Tuesday, November 23, 2010

From The Other Side of The Table

Over the weekend, I worked at The Nation's Gun Show in Chantilly, Virginia. I have only ever missed one show at that location, their very fist. I would have been there if I hadn't been in California at the time. After seeing the same vendors a few times a year for several years, I got to know some of the regulars who always worked the Chantilly show.
While buying my very first handgun, I wound up leaving my driver's license at the show. That day, I had only paid for one day's admission to the show, so i had to go back the next day and get it back. The woman who had forgotten to give it back apologized up and down, but I didn't really mind. This minor inconvenience just gave me an excuse to go back to the show.

Since that event, I always recognized the woman who'd forgotten to give me back my license. I regularly teased her about it. At a later show, I met her husband. Over the years I purchased a few inexpensive guns from him, including my first Jimenez pistol. Each show i would ask the couple how business was going, what was new, and other small talk. I also saw them at gun shows in other parts of the state.

A couple of mouths ago, I was asked if I could help them sell guns and accessories at an upcming Chantilly show. We did not discuss payment, but I knew these people would treat me well. After dealing with them for several years as a customer, i was quite confident these folks wouldn't screw me. In the gun show circuit, if you screw over somebody, others at the show will definately be hearing about it. Having a good reputation gets a vendor far in this business, often getting referrals from other dealers across the show.

Let me give you a little background information about the Chantilly show. Until a few years ago, there was a waiting limit to buy a handgun in some parts of Virginia. Each county, town, or city could decide whether or not they wanted a wait period on the sale of a handgun. Fairfax County (with over a million residents) decided that handgun buyers shouldn't be able to get their handguns in one single visit to a gun shop. Because of this waiting period, many people interested in buying guns would drive an hour or so to a nearby county that did not have a waiting period. Because of the waiting period in Fairfax County, no one wanted to hold a gun show in the area.

There was change in the legislation of Virginia in 2004 or 2005 that said municipalities and counties could no longer preempt state firearm laws. All wait limits on the purchase of handguns were eliminated, as well as a few other gun rights issues such as the bans on open carry that some areas (such as Alexandria) had on their books for decades.

Shortly after the waiting period was eliminated, the first gun show in almost half a century was held in Fairfax County. The capital expo center (also known as The Dulles Expo Center) was once a Sam's club and a Builder's Square. Both of these big box businesses failed and the land sat dormant for a few years. The two vacant buildings were then turned into show halls sharing a parking lto area. At times, The Nation's Gun Show occupied one building while a vintage militaria and surplus show occupied the other structure. These two-fer gun shows offered visitors over 1,500 tables of guns, ammo, accessories, jewelry, leather, and jerky.

The regular Nation's gun show offers 1,000 vendor tables and occurs about four times a year. Wealthy people from Northern Virginia are known to go into these gun shows with money burning a hole in their pockets. I have observed that the Chantilly show has higher prices than shows in Fredericksburg or Doswell, likely due to the fact that the clientele of a Chantilly show will likely pay the higher prices. People in northern Virginia (the wealthy part of the state) can afford to pay more than people living in other areas of the state and vendors definitely capitalize on that fact.

I worked THe Nation's Gun Show on November 19, 20, and 21 of 2010. The Chantilly shows are always open on Friday afternoon at 3pm while also offering the more conventional gun show times of 9-5 on Saturday and 10-5 on Sunday. I worked all three days, totaling 21 and 3/4 hours of labor. During the course of the show, I sold a few handguns, a shotgun, and countless accessories such as cleaning products and holsters. Many of the business transactions done at gun shows are cash, so by the end of each day working at the show, I had a decent wad of cash in my pocket. This money was my boss's money, not mine, so I had to make sure I kept my money in a different pocket.

On the second day of my 3 days working at the show, my boss and I discussed my compensation for working. The couple I was working for had already given me a Jimenez Arms JA32 as advance payment for the gun show, but he said that he would pay me more. I was doing a great job, required no training, and saved him some money versus him bringing someone with him from his part of the state. When he has brought people from his area, he had to pay for a hotel room and to feed them. Because of the expense of room and board, the workers were only paid $50 per day. Since I was local and didn't require a hotel room, I was told I would get $75 a day or an equivalent trade in guns.

Later that day, I told a fellow vendor that his price on a used Kel-Tec P32 was way too high. The gun had significant slide wear and did not come with a box or any paperwork, but the vendor still wanted $275 for it. Elsewhere at the show, brand new P32s were selling for about $240. After telling the vendor's assistant that his price was high, the vendor lowered the price to $175. I believe the gun was just mismarked. When I showed interest in the gun at it's new lower price, the vendor's assistant said that he could work on the price a little bit because friends help other friends. Although the gun seemed appealing, I also wanted to make some money at the show to spend on Christmas presents.

The following day, I discussed the small 32 with my boss. He said that since my Jimenez JA32 had a value of about $125 and he was planning on paying me $75 per day, he would still owe me $100. He said that if i wanted to (no pressure of course), I could put in $60 of my own money and get the gun. At $160, the gun seemed like a good deal considering I'd only be paying $60 for it. Because of the minimal investment, I decided to go ahead and pull the trigger on the deal. Yes, that pun was intended.

I wrote about my negative experiences with Kel-Tec products elsewhere in this blog, but I thought that I might as well give the P32 a try. The gun looked well-used, so I assume it was carried a lot. If someone trusted it enough to carry extensively, I bet the gun functioned well. In hindsight, the gun could have broken and been sold off, but for a mere $60 out of pocket, I was willing to take my chances.

Over the course of that weekend, I learned a lot. I learned that the gun business isn't an easy way to make money. Some of the people that patrons see selling guns at gun shows are doing the show circuit for extra money to supplement their gun shop or pawn shop elsewhere in the state. Others do the show circuit as a way to survive, traveling around the state weekend after weekend for much of the year. I would not like to work over twenty hours over a period of 3 days, then have to drive home a good 4 hours. I have a lot more respect for these gun show sellers than I ever have before.

Many gun show patrons attend shows because they are a fun experience. I have always enjoyed standing in line during the fall or winter months. I would usually get there an hour before the opening of the show, freezing my ass off, waiting with excitement to see the newest models on the market or to see where prices had gone on my favorite calibers and brands of ammo. This stuff interests me. It isn't just a hobby for me, it is a passion.

For the people standing on the other side of the table, gun shows are not fun. They area a way for many hard working and honest people to put food on the table. Being on the seller's side of the table, I really got to see the whole gun show experience in a vastly different light. I used to try and haggle with certain sellers for a better price, whether it was to get them to throw in the tax or get something like a holster thrown in on the deal. After seeing what these people go through every weekend and how low their prices have to be in order to stay competitive, I will never again try to dicker with these people about a few bucks. Their prices are already good to begin with, far cheaper than any of the local brick and mortar gun shops. Yes, $5 off of a gun is $5 saved, but everyone has a right to make a living. I sincerely believe that the majority of the sellers at these shows are there out of necessity, not to just make a little extra money for their business.

I don't know if I'll ever work another show again. I haven't been on my feet working on a concrete floor for many years. Back when i worked retail (and weighed a good 50 pounds less), i could handle being on my feet for 8 hours at a time without hurting too badly. Working desk jobs for the past several years didn't exactly prep me for the gun show circuit. Working the biggest gun show in the state was definitely a great learning experience, but I would like to spend my weekends doing other things. I told my bosses that I would work for them at future Chantilly shows if they really needed me, but I have no intentions of making my employment with them a regular occurrence. Overall, I'm glad I experienced at least one gun show from the other side of the table.

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