Does anyone remember the old Abercrombie & Fitch Company, back when it reflected the original 1892 vision of David T. Abercrombie and later, Ezra Fitch? When, as an upscale sporting goods store throughout the 20th century, Abercrombie & Fitch sold things like plaid shirts, leather boots, fishing creels, hunting knives and guns? Well, not to date myself, but I do. Therefore, I had a bit of a culture shock about twenty years ago when I innocently stepped inside a “new” Abercrombie & Fitch store that had just opened in my nearby mall, expecting to find something that I did not.
I thought I might look at some high-grade side-by-side shotguns and maybe pick up a Stetson if they had my size. Instead, what I found was a fashionista’s playground featuring larger-than life-sized posters of semi-nude male and female models who barely looked old enough to qualify for a hunting license. Not that they would have had one. That description also applied to the sales clerks, as well as the customers strutting around with their “look at me” attitudes. In fact, their curious glances in my direction made me quickly realize I was the oldest guy in the store. And I was definitely in the wrong place and intruding upon their territory. Needless to say, I adroitly navigated past the racks of tapered and tattered designer clothes and made a hasty and much-relieved exit. That evening I consoled myself by pouring a stiff Booker’s on the rocks and watching The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly on television. But it was obvious things had changed–the store that once outfitted such renowned hunters as Theodore Roosevelt, Ernest Hemingway, Clark Gable and Dwight D. Eisenhower was no more.
All of this was brought back to me last year when I read a June 18, 2015 Bloomberg Business article entitled, “Your Grandfather’s Abercrombie & Fitch Would Be a Hit Today,” that dealt with the rise and financial fall of A&F, which went out of business in 1977, revamped its image and has yet to recover. It was initially acquired by Oshman’s Sporting Goods of Houston, Texas, which kept much of its outdoors-themed appeal in the decade that followed. But that all changed when A&F was subsequently purchased – in name but definitely not in spirit–by Limited Brands in 1988. Thus began the depressing transformation of what was once, in the store’s own words, “Complete outfitters for explorers, campers, prospectors, (and) hunters.”
The Bloomberg article’s author, Kyle Stock, rightfully suggested that the new Abercrombie & Fitch–which has been floundering financially–might still find salvation by returning, in part at least, to restocking some of the outdoorsy-themed products that are becoming trendy again, in what the media is calling the “Lumbersexual” look. That is, guys who want to look like they shot and butchered the wild boar steaks they actually bought online. However, one must assume that Stock, being a Bloomberg writer, wasn’t referring to guns and ammo in his suggestions that A&F return to its roots. Nonetheless, the fact remains that today’s Abercrombie & Fitch is not the old A&F I remember.
I am too young (a relative term, I realize) to have experienced their flagship New York City store on the corner of Madison Avenue and East 45th Street, a mammoth enclave that opened in 1917 and occupied all twelve floors of the building, which included a log cabin (that Fitch used as his city townhouse) and a casting pool. Besides entire floors devoted to hunting and fishing, there were skiing, archery, skin-diving and lawn game departments, men and women’s outdoors clothing arranged according to the climatic conditions they might encounter on expedition, plus golf and fly-and bait-casting instructors, and even a basement shooting range. One can hardly image such an in-store attraction in New York City today.
However, back in those halcyon years, Abercrombie & Fitch even sold racks of Winchester 1873 rifles that their gun department purchased and then had specially engraved and gold plated as special A&F editions. And in 1930, when the noted rifle making firm of Griffin & Howe fell upon hard times caused by The Great Depression, A&F president James S. Cobb, who was Fitch’s brother-in-law, purchased G&H from Seymour Griffin and made it part of the Abercrombie & Fitch empire.
Of course, all of that, like the original company itself, is in the past. But not the memories. I still remember, during the Oshman years, when a new Abercrombie & Fitch was scheduled to open in Beverly Hills near where I lived. The year was 1979 and, in addition to pith helmets, tweed coats and exercise machines, the gun department was going to stock the Smith & Wesson Model 29, the hottest handgun in America at the time, thanks to the “Dirty Harry” craze that was sweeping the country. You could rarely find these wheelguns anywhere and when you did, they were going for more than double their suggested retail price. But the rumor was A&F would be opening with three of the .44 Magnums, one in each barrel length–4, 6 1/2, and 8 3/8 inches–and selling them at their catalogued price! Needless to say, I was one of the first in line when the doors opened at 9 a.m. I sprinted up the mezzanine steps and promptly purchased the 8 3/8 inch version at a discounted price, because the salesman couldn’t find the gun’s case. Later, when I returned to pick up the revolver, the case had been found, but they honored their discounted price. I still have that Model 29 today, even though the store is long gone.
Another great upscale Beverly Hills sporting goods store no longer with us is Kerr Sport Shop, which was located at 9584 Wilshire Boulevard. Opened in the 1930s by champion shotgunner Alex Kerr, who was also one of the founders of the National Skeet Shooting Association, Kerr’s was a fixture for the Hollywood shooting set, and was often frequented by Robert Stack and Gary Cooper, among others. It was at Kerr’s that I met actor Robert Blake when he was starring in Beretta on TV. And I once walked into the store just minutes after Elvis Presley left, after buying a shotgun for another customer–a complete stranger–simply because the fellow said he liked it. Oh, if I had only been there a few minutes earlier!
But memories are still being made by a new era of what can best be called Super Sporting Goods Stores. The monolithic caverns of some of the newest Bass Pro Shops come immediately to mind, with their spacious indoor re-creations of the Great Outdoors, complete with lakes, swamps and log cabins, not to mention hunting, fishing, archery merchandise, gift items and a range of clothing that might even put Abercrombie & Fitch to shame.
Cabela’s is another destination for those who want to be entertained while they shop, with huge indoor life-sized dioramas of mountains and forests replete with excellent taxidermy, aquariums and extensive gun libraries staffed by knowledgeable sales people who will get on the phone and search for a gun you want at another Cabela’s if it isn’t in their store.
But when it comes to elegance, few can match the Beretta Galleries, which are located in Milan, Paris, London, Buenos Aires, Dallas, Memphis and New York, and are the inspiration of Fabrica D’Armi Pietro Beretta S.p.A. This family-owned company has been crafting firearms in Brescia, Italy, since 1526, making it the oldest firearms manufacturer in the world. In each of their Galleries, in addition to Beretta’s branded clothing, sporting accessories, books and gift items, you will find a range of their firearms, including commemoratives. You can even order a bespoke $25,000 limited edition Beretta Model 486 by famed designer Marc Newson, whose smoothly sculpted stylings have influenced everything from furniture and aircraft to the Apple Watch. And yet, as a sign of our times, although Beretta’s New York Gallery, located at 718 Madison Avenue and modeled after the Beretta family’s home in Gardone Val Trompia, Italy includes some of the company’s finest sporting rifles and shotguns, you will not find any of their handguns, thanks to New York City’s misguided gun laws.
Thus, the era of the great gun stores is not ending–it’s just evolving to meet the next generation of hunters.–Richard Carleton Hacker