Tuesday, May 19, 2020

John Jovino Gun Shop


John Jovino, the oldest gun shop in the United States, has closed for good after 109 years in business in Little Italy.

Founded in 1911 by John Jovino, and originally located in the gun center around the corner on Centre Market Place, the store was purchased by the Imperato family in the 1920s and has been run by Charlie Hu since 1995. It's been featured in many films, including Mean Streets and Serpico, and its famous wooden revolver sign has been a landmark in the neighborhood for over a century.

Charlie removed his mask briefly for this socially distanced shot. 
All photos by Stacie Joy.

Charlie, also known as "Gun King Charlie," was packing up the shop this week and graciously consented to speak with Vanishing New York about the end of an era. Stacie Joy visited with her camera and listened to Mr. Hu tell his story. Like many small business people who are forced to close, having a compassionate ear is an important part of saying goodbye.

"I turned away interviews from NBC, CBS, CNN, and the New York Times," Charlie said. "I only want to talk to you. I’m very emotional right now, as you can see, I am having a rough day. Everything is super sad. I'm glad you are here."

Charlie recalled the difficulties of running the shop years ago. The Italian mafia and the Chinese gangs both wanted protection fees, but Charlie refused. When they threatened him, he told them, “If you want to shoot me, shoot me right here,” and pointed to his heart. You had to establish toughness back then and Charlie was tough. “I don’t care," he told the gangsters. "I don’t give a shit, you do what you want.” They left Charlie alone. He outlasted them.

As a Chinese immigrant, and the first Chinese gun dealer in the U.S., he faced racism and hatred on a regular basis. He recalled how people would come into the shop and give him trouble for not speaking English with his wife. They threatened him, spat on him, called him racial slurs, and told him to "go back to China." But Charlie was tough. He outlasted them.

Charlie showed off the gun he keeps holstered at his hip. A Beretta 84 .380 pistol, it was clearly loved, oiled and cared for. He keeps it with him all the time and even featured it on the shop's iconic t-shirt.

“This is my gun," he said, pointing to the shirt. "It’s my design and it’s been the same price from the beginning. The price never increases and never decreases."

Charlie's phone kept ringing, as phones do on the last days of small businesses. Each time, it was another member of NYPD's top brass calling to check on him, ask how he's doing, and thank him for his decades of service.

Over the years, Charlie gained many friends in the NYPD, as he worked hand-in-hand with law enforcement to keep illegal guns off the streets. Charlie is proud of this--and of his dedication to the shop.

"All my life," he said, "I've never taken a vacation or a sick day. I never had any violations. And now this is the end of the world. My whole life went into this."

As he put away the many awards he received over the years, tears rolled down his cheeks and into his mask. It was not his choice to close the shop. This is not how he wanted it to end.

The rent, he said, is the number one reason for closing. And then the coronavirus, shutting down business. There's also the trouble with regulations, the slow-down in shipments of ammunition, and people buying on the Internet instead of from their local shop. Finally, Charlie said, “I’m old, I’m 74 years old, I was born in 1946, I am old.”

He'll be retiring after this. He hopes to travel, once the restrictions are lifted, and he's getting offers to teach and advise for security firms in Asia. He's considering it. But saying goodbye hasn't been easy.

A text came into his phone from his boss, Mr. Imperato.

“You are completing the mission,” he told Charlie.

“Thanks, boss," Charlie replied. "With my tears.”

Post Script:

I always loved seeing the three-dimensional sign and the colorful targets and posters in the windows of John Jovino. Last week, I wondered what happened to the antique wooden gun that hung from the sign.

On Facebook, I read that Charlie sold it to a man who makes gun sculptures.

via Facebook

He was very happy to get it and it's now sitting in a studio in Brooklyn before it is moved to Los Angeles. Another little piece of the city's heart.

For historical photos of the shop and its big revolver, see my previous stories here and here.

via Facebook

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