It’s a big place for a family operation and at least a couple generations of the Huntington family have run it as a destination for anglers and hunters. In addition to hundreds of new, used and consigned shotguns and rifles, it is a place where you can find everything from duck calls to the hottest flies for steelhead in the Feather River which is just blocks away.
More importantly, it is a place for information, accurate information about current fishing and hunting conditions in the general area, the kind of information that can save customers time, money and frustration. It is the kind of place that once existed and even thrived in just about every American town at a time when fishing and hunting was a way of life for many local residents. Today, Huntington’s Sporstman’s Store and others like it that remain, are rapidly becoming artifacts of a bygone era.
It was an era that began in the late 1800’s, when fishing and hunting were often an essential part of life and more of a vocation than avocation for many who needed to eat or sell what they shot or caught, and such stores were essential for supplies essential to their livelihoods.
For me, that era began around 60 years ago when as a young boy the glories of fishing and hunting as reported in a host of outdoor magazines and even the local newspapers filled my mind. There were numerous sporting goods stores that featured fishing and hunting gear and we visited them all, but my favorite was Stanley Andrews which was far and away the largest with an extensive inventory of rifles and shotguns and a custom rod building shop. Best of all was a glass freezer in front of the store’s location at 9th and B Street filled with recent notable catches by local anglers.
The entire experience of a visit to Stanley Andrews was nothing short of tantalizing to a young boy who genuinely dreamed of coaxing a five pound bass to attack his frog pattern Hula Popper or of one day being big enough to pull the trigger on a passing mallard. Best of all, everyone who worked in that store could answer his endless questions as to how, where and when those lofty goals could be accomplished, because those were things that they did themselves. They were outdoorsmen whose own experience and interest had led them to those jobs, jobs where they shared information, but no doubt kept a few secrets out of self-interest.
The fabric of the family owned and operated outdoor store began to unravel a bit with the expanding popularity of the mail order houses like Herter’s of Wasceca, Minnesota, which offered their own line of products, most of them very good, though not as good as George Leonard Herter’s insistent claim that every product he offered was the “world’s finest.”
Herter’s was not alone in a mail order shopping revolution that included L.L Bean and Eddie Bauer, among others. Things unraveled a bit more as outfits like Cabela’s, which in addition to their catalog sales expanded into a series of giant box stores at strategic locations around the country, joined by others like Bass Pro Shops, Scheels and Sportsman’s Warehouses. In some cases these outfits are so big and have the capacity to provide so much local sales tax revenue that they operate like the National Football League in requiring cities to bid for their hallowed presence.
And these are just the mega-stores that cater primarily if not exclusively to outdoor interests. Others like Dicks and Sports Authority include outdoor sections within a merchandising scheme of sporting goods in general.
What does the passing of one era to another mean to the customer? It would be hard to deny that the greater purchasing power of the mega-stores, including production of “private” labels does not translate into lower prices in some instances, greater selection or a one-stop shopping experience.
On the other hand, there are some detriments if in addition to shopping for merchandise, the customer needs the kind of critical information from a sale person that can come only with genuine experience and expertise. While some of the larger operations are cognizant of hiring employees with knowledge in a critical area – as in the case of a gun counter – the primary qualification for most is an aptitude or experience in retail sales.
This is not a totally new problem as illustrated by the following story and there is hardly anything more specialized than a shop that specializes in fly fishing. At one time, there was only one such shop in San Diego, and it served much of Southern California for fly tying materials. It was called Perry’s, a tiny shop on University Avenue and just across from what at the time was a huge Sears store.
Whitey Perry could be both charming and cantankerous and particularly the latter when treating his arthritis with brandy. As a young man, I often stopped in to visit with Whitey and listen to his fishing stories while trying to learn a little more about fly fishing.
I’ll never forget the day, one in which Whitey’s arthritis must have been particularly bad. A woman walked into the shop awkwardly clutching a rod and open face spinning reel in a serious state of disarray. The reel was mounted backwards and coils of tangled monofilament line dangled from the spool and onto the floor. The outfit was so new, it still carried its price tag.
Whitey carried nothing but fly tackle and eyed the woman with annoyance the moment she walked in the door.
“I bought this as a gift for my husband – it’s a Ted Williams brand and supposed to be very good – but I don’t know what happened and now it is all tangled and I don’t know what to do, can you help me?”
Knowing the answer, Whitey asked, “Did you buy it here?”
“No,” replied the woman, “I bought it at Sears,”
“Well then,” said Whitey, “I think you ought to take it back to Sears, and if Ted’s not there, show it to the person from appliances or lingerie who sold it to you and see if they can fix it for you.”