All in the FamilyNov 01, 2020 10:30AM ● By David O'Reilly
This particular Saturday was supposed to be a quiet day at Miller’s Gun Shop. It was opening day of Pennsylvania bear season for muzzleloaders: one of those autumn blue-sky days when the maples glow gold and the outdoors beckon. So maybe, just maybe, all of Miller’s devoted patrons would be up in the hills, far removed from this hunter’s mecca in Clinton County.
But no. At noon, the parking lot is packed. You park on the grass, make your way past that tall, wood moose draped in patriotic colors and into a crowded, brightly lit showroom. A customer in a camo jacket is yelling into his cellphone. “This place is packed here right now,” he’s saying, with a finger in his ear.
He’s standing amidst floor racks bearing hundreds of rifles and shotguns. Against a far wall are targets and holsters and optics. Over there, behind a glass-enclosed counter, are the ammo and handguns, with the archery section beyond that stone wall.
All areas are crowded with patrons, many of them regulars whom the staff greet by name. When a white-bearded regular explains he’s “looking for targets,” salesclerk Shannon Barner grasps him by the hand, joking that he must be blind, and leads him to the target wall. The man roars with laughter.
At the eye of this cheerful storm is Beth Bason, whose parents, Philip and Janet Miller, started the business on the back porch of their Mill Hall farmhouse outside Lock Haven fifty-six years ago. They still work here every day.
“What kind of pistol are you looking for?” Beth asks a woman in her mid-fifties, here for the first time. The woman, Krystal, is uncertain, but says she wants something for “self-protection.” Moments later she and her husband are on one side of the handgun counter with Beth on the other. Neither has ever owned a handgun.
Beth lays several pistols on the counter and turns her attention to Krystal, recently retired from the Air Force. Some handguns are “noticeably different in recoil,” she explains, “and as ladies, our age and strength affect how we handle a sidearm...Not everyone has the strength to pull back” on the slide. She demonstrates how it’s done.
Krystal picks up a pistol and immediately lays her forefinger on the trigger. Beth raises a hand. “As a new shooter you always want to lay your finger this way,” she says, gripping another pistol, and demonstrating the safe way by laying her forefinger straight, outside the trigger guard. “There’s a tendency to want put your finger inside,” she says, “but if you jerk hard on the slide and your finger’s in there, well...all kinds of things can happen.” Krystal nods, wide-eyed. She repositions her finger.
White-haired Janet is waiting on customers behind the main counter, too busy to chat. When she finally gets a moment she recalls with a laugh how hectic things got in spring when they had to bar customers from the store because of COVID-19. “So we did curbside for six weeks, running back and forth with an umbrella in the rain—whatever it took to keep the doors open and clients happy.” The store has 6,300 “likes” on Facebook, with customers frequently citing staff as “friendly,” “helpful” and “knowledgeable.”
Behind another counter sits the eponymous Philip, eighty-five, surrounded by an array of vintage and modern gunsmithing tools. Some days you might find him here checkering a walnut gunstock. Today, as he recalls how they started the business, he’s installing a battery into a pistol’s laser sight.
He was a twenty-nine-year-old high school chemistry teacher, he explains, newly married, still helping on his parents’ dairy farm and repairing guns for several Lock Haven department stores. “Then I got to thinking: ‘Why don’t I do that on my own instead of for someone else?’” And so, in 1964, he and Janet—an elementary school teacher—launched the gun business.
“We started with the back porch of the house. Then we went to the basement, then moved to the end of the driveway and built a building. Then we chased the cows out of the barn and added to the end of the barn with this place,” he says, and waves a hand to indicate the main showroom where he’s sitting.
In 1984, at the encouragement of friend and neighbor Rick Noll, the Millers added archery and fishing equipment to their product line, even though Janet fretted that they “wouldn’t sell nine bows.” The fishing side did not last, but the archery line “just grew and expanded,” says Philip, and now represents about half their business. “I think we do it as well as anybody,” he says, noting that their grandson, Bryce Bason—a champion archer—is poised to manage the department when the invaluable Rick retires.
The gun business has changed a lot, Philip says, since those early days when he was selling double-barreled shotguns for $69, rifles for $99, and revolvers for $35.
“In the last few years there’s been a real big interest in what I would call tactical weapons, like the AR-15s. And we have been somewhat reluctantly selling more of them...I personally own a couple, but they’re not my favorite. I’m a rifle guy. I prefer the classics: pretty wood and nice blue metal and things of that sort. But they [tactical weapons] are what people are asking for these days. And if you don’t have what they’re asking for, you won’t be in business.”
By now Beth has sold Krystal a small Keltec 9mm pistol and her husband, Alan, a larger 9mm Smith & Wesson. Krystal says this year’s violent street demonstrations in some U.S. cities had alarmed her. “Now, if someone comes up my driveway,” she says with a grin, “they can expect to get more than a slap in the face.” (Handgun sales at the shop have tripled since this year’s riots, says Philip.)
As they prepare to leave, Krystal and Alan voice appreciation for the time and expertise Beth gave them.
Beth receives the compliment graciously, but with a small shrug. “Well, we’re not selling candy,” she says. “We’re selling something that’s a big responsibility...We owe our clients the time to make a good decision.”
Find Miller’s Gun Shop at 6945 Nittany Valley Drive, Mill Hall, on Facebook, and at millersgunshopinc.com, or call (570) 726-3030.