The more I do this, the more I like hearing stories about how people figure it out.
“It” being life, betterment, the path to success.
Eddie Papczun’s path was non-traditional. Part of his life took him 100 feet beneath the Midwest prairie, where the 55-year-old former Cold War warrior served as a launch officer for a bunch of nuclear missiles.
From humble beginnings, with guidance and motivation from the Air Force, he became a guy who started with nothing and now sells to people who have everything.
The Air Force “was a confidence-builder . . . being part of something that was greater than me,” he says.
Papczun owns the Great Republic, a guys’ store with two upscale locations: one in downtown Washington’s new CityCenterDC and one in a Colorado Springs hotel, a jog from the Air Force Academy, from which his wife graduated.
The Great Republic isn’t Costco.
On the high end is a restored 1946 Indian Chief motorcycle for $65,000. If that’s more than you want to pay, you can fork over $4,500 for an 1829 travel map of the city of Washington. There’s also the handcrafted leather Ghurka bag for $1,495. Flasks, flags, leather satchels, leather restored chairs, even leather toothpick holders.
I asked the former missilier (that’s what they call the crews manning the U.S. intercontinental ballistic missile fleet): Who buys this stuff?
“Affluent men,” Papczun says. “Woman are fantastic customers. . . . Every woman says she has a husband, brother, father and uncle who are the hardest guys to buy for.”
Papczun opened the Colorado store three years ago and turned a profit within 18 months. The City CenterDC store has been open less than a year.
The company was profitable last year on just over $1 million in sales. The two stores combined grossed $250,000 in the last Christmas season. Papczun has three full- and four part-time employees.
Papczun said he learned important lessons from his first foray into retail, at a golf memorabilia store in Pebble Beach, Calif., called Golf Links to the Past. It's still there, but he no longer owns it.
He learned that “you can’t be in the business of what you like,” he says. “You have to sell what people will buy.
“I got fixated on one-of-a-kind, $20,000 items. I overpopulated our inventory with these types of things. I didn’t populate the store with walk-away items. Now we have things all the way down to $8, like a leather toothpick holder.”
For a guy who started with very little, Papczun has a good life. He is married to an Air Force general, and they live on a base in Colorado. He was on his way to Las Vegas last week to celebrate her birthday.
In addition to his stores, he owns four properties, including homes in the District, Colorado and Florida. He owns a share of a home in St. Andrews, Scotland, which he and his partners (mostly former servicemen) rented for $26,000 at the 2015 British Open.
Papczun didn’t start out in a world of $1,500 leather bags.
He grew up outside Cleveland, the second-oldest of five children whose father was a Teamster who worked on a dock on Lake Erie.
After high school, he found himself working on the factory floor at Stouffer’s frozen foods, stacking boxes.
He decided the Air Force was his way out. “I realized this cannot be my life. So I changed the dynamic.”
An Air Force recruiter told him he had to have a college degree to be a pilot. He scraped by at Kent State University, working three jobs to pay his way and learning how to be a student.
“Kent State opened my eyes to the world and exposed me to things beyond what I knew,” says the former blue-collar kid.
Papczun graduated in 1985, but his eyesight was not good enough to be a pilot.
For the next five years, from 1985 to 1990, he was a ground-based missilier, working out of a capsule buried in the earth about 70 miles southeast of Kansas City. He was responsible for 10 ICBMs, which carry nuclear warheads that could be sent to targets on the other side of the planet. From 1990 to 1992, he worked out of an airborne Boeing EC-135 unit based in South Dakota.
He had noodled around with historical documents and thought about his next career during quiet time on his 24-hour shifts beneath the Great Plains. Even back then, he was buying one-of-a-kind historical pieces, poring over catalogues, collecting signatures (he has one from astronaut Neil Armstrong) and working with a framer to see what he could create.
Papczun took a buyout from the Air Force in 1995 and used the $45,000 to turn his passion into a business. His first deals included selling a collection of historical presidential letters to a wealthy collector in South Dakota for $35,000. He put together some documents on Josiah Bartlett, a signer of the Declaration of Independence and a governor of New Hampshire, for a fellow Air Force officer who was a Bartlett descendant.
Papczun then jumped in his Isuzu and traveled the country looking for customers.
One of his first notable sales was a artifact related to legendary Notre Dame football coach Knute Rockne, which he sold for $2,500 to a bar owner in the university’s home town of South Bend, Ind.
He thought the only way to turn a hobby into a workable business was to focus on one genre. He picked golf and dove into Golf Links to the Past that same year.
He and his brother grew the business from late 1995 to the early 2000s, building a clientele of the rich and famous, including executives and millionaires. One client was the wife of the owner of Williams-Sonoma and Pottery Barn.
Then came 9/11.
“After 9/11, business went off the cliff,” Papczun says. “When things go bad, golf collectibles are not on people’s minds.”
They took on an investor, who helped stabilize the business and provided money to take over an 800-square-foot store at Pebble Beach, refitting it into a Golf Links to the Past brick-and-mortar shop.
Papczun and his brother eventually exited the golf business.
“I learned a big lesson,” he says. “Never lose control of your own company. And if you lose control, create an exit strategy and stick to it.”
Papczun married in 2008. He had earned a master’s degree in governmental affairs from George Washington University.
The retail junkie trolled the world, cherry-picking ideas from London, San Francisco, Glasgow, Paris. He teamed with a former Marine colonel, who kicked in $150,000. Papczun put in roughly an equal amount in product, and they launched the Colorado Springs store in 2013.
He started the Washington store last year, spending about $550,000 to open the doors.
His stores focus on an eclectic array of handcrafted, artisan products that celebrate American history. “Retail that succeeds in the 21st century is going to be about experience,” he says.
I asked him if he misses the Air Force.
Of course, Papczun said. But he really never left it.
“I get to do what I love, but I also live [in the Air Force] vicariously through my wife.”
Yes, and no longer stuck underground.