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About a year ago, Mike Higgins and Brian Owens were launching plans for their dream business: an outdoor store catering to the hunting and sportsman lifestyle.
On Dec. 14, the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings brought their Main Street shop, which will also carry shooting sports guns, into the focus of a town-wide debate. The store, in the former Arabella's on Main Street, is now set to open sometime in February.
"My heart goes out to those people [in Newtown]. Our feelings are no different than anybody else's on that," said Higgins. "But I don't want to have us be a focus of this debate. I would rather just open quietly and go on with our life and our business. I would rather there would not be any division or hatred or debate in this at all. If you want to come together as a community, then realize amongst your community are people who enjoy shooting sports. There's got to be a little bit for everybody. There's got to be a little give and take."
He added, "We're giving a little, if it will help assuage people's concerns."
Although they'd applied and received approval to open as The Gun Stock, Higgins said, "Out of sensitivity to people's concerns, we've changed the name" to TGS Outdoors, LLC.
Decoys and antique field equipment will decorate storefront windows-not guns. A screen blocks the shop's interior from street and sidewalk view.
But Higgins knows such changes can't please everybody.
"There's going to be a percentage of people who, no matter what we say or do, they're going to hate us. That's their prerogative. I think that speaks more of them than it does of us," he said. "We have more supporters that enjoy the outdoors, that enjoy doing what we do, that will come to us."
The Branford business idea was born shortly after North Cove Outfitters closed on Main Street, Old Saybrook, after 23 years. Owens managed North Cove's shooting sports for 18 years; Higgins was a regular customer.
"My wife owned Arabella's, and when this became available, and then I saw North Cove Outfitters close, then I really saw an opportunity open up," said Higgins.
With his wife and three daughters, Owens belongs to a 750-member sporting club. He knew TGS Outdoors would work here.
"Every sporting club in the state has a waiting list-every one of them," said Owens. "Having seven major sportsman's club within a 35- to 40-mile radius, there's a pretty substantial number of people. We knew, and that's what North Cove knew."
Higgins belongs to the Guilford Sportsmen's Association. Members, including his two daughters, use its skeet fields, trap fields, rifle ranges, trout pond, and more. They come together for holiday events including Easter egg hunts and enjoy other family outings, said Higgins.
"It's a different mentality," Higgins said of these enthusiasts. "It's a lifestyle. That's what this store is-it's a lifestyle store."
Selling any gun is highly regulated, requiring local, state, and federal paperwork and background checks. As merchants, Higgins and Owens were also vetted per federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF) regulations.
"We've gone through multiple FBI, ATF, and local police inspections, and passed all Planning and Zoning requirements. This whole process took us six months," said Higgins.
Now, inventory is filling in daily. The shop is dressed with Oriental rugs, wood and glass cabinetry, wall displays, vintage advertising, and other related Americana.
Owens said, "We took all the departments from [North Cove] which I think were successful: shooting sports, optics, [and] cutlery?but you can't start with a 22,000-square-foot building, so we're perfectly content with 1,300 for now."
Leatherman tools, Grand Forest Axes, archery and bow hunting equipment, and other outdoor inventory are also among its "classic and state-of-the art products," said Owens, noting the shooting sports inventory includes guns used for 15 Olympic events.
Gun safes will be sold here and all guns sold leave with a lock after owners are taken through a firearms safety checklist, said Higgins. As certified gun safety and pistol permit instructors, Higgins and Owens will teach courses in the TGS Outdoors classroom space.
"We're also going to be offering free safety courses to the public, once we get up and rolling," said Higgins.
Some eight-hour pistol permit classes have started, bringing new business to town, Higgins said.
"All those people have gone to the local restaurants to eat. Half of our students have been women and a lot of them have said, 'I've never been down here. It's a wonderful downtown. I want to go to these stores,'" Higgins said. "Without even knowing it, we've already brought business to downtown. That's the way it was for North Cove. I guarantee you Old Saybrook, as a town, is suffering because North Cove is no longer there."
Higgins acknowledges worries will likely go on concerning TGS Outdoors opening here.
"I've been a law-abiding citizen my whole life," Higgins said, adding, as a Boy Scout, then Eagle Scout, "I grew up my whole life being called a goody-goody. I think there should be more of us. I'm the kind of guy you want in a place like this. If you need safety lessons, I'll get them to you. If you want a course on things, I'll make them available to you. If these places are going to exist, you want guys like Brian and I doing it."