By Massad Ayoob
There’s a human interest story behind every gun shop, and in each, one or more useful lessons for others in the firearms retailing business. This is certainly true of Osborne & Sons Gun Shop in the little town of Onalaska, Wash.
With a population of a bit under 800 souls, you wouldn’t think there would be a consumer base capable of sustaining a dedicated gun shop. However, Onalaska is in Lewis County with about 78,000 residents, and we are in a time of online shopping — particularly for specialty items. As a result, this village gun shop thrives.
Owner Randy Osborne says, “People who walk in here smile and say, ‘I just went back to my youth.’” Having been there many times myself, I can attest to Osborne’s claim. The shop is in an older building, which has a nostalgic charm of its own, but inside the customer finds racks and glass cases full of the guns he or she grew up longing for.
Yes, of course, there are AR-15s, Ruger 10/22s, Remington 870s and Model 700s and GLOCKs — and all of the usual suspects from popular brands. But there are also 19th century Winchesters, classic Mannlichers and Mausers, pristine vintage Model 70s and Belgian Brownings. In the handgun display cases, not far from the contemporary polymer pistolry, are early Colts, Smith & Wessons and more.
As a result of a recent visit, I now own a 1950s vintage flat-latch Chief Special Airweight — a well-cared for old S&W K-38 with the uncommon 8 3/8″ barrel. It’s the kind of gun a serious shooter would use in the center-fire stage of a bull’s-eye match, take home and clean and then load for home-defense duty.
Osborne & Sons has become a center for estate sales and antique guns. Customers have spread the word it’s a good place for one’s heirs to sell a gun collection, receive a good price and know their cherished possessions will be in appreciative new hands.
This, coupled with Osborne’s friendly attitude and encyclopedic knowledge of firearms, is what has made this establishment a destination store that brings in customers from a very wide area. A third of Osborne’s business takes place in the retail storefront area. To understand where the rest comes from, it helps to understand where the owner came from.
Now 63, Osborne was a country boy who grew up with gun and bow in hand.
“I was born in a back shed in Twining, Mich.,” he reminisced. “My brother and I wandered the state property that bordered our farm: 200 square miles of forest to hunt with our Mossberg 500 shotguns. At 17, I joined the Navy, served six years and in the reserves thereafter. I was a gunner’s mate, working on 5″ guns and .50s, as well as M14s and .45s.”
After leaving the service in 1981, Randy worked in construction and furniture refinishing and as a bartender, but any hopes of a career in the firearms industry were sidetracked by a long bout with cancer. A year of chemotherapy and a bone marrow transplant made him a grateful cancer survivor, and his job outlook took a turn in 1993 when a neighbor took him to a gun show in Centralia, Wash.
“I started going to gun shows here and there,” he relayed. “I was looking for Mauser rifle stocks when I met a stock-maker named Francis Sands. He sold me a bunch of stocks for $250, and I turned them around at a profit. After a while I met a man who collected Winchester rifle stocks, and he sold them all to me for $650; it worked out financially, too. People started asking me if I could rebuild rifle stocks, and given my background in rebuilding antique furniture, it turned out I could.”
A Stock Of Stocks
Osborne’s stock-making trade burgeoned from there.
“Carl Lindholm [long-time owner of a repair shop in nearby Oakville] let me use his duplicator, a Northstar machine that works like a pantograph. Then I bought my own, and now have a Terrco machine, which allows me to duplicate up to a 60″ stock.”
He started going to gun shows in The Evergreen State, renting 12 tables at the Puyallup show and 18 at the Lakewood gun show — generating more business.
“After that, I got my FFL and started buying guns just for their stocks, which left me with a whole lot of gun parts — so I started selling those separately,” Osborne continued. “The place I’m in now used to be Dennis Justice’s store, which had encompassed his mother’s general store and Dennis’ gun shop and gunsmithing facility. I bought it in 2010.”
Osborne’s friendly attitude and encyclopedic
knowledge of firearms is what has made this
establishment a destination store.
Osborne & Sons grew — in 2016 Osborne took on Donna Wolfe as an equal partner. “Donna does the business end,” Osborne explained, while he handles “the gun stuff.” Customers are charmed to find his nine-year-old grandson in the shop, working two hours a day as he learns the business, and doing a remarkably capable job for a lad his age.
Encompassing most of the front of the building’s first floor, the retail area is the tip of a deceptively large iceberg of stock-making equipment, parts storage and an inventory of more than 2,000 rifle and shotgun stocks.
The gun-parts business is also a significant part of the operation’s income stream. Osborne estimates he has some 200,000 gun parts (many of them hard-to-find components of out-of-production firearms) in inventory.
So, storefront retail generates approximately a third of the income stream, with stock sales another third and online sales making up the final third.
In the mix, for the first time, is training. Onerous gun laws recently passed in Washington State require a safety course to purchase any semi-automatic rifle, even a .22. Randy allows customers to take the course at his gun shop for $10.
Takeaway Sales Tips
A lesson to be gleaned here is this: Find a niche you can fill better than the competition. For Randy, it has been the gun parts and particularly the stock business sides of the house.
Yet another tip — a reality today as gun owners age — develop a reputation for giving widows fair prices for their late husbands’ gun collections. It gives peace of mind to customers when their own time comes and you benefit from the profit margin of used over new firearms. And it’s a classic example of “ethical business practice.”
Thirdly, when life gives you lemons make lemonade. Being based in an anti-industry state hasn’t deterred Osborne, and his autoloading rifle safety course is a good example of connecting with the community.
The old NYPD TV show “Naked City” always ended with the intonation, “There are 8 million stories in the Naked City. This has been one of them.” The corollary is there are stories in every gun shop any owner can learn from. This has been one of them — and there will be plenty more featured in these pages.