Ralph Broome doesn’t know how it will happen.
Catastrophic earthquake? Terrorist strike? Pandemic flu?
“The way the nation really is right now, everybody’s expecting something to happen,” he said.
Whatever kind of disaster awaits, Broome, 66, wants to be ready. He wants others to be ready, too.
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“We’re trying to educate people,” said Broome, a licensed hypnotherapist with his own practice. “Everybody needs it.”
To meet that need, Broome opened Carolina Preppers & Survivors supply shop in a strip mall on South Boulevard last month. The store offers freeze-dried food, body armor and ammunition.
In opening the business, Broome is tapping not only into a growing market but also a cultural movement. Prepping is garnering national attention, especially through National Geographic’s “Doomsday Preppers,” a reality show featuring families preparing for the end of civilization and receiving scores from consultants evaluating their likelihood of survival.
Preppers believe a local or global-scale emergency is imminent and take active steps to prepare for the eventuality of disaster.
Broome’s store caters to the hard-core (he sells gas masks) as well as the curious (most of the people walking into his fledgling business are doing so to see what it’s all about, Broome said).
Water-filtration straws line the shelves alongside military combat boots, an assortment of vacuum-packed gardening seeds and instruction manuals on booby traps and explosives, right below a military edition of the Bible.
There are five-day emergency kits that even FEMA says households should have. You’ll find stun guns and pepper spray but no guns, said Broome, who wants to keep his shop family-friendly.
He markets to sports enthusiasts, campers and people taking preemptive steps in case a devastating local or global-scale emergency strikes in Charlotte.
By specializing in survival inventory and not just military supplies, Broome, a retired U.S. Army sergeant and postal service worker, said he’s found a specific industry that resonates with his customers’ primary concerns.
“Everybody wants to protect themselves and their families,” Broome said. “It’s an investment, it’s an insurance, actually, for people. If they have what it takes to survive, this ensures they will survive or at least give them a better chance.”
Broome started prepping for the worst just before Y2K, when fears were rampant that a computer virus would shut down global computer networks on Jan. 1, 2000. For Broome, who began stockpiling food, water and first aid supplies, “it made sense ... just in the event something did happen.”
Nothing did, and Broome’s prepping activities stalled until the past four years when he said concerns about natural disasters and economic collapse convinced him to gather more necessities and secure a safe house in the mountains.
It’s a practice that has made for interesting television, but some members of the prepper community say their lifestyle is not as extreme as mass media would make it appear.
“If you’ve got a fire extinguisher in your home and fire insurance and a smoke alarm and an evacuation plan, that will make you a prepper,” said Tom Martin, founder of the American Preppers Network. “It can be anybody.”
“It’s not a fringe idea,” he said of prepping. “It’s an old idea. What’s new is the fact that people don’t get prepared.”
An August survey by the Federal Emergency Management Agency shows that 50 percent of American families have not discussed or developed an emergency plan in the event of a disaster.
Martin said social media and global news networks have increased awareness of the propensity for a catastrophe.
“Instead of a major disaster being 5,000 miles away from you, it’s hit a lot closer to home,” he said. “Before, people would think, ‘It will never happen to me.’ Now, they’re seeing it happens all over the place.”
Demand and popularity
Broome’s store joins several other who sell to Charlotte’s preppers.
Preppers Paradise in Matthews has been open for more than a year, and military-supply shops like Affordable Knife Shop and SRI Gear appear in online searches for prepper stores in the city. But Broome insists he’s different, moving beyond just providing military garb and weaponry.
“Most of what we have, other than the clothing, is not military,” he said.
Interest in prepping is growing, attracting people willing to spend money to store food or learn survival tips, said John Hulme, who organizes the annual Self Reliance Expo, a traveling convention of disaster preparedness speakers, presentations and companies.
The expo, which began in 2010, attracts 80 to 100 vendors and 4,000 to 5,000 people each year, Hulme said.
“There’s always more people if it’s fresh after a disaster,” he said, adding that smaller self-reliance expos are popping up in other states. “It has grown in demand and popularity.”
That demand drives Broome to spend at least $1,000 at military bases and warehouses in Mount Pisgah, Jacksonville and Fayetteville to stock the store at least every two months. Before the store opened, he spent up to $50,000 on its inventory. His practice at the Charlotte Hypnosis Center, he said, paid for mostly all of it.
Broome believes Charlotte has a very large prepping community, mainly comprised of people concerned about an economic nosedive.
“Are they paranoid? Not really,” Broome said. “They’re just ... survivors.”