But a glance through the trees and underbrush to the west shows a spot of color so intense it might be a mirage: an oval-shaped LED window sign saying OPEN. Turn down a narrower road named Twilley Loop, and a small red building comes into view with a sign across the top: “Cooper’s Trading Post.”
Open the front door, and you’re met by a burst of welcome heat and several conversations at once — ranging from price negotiations to the telling of jokes. One of the men is holding up an incongruous pink rifle. “Somebody tried to get a picture of a deputy holding it, the other day,” says a man behind the counter with a short white beard and a brown leather vest. Proprietors Gary Cooper and his wife Juanita are in their 26th year of operating the outpost, and though a banner on the front porch reading “Pawn Shop, Guns, Tack, Boats, Motors, Hunting, and Fishing” seems to tell it all, the actual variety of the inventory in such a relatively small space is almost like an optical illusion. The pink rifle is a commemorative item from Breast Cancer Awareness Month; a companion pink handgun is on a shelf under glass nearby. An adjoining wall offers turkey calls, coon urine, trophy buck lure, and a host of items with names that are not for the uninitiated: breech plug grease, primer carrier, twister broadhead, and more—all overseen by a police firing range target in the corner. And that’s not counting the bait shop, alongside. “Just looking from the outside you wouldn’t guess how much stuff is in here,” says Cooper. There are roughly 600 guns, some on display in the central showroom’s counter and others in storage. This morning, the customers crowded around the showcase and wall racks range from young men in jeans and work shirts, to hunters in camo, to a couple of retirees in caps and windbreakers.
And the trading post’s 26-year-run all started with a hospital trip. Cooper, an alumnus of West Jefferson High School, not far down the road (Juanita attended Dora High), had originally turned his lifelong love of cars into a successful auto salvage business. But when a serious back ailment required surgery in the 1980s, sliding underneath cars and trucks was suddenly no longer an option. “At one point I got to where I couldn’t walk,” he says. “Couldn’t hook my hook up under cars, when I had the wrecker. I had to call it quits.” So he turned to another childhood pastime: hunting and fishing. The first edition of Cooper’s Trading Post was in Sumiton. They received their gun license in October of 1985. and in a few years they moved to a larger, higher-traffic location in the Argo community on Old Highway 78 — which had its advantages and disadvantages.
“It was a 40-by-80-foot building, and it had a concrete floor. It about whipped us,” says Gary. “There was good traffic, but a lot of it was people traveling. Some of them bought stuff, but a lot were just stretching their legs. They might want to look at 15 different guns, and then end up not buying a thing.
“But it was an interesting time. We had people come through from as far away as England. And from Australia. They’d come through every year on vacation, and they’d make it a point to stop, say hello, and talk to us.”
When the new Interstate 22 came through, the Coopers took a fresh look at their Argo location and had an idea — why not move the Trading Post to a piece of land adjoining their house in Twilley Town? They could walk to work, and still have access to the new highway a little more than a mile away. They opened on July 4, 2009, in a building that Gary used his automotive skills to weld together from a salvaged furniture moving van. The mix of merchandise has changed somewhat, over the years, Juanita says. They don’t sell as much tack as they did, but their own eight horses in a nearby pasture helps keep their hand in the specialty. And with Warrior River boat docks and fish camps only about four miles away, live bait is a steady seller. “We’ve had the same bait supplier ever since we opened in Sumiton. A gentleman from Cullman, and he’s been great. He says regulating temperature is the key to keeping bait alive and fresh, so he pays a lot of attention to that.”
The biggest single change in the shop’s sales pattern came after last year’s mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut, Juanita says: “Stuff just flew out of here. We sold near about every handgun, all the ammo we had. People were afraid they wouldn’t be able to get any more guns, or ammo. And because of so much hoarding of ammo, it’s about gotten that way. We can’t get it. We’ve gotten just 10 boxes of .22s in, this week. Last week I don’t think we got any at all. And some of the hunting items, like 30-30 ammo, we can’t get it at all. Some of the big stores can do better than us at getting ammo, but they tell us as soon as it’s on the shelves, it’s gone.”
“There was a point,” Gary adds, “when we sold 100 and some-odd bricks of .22s in nine days.”
Back when the Coopers were looking at news coverage of Alabama’s historic 2012 tornadoes, one set of photos in particular looked all too familiar: the hilltop in Argo where the Trading Post had been located for some 19 years. “Our old building had been turned into a garage,” Gary says. “It wasn’t hit by the storms, but houses on three sides of it were blown away. And the people who were killed, they were just a stone’s throw from where we’d been.”
For several reasons, relocating the Trading Post to their own front yard has turned out to be a good choice, the Coopers say. “It’s a lot more homey down here.” says Gary. “People wander in, and when you get 12 or 15 of ‘em at once, it can be elbow-to-elbow for a while. But the customers seem to like the narrower layout, because they can stand here at the counter and see what’s what, look at whatever they want to. And I guess that’s the reason we’ve been able to stay here. In all the years I’ve been in it, I’ve seen many a gun shop go out of business.
“As far as I know, Jeff Hudson in Jasper is the oldest gun dealer in the county. And I’m second only to him.”
“We take trade-ins, we do pawns, and we buy stuff from people,” Juanita says. “Nothing without picture ID, of course. This gun I just pawned a few minutes ago, it was originally bought here. Some people sell us their hunting gear in the summer and buy fishing boats, or whatever, and then do the reverse in the winter. We do a lot of repeat business. The corridor has had a big impact. We have people from Birmingham, and from other counties in every direction. We’ve even had a few customers from Florida and Tennessee, come in.”
And the business is apparently called the Trading Post for good reason. “Gary enjoys horse-trading,” she says. “I remember one day a man was in here, and he and Gary got to within a quarter of agreeing on a price, and it went on for like 20 minutes. At some point I think they were just showing off for my benefit, but still.”
Gary smiles. But he doesn’t comment.
Dale Short’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org