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November 2005
Family Firearms Business Hits Bull's Eye
By Ellison Clary

Pull open the  door of Hyatt Coin and Gun Shop, Inc. and you encounter a booth where you check your firearm. Next you gawk at multiple showcases packed with pistols and revolvers.  The walls seem to groan with nearly endless varieties of rifles and shotguns.

Aisles display ammunition, holsters and countless other firearm-related paraphernalia. Knives gleam under glass counters. So do gold and silver rare coins. Make a turn and you’re startled by your vision of colorful safes lined up like refrigerators. You’ve entered

a family business  that has been a mainstay of Charlotte’s Wilkinson Blvd. for 46 years. Initiated as a one-person shop by Bill Hyatt in 1959, three generations of Hyatts have built it into what company President Larry Hyatt calls the largest gun store in the southeast.

What once was a 500-square-foot coin dealership that sold a few firearms has grown into 20,000 square feet, one of the largest in the country,  packed with about 4,000 guns and gun-related items, about 100 safes and one of the area’s most extensive selections of rare and collectable coins.

It attracts customers from across the Carolinas and beyond and occasionally serves well-known sports and entertainment personalities. Its base is a cross section of customers from the Greater Charlotte region, from the wealthy to the poor, from sportsmen to women concerned with self-defense.

Larry Hyatt, 58, has worked in the store for almost as long as he can remember. When Larry and his younger brother Terry were old enough to be responsible, they often joined their dad and their mother Irvene at the business.

“My father took advantage of child labor,” cracks Hyatt, a notorious jokester.

When Hyatt completed a two-year hitch in the U.S. Army, he majored in English and minored in Business at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. Shortly after his 1972 graduation, he joined his father full-time in the business at 3332 Wilkinson Boulevard.

By the late 1970s, he was running it. “My father was pretty smart,” he grins. “Pretty quick after I came in, he started going down to the farm in Anson County.” That’s the family cattle operation that brother Terry had taken over.

With dedication and energy, Hyatt expanded the firearms selection dramatically and sparked the steady growth that continues today. He incorporated in 1982. Now, firearms are 75 percent of sales and repairs are another 5 percent. Safes and coins split the other 20 percent.

Hyatt started selling safes by accident. “We had a break-in,” he explains. “We couldn’t get any more insurance, so we bought safes for the store.” He purchased a few more than he needed. “Next thing I knew, I was selling them.”

Today’s safes come in designer colors and are meant to harmonize with a recreation room. They start at $300 and go up to $5,000 for the kind that rival refrigerators in size and weigh much more.

 

Listening, Asking For The Sale Makes The Difference

It’s not a stretch for Hyatt to deal in safes. They are perfect repositories for firearms and Hyatt finds fun in all kinds of selling. He readily shares his sales philosophy.

“You need to listen to people,” he says. “You can give them information and guide them to the right thing. Then you’ve got to close the sale; you’ve got to ask for it.”

Hyatt professes a genuine liking for people. “I have a lot of fun,” he says. “In firearms, you engage people a little more than in some other types of businesses. People need to trust you.” Early on, Hyatt married Sylvia, who was an elementary teacher in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools. When sons Michael and Mitchell grew old enough to watch out for themselves, Sylvia joined the business and has long run the financial and administrative functions.

Both Michael and Mitchell Hyatt are graduates of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Their father jokes that he wanted them at the same school to facilitate economical visits. Further, he could ìgive them the same lecture at the same time.”

Today, Michael Hyatt is an investment banker in New York City but Mitchell Hyatt, whose grandfather hooked him on coin collecting, is a certified numismatist and is dramatically growing the rare coins trade that had languished. For expert advice Mitchell can consult with his grandfather. Bill and Irvene Hyatt, at 82 and 77 respectively, come to work more often than not.

That makes three generations of Hyatts to lead the staff of 20, including 11 full-timers.

“It’s just a great family business,” says Richard Bray, a Charlotte financial planner. Bray says he’s always owned guns and enjoys target shooting.

“They know what they’re talking about there,” he says of Hyatt Coin and Gun Shop. “It’s not a high-pressure sell atmosphere. I go there just to visit. It’s like coming into an old-time family store.” 

Just as Larry Hyatt won’t divulge the names of the rich and famous who sometimes frequent the store, he guards revenue figures. But he’s happy to explain how Hyatt Coin and Gun Shop survived the economic blight that overtook Charlotte’s Westside and, at one point, left his store as the only retail tenant of the Westerly Hills Shopping Center.

