McKean Minute: A Hat Tip to the Counter Clerks

Jerry Ketchum died this week. You don’t know him, but I sure did. He presided behind the counter of D&G Sports and Western in my hometown of Glasgow, Montana as long as I’ve lived here. And a significant time before that.

Jerry could be cranky, if you swaggered in assuming you knew more about guns than he did. You didn’t. He could be short, if he sensed you were a tire-kicker who didn’t intend to drop a dollar in the classic High-Plains hunting and fishing store that presides over the eastern edge of Glasgow’s retail district. But he could be as gentle as a .257 Roberts if you were a beginning shooter or hunter, or if you were a kid or a “lady,” as he tended to call members of the fairer sex.

I’ll miss Jerry for his unvarnished perspectives on new guns, on trends in calibers and bullets, and on the insidious ways that big-box and online retailers are kicking small, independent hunting-and-fishing stores like D&G right in the teeth.

But I’ll also miss Jerry because he represents an architype: the local expert who could sell an age- or species-appropriate rifle, then help the shooter pick out the right ammunition and optic, then tell them where to go sight in, and even where to fill a deer tag or catch a catfish. That sort of local expertise used to be common at gun counters around America, but as we’ve outsourced that job to minimum-wage newbies, we’ve surrendered a lot of knowledge and confidence that beginning hunters need to have a good first (and second. And third) day in the field.

We’re actually missing even more than that. Gun-counter clerks like Jerry are the first meaningful mentors that an awful lot of us had. The gruff, tell-it-like-it is realists who know something about guns and fishing reels because they’ve been selling them for four decades also know the best places to hunt, the good fishing holes, and the right gear for their customers to be successful.

We tend to overlook folks like Jerry, because we don’t value their baseline knowledge the way that we should. Or we don’t like their castor-oil realism. We’d prefer our knowledge delivered in sugar-coated doses. Or online in short, snappy, sanitized sentences.

But the reality is that we need more Jerry Ketchums, people who are willing to spend their years of accumulated knowledge and experience on the other side of the sales counter, educating us with a mix of humor, sarcasm, knowledge, and empathy that we often mistake for detached professionalism. These sources of local knowledge, ground-level awareness of what products are fast-burning fads versus which are legitimate game-changers in the world of sporting goods, and the courage to pull us away from an ill-conceived sales should be recognized and rewarded.

Unfortunately, I never told Jerry how much I value his perspectives. Until now. And now is at least a couple weeks too late.

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