At 4:30 a.m. every day for the past 35 years, James “Jim” Wheeler, owner of Wheeler Sports located on U.S. 33 east, has made his way to his sporting goods store to process the paper work generated the day before and to be ready to open his doors to hunters and anglers from all across West Virginia and surrounding states at 6 a.m.
“I do not hunt or fish,” Wheeler said. “But when I opened my store in July 1972, I knew that I had to be dedicated to the sport if I was to succeed and, more importantly, serve the public in a manner that would build a business of repeat customers based on quality, timely and efficient service.”
Wheeler started business by purchasing the Lincoln Loan and Pawn Shop from Kenneth Currence and his wife, Erma, at 311/313 Third Street, across from the Jennings Randolph Federal Building. He opened a small store in 1990 in the Tygart Valley Mall while keeping the original store on Third Street. In 1995, he consolidated both stores when he moved to his present location.
“This business has been like most other businesses,” Wheeler said. “There are good times and then there are the ‘rough’ times. In the 1980s, we experienced a rather dramatic reduction in sales. I don’t know what caused the decline. I suppose it was a period when sportsmen just weren’t buying as much as they had been. The recession lasted for about five years, and then came back to where it has been and has been pretty stable since.”
Wheeler Sports covers the entire spectrum of outdoor sporting goods including guns and ammo, fishing rods, reels and lures, and some archery products. “We’re not as big in archery as we once were,” Wheeler said. “The other areas of the business grew to the point that they outpaced archery. It was becoming more than I could handle, so I started cutting back on archery supplies and equipment. I still handle some archery products, but nothing near what I used to have. We handle a wide variety of muzzle loading guns and accessories, too. We try to keep our inventory of rifles, handguns and shotguns at around 1,200 all the time. We pride ourselves in having the widest selection of firearms in the county and surrounding area.
“The most notable change I’ve seen in the business in the past 35 years has been the competition. I like to tell people, ‘The size of the pie is still the same. There’s just more people trying to get a piece of it,’” Wheeler said. “As always, you have to get out there and get your piece of it. The big box stores don’t really have an effect on our sales. Their sales strategies are different from ours. If I have a customer looking for a specific firearm or round of ammunition and don’t have it, I order it and have it in a matter days — sometimes the next day. That additional service means a lot to people and keeps my customers coming back year after year.
“I do send customers to our local box stores for items that I don’t have for a very simple reason. If I tell someone there is no Wal-Mart or K-Mart in the area and then they find out that there is one just down the road, they will take a very dim view of my being less than factual with them,” Wheeler said. “In addition, most of those that I refer to another store and they find that the store doesn’t have it either, they come back to me and ask me to see if I can get it for them. The box stores send customers to me as well. After all, we are in this business together and cooperation between the different stores is good for everyone.
“I think it’s good that we have the box stores in our community,” Wheeler said. “I believe that the more stores of all kinds we have in our area creates more enticement for people to come to Elkins to shop. If all we had were Wheelers Sports and a restaurant or two, people from the outlying areas would have no reason to come to Elkins in the first place. Therefore, while more businesses create a more competitive business environment, so too do they create a draw for more people to come to our town and community. We have customers coming from Wheeling, Parkersburg, Charleston, Marlinton — we get customers from all over the state and from surrounding states.”
Wheeler said that statistics show that over the past decade the number of hunters and anglers has dropped about 10 percent — especially in the younger population. This is evidenced in the hunting and fishing licenses. “Our gun sales don’t reflect this downturn,” Wheeler said, “because more people are buying firearms for other reasons, not the least among them being home protection. Another reason for the drop in the number of hunters is that land to hunt on is becoming more scarce. A lot of farmland that used to be hunted on is being sold for development into housing areas and industrial complexes. Also, many people who used to let people hunt and fish on their property are no longer doing it.”
Ironically, Wheelers’ observations were confirmed by a recent survey by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that show the number of hunters age 16 and older declined by 10 percent between 1996 and 2006. The drop was most acute, however, in New England, the Rocky Mountains and the Pacific states. The same survey showed that angling among the same age group has experienced a 15-percent drop during the same period.
When asked how the huge up- and down-swings in the nation’s economy affects his business, Wheeler said, “Fortunately, we don’t feel those effects nearly as much as some of the larger states. We may see a slight decline in sales in bad times and a similar increase in the good times, but our business usually stays at a pretty constant level. Usually, when we experience a downturn in one department, we’ll experience an upswing in one of the other ones. Another thing that keeps our business on ‘an even keel’ is that new products and, especially guns, are always coming on the market. People are always looking for things that are new or may in some way enhance the enjoyment of their sport.”
Wheeler recalled his most memorable event in the business when he sold a total of 32 guns in one day. “That was quite a day,” Wheeler said. “I have no idea what caused the sudden surge in buying, but I was happy for it. There have been some trying times, too,” he said. “One day right after I had new carpet installed in the store, a customer came in smoking a cigarette. When he finished it, he threw the butt onto the floor and crushed it out with his foot. I do my best to extend every courtesy to all my customers, but that was more than I could tolerate. I asked him, on no uncertain terms, to leave and not to come back.”
“The fall hunting season is the most exciting time of the year,” Wheeler said. “We really get ‘pumped’ up for that. From the time the season opens on up to Christmas, we stay open seven days a week to handle the business. Brian, my son who has been with me in the business since he was old enough to work, and I really enjoy listening to the experiences the hunters relate when they come into the store. The excitement and expectations of an upcoming hunt or the experiences of yesterday’s hunt keeps the place full of electricity. We enjoy working with our clientele the year round, but hunting season is always a special time of year.”
While talking about his inventory, Wheeler went into his storage room and brought out three matched sets of gold inlayed and trimmed Winchester 44-40 caliber rifles that he had just received in commemoration of John Wayne’s centennial birthday. “There were only 1,000 of these sets produced,” he said, “and I received three of them. That’s not bad considering that that’s all that will be made in the entire world.”
Wheeler said he has no intentions of retirement. “What would I do if I retired? Like I said before, I don’t hunt or fish — what would I do? One thing I have done, though, is cut my workweek of 80 hours per week to 60. Maybe I’ve already become semi-retired and just don’t realize it. The customers want to see Jim Wheeler in this store when they come in, and Jim Wheeler will be in this store for as long as I’m able to be here.”
RARE RIFLE — James “Jim” Wheeler, owner of Wheeler Sports, holds one of three sets of Winchester 44-40 caliber rifles that were produced to commemorate John Wayne’s centennial birthday. Only 1,000 sets have been produced for worldwide distribution. “I’m honored and very fortunate to get three sets of these rifles. That’s pretty good for a dealer here in Elkins,” he said. Wheeler celebrated his 35th anniversary of being in business in July.