Ca­bela’s finds its crowd

The mega­s­tore just down the road from Wash­ing­ton is cheered by out­doors en­thu­si­asts as a vic­tory for gun rights

The Washington Post Sunday - - BUSINESS - BY ABHA BHATTARAI IN GAINESVILLE, VA.

The cam­ou­flage rib­bon was in place. Fif­teen yards away and 21 feet off the ground, archer Jeff Ware pumped his fist into the air, cocked his bow and re­leased. The ar­row pierced the rib­bon in one go, and the crowd went wild. “Y’all ready to go shop­ping?” Ware shouted. “Whoo!” And with that, the doors of the re­gion’s first Ca­bela’s — the chain of hunt­ing, fish­ing and camp­ing gear stores — swung open and 2,000 peo­ple streamed in, clap­ping and cheer­ing.

This open­ing, many shop­pers said, was proof that Don­ald Trump’s Amer­ica is thriv­ing, even near the na­tion’s cap­i­tal. The mega­s­tore — about 35 miles up the road from the White House — is the com­pany’s 86th lo­ca­tion and its clos­est to Wash­ing­ton. Among its of­fer­ings: an in­door archery range, a gun li­brary with an­tiques that cost as much as $6,500, and a dis­play of spe­cial firearms do­nated by the Na­tional Ri­fle As­so­ci­a­tion. Open­ing week­end fes­tiv­i­ties in­cluded an all-ages BB gun shoot­ing range in the park­ing lot.

In short, shop­pers her­alded the new store as a vic­tory for Vir­ginia gun own­ers. Many said they feel un­der­rep­re­sented in a state that would have put Hil­lary Clin­ton in of­fice (she skimmed past Don­ald Trump here with 50 per­cent of the vote). Mean­while, back in Sid­ney, Neb., where Ca­bela’s is head­quar­tered, 79 per­cent of res­i­dents had voted for Trump.

“It’s a con­stant bat­tle, keep­ing our gun rights,” said Wil­liam Fisher, 71, of Hay­mar­ket, Va., who got his first gun at age 16. “The fact that Ca­bela’s is here now, and that they carry firearms, is an­other step in the right

di­rec­tion.”

Among the first in the door was Dustin Heinssen from Culpeper, Va., who had been wait­ing out­side for 13 hours in a sleep­ing bag. He held his 6-month-old daugh­ter, McKenzie, who had joined him in the morn­ing wear­ing a pink cam­ou­flage cap that said, “I hunt for hugs.”

“Ca­bela’s is awe­some,” he said. “I was hop­ing to pos­si­bly get some more guns.”

In a re­gion full of them, Ca­bela’s stands as its own mon­u­ment to gun rights. Among the first things cus­tomers see when they walk in is the Sec­ond Amend­ment, etched floor-to-ceil­ing in stone at the store’s en­trance: “A well reg­u­lated Mili­tia, be­ing nec­es­sary to the se­cu­rity of a free state, the right of the peo­ple to keep and bear Arms, shall not be in­fringed.”

There are other pa­tri­otic dis­plays through­out the 79,999-square-foot space, too: A Bill of Rights mu­ral at the front of the store flanked by buf­falo and bald ea­gle mounts, and an homage to Pres­i­dent Teddy Roo­sevelt in the gun li­brary.

“We wanted to do a pa­tri­otic theme for this store, since this is the na­tion’s cap­i­tal,” said Nathan Borowski, a spokesman for the com­pany. “There’s a lot of out­door her­itage here — and see­ing how the NRA’s head­quar­ters are just down the street, it just made a lot of sense.”

Breath­ing eas­ier with Trump at the helm

The U.S. Con­sti­tu­tion mat­ters a lot to shop­pers like Guy Arndt, 63. He had driven more than two hours from Au­gusta, W.Va., to see the store.

Arndt was buy­ing two chairs, ri­fle primers and a dog col­lar for his Ger­man coon­hound mix.

No guns to­day, though. “You name it and I al­ready have it,” he said. But he couldn’t re­mem­ber how many.

“Hey, Bradley,” he shouted to his son, “how many guns do we have al­to­gether?” Bradley shrugged. “60?” Like many oth­ers here, Arndt says he is re­lieved after Pres­i­dent Trump’s vic­tory. For weeks be­fore the elec­tion, he had wor­ried that Clin­ton would win the pres­i­dency and threaten his gun rights. To pre­pare, he bought a ri­fle and stocked up on am­mu­ni­tion.

