Salena Zito, OAKMONT, Pennsylvania — Long before you find yourself standing in front of the Smoke N’ Guns shop, the delicate aroma of coffee beans and hand-rolled cigars beckons your senses as you walk along Allegheny River Boulevard.
Outside the shop, four black leather chairs spread a respectable 6 feet apart are waiting for either the overflow of customers or locals such as Marcello Frollo to hold court. He enjoys a rolled cigar along with his double espresso as he listens to the cars rumble along the brick-lined street.
Inside, the store is a visual delight, with a coffee bar and a handful of tables and chairs at the entrance. Boxes filled with the best cigars money can buy are stacked high, and an impressive walk-in humidor is designed to keep them preserved at the perfect temperature.
In the back, a balcony overlooks the rest of the store and spans its entire width. A glass display case with an array of long guns hangs along the wall. In the center, begging to be held, is a Tommy gun. Gregory “Gooch” Ionadi, the owner, waits to help you find the gun you need or want to protect yourself.
That is, if there are any left to buy.
“Prior to the COVID outbreak, President Obama was the best gun salesman we ever had,” says Ionadi. “Anytime he was going to ban this, ban that, there was a rush on gun sales. When President Trump was elected, the fear of a gun ban subsided, and sales were so flat that several gun manufacturers went out of business.”
Things changed dramatically in gun shops across the country in February, when the first concentrated COVID-19 cases in one town were reported out of New Rochelle, New York. “We made more here in … March and April than we did in the last three years,” he says. “It was crazy.”
It wasn’t just his regular customers walking in the door or calling the store. Many of them never imagined themselves owning a gun, an experience reflected in the latest FBI statistics on background checks associated with the sale, transfer or permitting of firearms. An all-time sales high was recorded in March, when the virus outbreak hit and much of the country closed down: The FBI saw 3.7 million background checks.
When protests and riots started sweeping the country after the May 25 death of George Floyd, the FBI clocked another record in June by conducting more than 3.9 million background checks.
Last month, as activists set fires, looted and called for defunding or abolishing the police, the FBI showed that more than 3.6 million firearm background checks were conducted, making July the third-highest month on record.
Those numbers reflect Ionadi’s experience: a surge in sales in March and April, and big numbers in June and July following the riots.
“You wouldn’t believe the first-time gun buyers I’ve seen,” says Ionadi. “I started seeing little old ladies — 70, 80 years old — wanting to defend themselves because of what was going on. So, I had to change my thinking. I had to start buying .22 Magnum revolvers. I have some revolvers here, but I had to start buying revolvers that women and older folks could use because they are easy to handle. Semi-auto and a revolver are two different things.”
Smoke N’ Guns is the kind of place where everyone has a nickname, beginning with Gooch and extending to the customers. It is a place of family, roots and connection. There are guys sitting outside smoking a cigar and inside getting their coffee. People from around the region call nonstop to see if there are particular guns and ammo in stock.
When Gooch’s mom had her dress shop here, it used to be the kind of place where young women bought their wedding gowns, bridesmaids’ dresses and elegant eveningwear.
“It was called Ionadi Bridal and Boutique,” says Gregory Ionadi, Gooch’s father, sitting outside and taking in the breezy summer day. “My wife had that for 25 years. The bottom floor was all prom dresses. Where the balcony is, we used to do an upscale women’s casual, mother of the bride and bridal.”
When the dress store closed, Ionadi the elder found himself bored, and Gooch had long envisioned the store they have today in his head. Between the elder’s boredom and the younger’s idea, both men are living the dream.
Pre-pandemic, Gooch worked full time as a Local 5 electrician during the day and then at Smoke N’ Guns from 4 p.m. until closing. He was laid off from his day job in February. The elder Ionadi worked full time as the Verona postmaster during the day and then, after 4 p.m., worked the dress shop with his wife.
“Work ethic is a big deal in our family,” 75-year-old Gregory Ionadi says. “You eat every day. You work every day. That’s the way it is. I’ll work until I can’t work.”
Within five minutes, Gooch takes a half-dozen calls from people looking to buy something specific, saying everything from “Not sure about that Glock” to “I am out of that ammo” to “Sure. Come in this evening and I’ll show you what we have.”
His father serves up a frosty coffee confection with an impressive amount of whipped cream on top to a customer outside. A “Make America Great Again” hat is propped on top of a beautifully carved wooden statue. Behind it is a framed photo of President Donald Trump.
Inside and out, everyone is in a mask (that is the rule); everyone is at a distance; respect for each other is key. “I am not arguing with people who don’t want to wear a mask before coming in here,” Gooch says. “Wear a mask. I don’t want this thing. I don’t know what it is. To this day, you’re getting arguments that it’s fake. Well, maybe it is. Maybe it isn’t. But I want to be safe. I want my dad to be safe. I want my mom to be safe. I want my wife to be safe, my kids.”
His wife, Kim, smiles and brings him a cut from a hoagie about as long as the counter she set it on and urges him to take a break for lunch, as noon passed hours ago. “I’ve got a feeling it’s going to be a busy, long night.”
Salena Zito is a CNN political analyst, and a staff reporter and columnist for the Washington Examiner. She reaches the Everyman and Everywoman through shoe-leather journalism, traveling from Main Street to the beltway and all places in between.