September 23, 2010
A disappearing part of our gun culture
My good friend Thomas "Newt" Hughston passed away recently. He was an exceptional man, well loved by many and highly respected in the community. But the reason I am sharing this personal tragedy here is because Newt was a gunsmith and dealer who ran a small shop in his backyard for more than 40 years. He was one of a dwindling breed whose love of guns prompted them to open a small gun business at their home. With every one that passes or closes up shop, we gun enthusiasts lose a valuable resource and an important part of our gun culture.
Thomas "Newt" Hughston was a master gunsmith who operated a shop behind his home for more than 40 years. In recent years the number of small shops such as his has declined drastically due to both political and economic reasons.
We live in an age of big business where most of our goods and services are purchased from chain stores. You only need to take a cross-country road trip to see that the shopping area of one town looks pretty much like all the others. The gun sections of the major outdoor chains do not vary much either.
I am not anti-big business. I know it is a natural development in our free-market economy and there are many benefits for consumers. But there is a downside.
Walk into any large outdoor chain outlet that sells firearms and your experience will likely be the same. You will see a big selection of firearms and accessories for sale at good prices. Standing in front of the long gun rack and behind a glass counter will be a usually friendly but often inept salesperson. If you are very lucky, you may get waited on by someone who knows something about guns. But most often a trip to the gun counter means someone is available to hand you the guns you want to look at and generally keep his erroneous opinions to a minimum. You can count yourself lucky if he spends 10 minutes with you before he is pulled away by another customer in another department.
A visit to Newt Hughston's shop, before he closed up a couple of years ago, was quite a different experience. It was not a place for the high-strung or the penny pincher only interested in the cheapest gun he could find that would send bullet or shot downrange. Those people would quickly become flustered and head on over to the nearest Wal-Mart. But real gun enthusiasts found Newt's place was not only filled with guns with character, it was a haven, a place to relax and talk guns and maybe learn a thing or two.
If the weather was nice, you would usually find Newt seated at the end of the picnic table in front of the shop bringing a sick gun back into service. If Jack Hawkins, Newt's right-hand man and a gifted gunsmith in his own right, was not seated at the other end of the table, he was probably in the shop. He would come out soon enough if you happened to number among one of his many friends and regular customers.
If you were a friend, the first order of business was to catch up on the health and happiness of family. You didn't get an obligatory, "May I help you?" but rather a sincere invitation to sit down and visit awhile. Then an off-color joke or tall tale or two would be told, and finally it would get down to guns and why you were there. If you were a stranger, the scenario played out much the same, if you were agreeable.
Newt's little shop was not the first of its kind I have frequented over the years. I have fond memories of many such places. Another place that springs to mind was Herb Campbell's basement back in the late '60s and early '70s. Few gun shops in the area sold reloading supplies then. Herb specialized in it. I bought my first reloading press there, and Herb set it up on his bench and spent a couple of hours teaching me to use it. Try finding that level of service in a large gun shop today.
These small gun shops of my past were far more than a place to buy things or get a gun repaired. The best of them were owned and operated by knowledgeable men with a true passion for firearms. They often became my friends and sometimes my mentors. The oil and dust smell of these places will forever be as sweet in my memory as the aroma of Hoppe's Number 9.
Not all small gun dealers are knowledgeable, salt-of-the-earth types, of course. As with any business, there are a few shady characters, but there are very few in my experience. Most deal in guns because they love firearms, and only a fool would expect to make a lot of money running a small shop from home.
If you doubt how quickly these places are disappearing from the American scene, consider some statistics. In the early 1990s there were more gun dealers in this country than gasoline stations. The Clinton administration decided that there were too many. Stricter and more onerous regulations have helped reduce that number by 80 percent in the last decade. There are other factors, of course, most notably the aforementioned super stores that often offer guns for less money than a small dealer can buy them wholesale.
That is progress, I suppose. I enjoy a visit to one of the large outdoor chains as much as the next person, and I appreciate the fact that I can go online and have shooting and reloading supplies delivered to my door. But shopping has become somewhat sterile and impersonal. I long for a rustic building out back of some crusty codger's home where I can look through an assortment of firearms old and new and haggle to my heart's content.