“I re­ally don’t know what would’ve hap­pened had she got­ten in there and done what she said she was go­ing to do to,” Arndt said. “It would’ve killed the Sec­ond Amend­ment.”

Clin­ton had called for clos­ing loop­holes that al­low peo­ple to buy guns on­line or at gun shows with­out un­der­go­ing crim­i­nal back­ground checks. She also vowed to “keep mil­i­tary-style weapons off our streets.” (It’s quite com­pli­cated to kill a con­sti­tu­tional amend­ment, re­quir­ing ac­tion by both houses of Congress and state law­mak­ers.)

It is well-doc­u­mented that gun sales ebb and flow de­pend­ing on who is in the White House. A Demo­cratic pres­i­dent — or the ex­pec­ta­tion of one — can send gun sales soar­ing to record highs. A Repub­li­can pres­i­dent gen­er­ally has the op­po­site ef­fect, and Trump is no ex­cep­tion.

In the two months since Trump took of­fice, gun­sale back­ground checks have fallen 18 per­cent com­pared with a year ear­lier, ac­cord­ing to FBI data.

Gun­mak­ers’ stocks have also tum­bled: Share prices of Amer­i­can Out­door Brands, for­merly Smith & Wes­son Hold­ing, have fallen as much as 34 per­cent since elec­tion night. Sturm, Ruger & Co.’s stock, mean­while, is down about 20 per­cent.

“You’ve never had a bet­ter ad­min­is­tra­tion for the gun in­dus­try than Obama,” Bob Evans, an an­a­lyst for Pen­ning­ton Cap­i­tal said on a re­cent call with Sturm, Ruger & Co. ex­ec­u­tives. “And now, never a worse one for the gun in­dus­try than Trump.”

Fisher, the 71-year-old from Hay­mar­ket, doesn’t see it that way. Right after the elec­tion, he went out and bought an­other hand­gun. (He de­clined to say how many he owns but said he also has two hunt­ing ri­fles and a shot­gun.) He takes the 9mm with him most ev­ery­where he goes.

He wor­ries. Peo­ple seem on edge th­ese days. It’s more im­por­tant than ever, he said, to be armed.

“I hate to say this, but I won’t be sur­prised if we start to see some ma­jor at­tacks in this coun­try,” Fisher said. “I’ve never seen peo­ple as di­vided as they are now.”

The re­tired ma­chine main­te­nance worker says he’s glad Trump is in the White House — he do­nated $200 his cam­paign, and most days he wears a cam­ou­flage “Make Amer­ica Great Again” cap.

Trump, he said, is the first pres­i­dent who talks like he does and seems to un­der­stand the is­sues im­por­tant to him, like clamp­ing down on il­le­gal im­mi­gra­tion and loos­en­ing gun laws. His biggest hope, Fisher said, is that Trump will de­liver on his prom­ise to make con­cealed-carry per­mits valid in all 50 states. Right now, Fisher said, it is dif­fi­cult to take road trips across the coun­try with his gun in tow.

“If I want to drive up to Ni­a­gara Falls, I’ve got to check ev­ery state to make sure I’m com­pli­ant,” he said. “It’s a big has­sle, and com­pletely un­nec­es­sary.”

‘They love this store’

Ca­bela’s ex­ec­u­tives said they homed in on Gainesto ville be­cause they knew the de­mand was there. Thou­sands of lo­cals were al­ready cus­tomers of the com­pany’s web­site and cat­a­logues, and many oth­ers had vis­ited its other stores. And it didn’t hurt that Vir­ginia has more than 2 mil­lion acres of pub­lic hunt­ing land. This is the third Ca­bela’s in the state to open in as many years. The oth­ers are in Bris­tol and Short Pump.

“We knew we had a lot of cus­tomers here,” said Borowski, the spokesman. “This crowd — 5,000 peo­ple in two hours — def­i­nitely shows we made the right choice.”

The first cus­tomers had ar­rived, he said, by Tues­day at 4 p.m. Now it was Thurs­day morn­ing at 10, and the crowd had swelled to thou­sands. The night be­fore, more than 200 peo­ple had slept out­side, scat­ter­ing tents, cots and sleep­ing bags along the perime­ter of the store, wait­ing for it to open.

“It’s al­most like they were tail­gat­ing,” Borowski said. “They love this store.”

Chris S., who is 41 and de­clined to give his last name, had driven nearly five hours from Le­banon, N.J., to be at the open­ing. He wore a red “Make Amer­ica Great Again” cap and was look­ing to add an air ri­fle to his col­lec­tion of a dozen pis­tols.

