, against everybody that is striving for equality.”
A few miles up the road, however, another store is taking a different route when it comes to selling Confederate flags and merchandise.
On Wednesday at Banana Bay Tactical, a locally owned tactical supply and military surplus store in Central Austin, there were Confederate pins, patches and bumper stickers for sale. There were also several Confederate 'Rebel' flags for sale, with a large insignia in the middle reading 'The South Will Rise Again.'
Russ Krengel, who bought the store with his wife Jenny last year, says they have no plans to stop selling merchandise featuring Confederate symbols.
"We're not into politics, we're into pleasing our customers," Krengel says, noting that many of those customers come from law enforcement.
"We may consider removing the line in the future, but as it is right now, we're not making any big moves. It's really a non-issue in our eyes. If the rest of the world wants to blow up about it, that's fine, but none of our customers seem to care."
Krengel says he bought Banana Bay because he thinks of it as an "iconic" small local Austin business that was in danger of closing, one of those places that represents "all these cool, independent-minded people that are willing to work hard and keep Austin interesting." The business has been around 25 years.
“We do feel that a lot of that kind of symbolism of the [Confederate] flag, and those ideals, are kinda upon the customer and their choice of purchasing," says Gina Val Verde, manager at Banana Bay Tactical. "We do have very few items that have Confederate flags – you know magnets, stickers. They actually aren’t real huge sellers here.”
Up until last year, when the Krengels took over Banana Bay Tactical, it used to sell pins and memorabilia from World War II, including Soviet and even Nazi items featuring swastikas.
"That’s...kind of what was the draw of the store," Val Verde says. "People coming in to get those items you know you couldn’t get anywhere else. And unfortunately, very controversial items like that were purchased here, mainly because of their uniqueness.”
When the Krengels bought the store, they got rid of the Nazi paraphernalia and sold off much of their army surplus supply. Now the store focuses on military and tactical gear and clothing, which makes up most of their business.
So far, Krengel says, they haven’t heard from any customers that are offended by the Confederate flags and merchandise. They also say they haven’t seen increased demand for them, either.
Keri Heath contributed reporting.