 

Hyatt’s Business Is A Survivor

A survivor is what he calls himself and the business. “In the era of big chain stores, we carry a lot of the products that don’t sell quite as fast but that a lot of people want,” he says. “We use our inventory as advertising. We keep a huge amount of product.”

Then he mentions that no one in the family suffered a serious illness or any other fate that might have hurt the business. So they kept grinding out long retail hours, keeping the store open six days a week and often wrestling with paperwork on Sunday.

The schedule is especially hectic in fall and winter. “The hunting seasons and Christmas peak virtually at the same time,” Hyatt says. “We are really busy. It’s overwhelming. When we hire people, if they have a compassion to hunt or they need to take a week off to see grandma at Christmas, this is not the place to work.”

For those who accept the holiday hours, Hyatt promises time off during slower June and July.

“Stamina and good luck were our best assets,” he says. “Although we’re smarter than anybody else,” he adds with a snicker.

“We looked for the niche markets that weren’t being taken care of,” he explains. “Take self-protection. It was shunned by big chain stores because of extra paperwork and liability.” He mentions some chains from the past as well as Bass Pro Shops and Dick’s Sporting Goods. “What they do, they do well, but we do the things they don’t do.”

Although the customer base is 85 percent male, many women clients are interested in self-protection, Hyatt says. Weapons of choice generally are .38 revolvers and .9 millimeter semi-automatic pistols in the $300 to $500 range. Free training comes with the purchase, he adds.

Hunters favor the .12 gauge semi-automatic shotgun, Hyatt says, with the most popular running about $1,000. But an entry-level, single-barrel shotgun starts at $100 and a pump can be had for $200.  

            A new visitor is sometimes taken aback to see Hyatt and his staff wearing side arms, but that doesn’t bother 10-year-customer Eric Rogers. The Charlotte lawyer likes to hunt “anything that flies” and he’s often interested in a premium shotgun or rifle. 

“It’s not disconcerting to me,” Rogers adds of the armed wait staff. “The reality is you are not always dealing with the nicest segment of the population.”

Hyatt gives a matter-of-fact explanation. “We have a store full of guns,” he says. “The criminals would really love to steal them. All our people have gone through extensive training. They’re legally qualified and permitted to carry a firearm. Knock on wood, we’ve never been robbed.”

 

Gun Laws, Both Good And Bad

That brings Hyatt to the subject of gun regulations and laws. He says he’s seen both good and bad. There was a law that restricted firearm magazines to 10 rounds; it was repealed earlier this year. “It did not stop crime,” he says, “but it ruined a lot of expensive guns.”

But a recent law that allows an instant, in-store background check on a potential customer of a rifle or shotgun is one Hyatt likes. “We can make sure they don’t have a criminal record, domestic violence or military criminal record. We can stop a gun sale to an unqualified person.”

Still, when a firearm leaves the store, there is no control over it, Hyatt reminds. “It can be stolen or resold, or someone can die and leave it in an estate. Overall, laws have failed to keep firearms from the people who should least have them, just as the drug laws have failed to keep drugs out of people’s hands.”

Though he doesn’t give exact figures, Hyatt says much of his firearm business is in used guns, which is only natural. “Guns last a long time. The gun purchased by your grandfather in 1918 could still be functional,” he explains, and adds that it might even be collectable.

Hyatt’s business itself has persevered long enough to see its neighborhood begin to redevelop. A Wal-Mart is opening next door and the shopping center where Hyatt Coin and Gun Shop operates has refilled with businesses such as a Family Dollar and a Habitat Re-store. Hyatt’s store sports a new facade.

Hyatt recalls years ago asking a consultant if he should move from the Wilkinson Boulevard corridor that was deteriorating. The consultant told Hyatt, whose business already had been there for 20 years, he might lose customers who couldn’t find him. He pointed out that parking is good, there’d been no robberies and business was growing.

“That’s what everybody wants,” Hyatt remembers the consultant exclaiming. “Why do you want to move?”

Glad he kept the business where it is, Hyatt hopes son Mitchell, 24, will someday take over. “Mitchell can run the business and he’s interested in it,” Hyatt says. 

But Hyatt quickly adds that he doesn’t want to leave the business any time soon.

“I really enjoy what I do,” Hyatt says. A lot of times, I can’t wait to get up in the morning and come to work. As long as I feel that way, I’d like to work. Like everyone else, I’d like to take some time off and do some things. But overall, I don’t see me stopping.”

Ellison Clary is a Charlotte-based freelance writer.
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