“This is like Toys R Us for me,” he said, stand­ing un­der an antler chan­de­lier in the store’s gun li­brary. “Since I’m here, maybe I’ll buy some ammo and scopes, some other gear, too.”

Over by the store’s archery range, Michael Thomp­son, 22, and two friends were eye­ing a dis­play of cross­bows. Be­tween the three of them, they had 14 guns and were con­sid­er­ing buy­ing more.

“Com­ing here when you’re a gun en­thu­si­ast is kind of like go­ing to a gro­cery store while you’re hun­gry,” said Thomp­son, from Bris­tow, Va. “You just want to buy ev­ery­thing.”

A multi­bil­lion-dol­lar in­dus­try

Since its found­ing in 1961 as a mail-or­der fish­ing bait ser­vice, Ca­bela’s has built a loyal fol­low­ing at its 86 stores, which have be­come a one-stop shop for all types of out­doors gear. Last year, the com­pany had sales of $4.13 bil­lion, dou­ble what it did a decade ear­lier.

In Oc­to­ber, ri­val Bass Pro Shops an­nounced plans to take over the com­pany for about $5.5 bil­lion. An­titrust reg­u­la­tors have since raised con­cerns about the merger. The deal has yet to be fi­nal­ized.

But busi­ness at Ca­bela’s has slipped in re­cent years be­cause of com­pe­ti­tion from smaller out­fit­ters and on­line re­tail­ers. In the first half of 2016, the num­ber of pur­chases at the com­pany’s stores fell by more than 8 per­cent. New mega­s­tores like the one in Gainesville are part of Ca­bela’s plans to at­tract large swaths of cus­tomers from new parts of the coun­try.

A cou­ple of hours in, it seemed to be work­ing. More than 5,000 peo­ple had been through the store’s front doors. An­other hun­dred or so waited out­side.

“This is un­real, just un­real,” said Gary Lawrence, 70, who has about 25 guns. “The lines were so long we could see them from the in­ter­state.”

By the time Jen­nifer McClure made it to the check­out counter, she had been at Ca­bela’s for nearly four hours. She and her 2-year-old daugh­ter had ar­rived at 7:50 a.m. “My hus­band got called into work; oth­er­wise, he’d have been there, too,” she said.

A few yards away, a man pushed a boy in a shop­ping cart through a dis­play of 3-D shoot­ing tar­gets.

“Deer, deer, duckie, gob­ble gob­ble,” said the child, wear­ing a cam­ou­flage pullover. “Deer, deer, deer. So many deer.”

Back in the gun li­brary, 25-year-old Carissa Phillips picked up a ri­fle. Her Smith & Wes­son pis­tol was tucked into her denim skirt. Her 12-gauge shot­gun was at home.

“This is one of my fa­vorite guns,” she said, mov­ing her fin­gers down the bar­rel of the lever-ac­tion 30-30. “It’s got that Old West­ern-y feel that I love.”

The ri­fle — which costs be­tween $500 and $700 — is the next big pur­chase on her list. Some­times, she said, she bor­rows her friend’s to hunt deer in her fam­ily’s back yard in War­ren­ton, Va. But re­ally, she’d like to buy her own.

To­day, though, is not the day. She leaves Ca­bela’s with just one item: a cof­fee mug printed with the Bill of Rights, for $6.99.

“But I’ll def­i­nitely be back,” she said. “I’m go­ing to buy that ri­fle.”

“We wanted to do a pa­tri­otic theme for this store, since this is the na­tion’s cap­i­tal.” Nathan Borowski, a spokesman for the com­pany

PHOTOS BY MATT MCCLAIN/THE WASH­ING­TON POST

At top, cus­tomers line up for the March 9 open­ing of the Ca­bela’s mega­s­tore in Gainesville, Va. At right, a sam­pling of the store’s wares.

PHOTOS BY MATT MCCLAIN/THE WASH­ING­TON POST

TOP: Em­ploy­ees are seen through a win­dow be­fore the March 9 open­ing of the Ca­bela’s store in Gainesville, Va. It is the third Ca­bela’s in the com­mon­wealth. CEN­TER: Jeff Ware cel­e­brates after us­ing a com­pound bow to cut the rib­bon for the open­ing. ABOVE: “This is one of my fa­vorite guns,” said Carissa Phillips of the lever-ac­tion 30-30.

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