Paradise military surplus business re-establishes presence in Chico
The stench of the Camp Fire permeated the cold warehouse in south Chico.
It was a month after the fire destroyed Maurice Huffman’s military surplus business in Paradise, melting 40,000 square feet of merchandise, including priceless items collected over decades. It was back to square one for Huffman and the roughly 12 employees who stuck around. No computers. No inventory. Just phones.
There also was the fear of being left in the dust. Huffman said only four companies do what his Swiss Link Military Surplus does—importing military surplus and selling at wholesale—“and we are the tiny one.”
“I could have been wiped out right there and then from the competition—easily,” Huffman said. “I’ve been a thorn in those big companies’ back for a long time.”
Huffman said he and his crew at Swiss Link, which was founded 25 years ago, took a beating but are on the upswing. They’ve been operating out of a warehouse on Hegan Lane and have plans to move to a new building nearby on the Midway by April. Continuing operations in Chico is an exciting prospect, Huffman said, but the road to recovery has been arduous.
“We had to call all of our customers and tell them that we’re still alive and we’re still in business,” Huffman told the CN&R. “Everything was just smelling bad, and everything was still chaos. Traffic. People. … The first six months and [the] whole year—it’s the craziest I’ve ever experienced.”
Huffman—perhaps best known locally as the frontman of Big Mo & The Full Moon Band—lost much in the fire, including his family home and rental properties, music equipment and master recordings, and some of his soul. A prolific songwriter, Huffman said the melodies vanished after the blaze (see “Post-fire blues,” April 11, 2019).
In those early months, Huffman tried coping by staying busy. He flew to Europe to meet with vendors, finding pallets of old military gear to ship back to Chico for repurposing. He also devoted much of his energy to making sure those around him were OK. It got to the point where, Huffman said, he’d become physically exhausted, but couldn’t sleep. Performing helped.
“All this stuff is so almost soul-sucking, but when you do the music, it’s soul-filling,” he recalled. “If I had a gig that wore me out totally, that’s when I could sleep. That’s when I felt best.”
Now, things are looking up for Swiss Link. The business is becoming fun again, Huffman said, and customers—including antique shops, surplus stores and specialty shops—are calling. He’s also been amassing new gear and novelty items—such as British Royal Mail carrier bags—and looking forward to moving into a new 20,000-square-foot building. Construction is underway.
On a recent walk through his warehouse, Huffman noted a particularly interesting collection he found while on a trip to Italy last year: boxes full of porcelain made for Italian Air Force officers in 1950. He shipped back tea cups, saucers, plates, bowls and egg cups—all of which feature the military branch’s insignia.
“This stuff is awesome,” Huffman said. “It’s so much fun to find new, exciting things.”
After the fire, Huffman and his wife, Robin, a former member of the Paradise Town Council, moved into a straw bale house in the rolling hills west of Corning. After living in cities and towns, Huffman said the solitude of life on a ranch has taken some getting used to. But there is one comfort: very few trees. He acknowledged he has yet to shake the trauma of the fire and its spread through the pines in Paradise.
Huffman considered re-establishing Swiss Link on the Ridge, but he’s approaching his 60th birthday and said joining the years-long rebuild there didn’t make much sense. Plus, he’s looking forward to entrenching himself in the business community in south Chico, where Build.com and Lulus.com have operations.
Then there’s the music. Huffman said his goal, by the time he’s 61, is to complete a small bus tour, playing nightly. He’s reacquired instruments and built a small studio.
“I’m having time to do some music, which is really good,” he said. “I got all my instruments back. I just did a really fun gig at the Torch Club in Sacramento and discovered I could still do it.”
Further, about three months ago—with the help of a friend at Thanksgiving—he had a breakthrough.
“The melodies started coming in again,” he said.
Huffman has been working on a song since then. It’s incomplete, he said, and the lyrics are a work in progress. But it has a title.
“Shine On,” Huffman said.