So I asked Bill Bernstein, owner of Nashville’s East Side Gunshop, “what’s a nice Jewish boy like you doing selling guns?”
If you didn’t know, you wouldn’t know. With his white beard, dark suit, and his payot and tzizit, the sidelocks of hair and wool fringes that orthodox Jewish men wear, Bernstein looks like a rabbi. If not a rabbi, an accountant. Or a diamond dealer. But Bernstein sells with calibers, not carats. More to the point, he’s nobody’s fool.
The former Vanderbilt, Oxford and Penn student was born in the Bronx. Bernstein’s interest in firearms started with his father, who went to college on a rifle scholarship and served in the U.S. military. Bill learned to shoot as a child with a .22 rifle.
Bernstein was living in Philadelphia with his wife Heddy working “the worst job” in his life: a paralegal at a big law firm. On the way to work one morning in 1992, he and his wife witnessed a derelict publicly defecating. They decided to move to the more genteel South. After selling carpet and mortgages, Bernstein opened up East Side Gunshop in 2006. The business has thrived.
Berstein says price-leading big box stores make it difficult for Mom & Pop gun dealers to thrive. “When they can sell a gun for only $10 more than I pay, it makes no sense for me to carry it.” So he “lets” the big stores and the online mass marketers sell more popular guns.
A recent visit by a reporter found a full-size 1911 .45, a Glock 27 and a Heckler & Koch (which Bernstein jokingly refers to as “Hitler Cock”) in-store.
Bernstein’s advantage: the chains can never deliver the level of personal service and value of a proprietor-operated shop. And they will never attract serious firearms enthusiasts.
While Bernstein’s store gets the occasional newbie—who are blessed with Bernstein’s patience and experience—most of the 100 or so weekly customers are highly knowledgeable enthusiasts, looking for something more than run-of-the-mill firearms.
Because he doesn’t compete with mass market merchandise, Bernstein is no stranger to the Internet. For example, a Dan Wesson Pistol Pack appeals to a relatively small number of enthusiasts. [Daniel B. Wesson (1825–1906), was the inventor and co-founder of Smith & Wesson firearms.] If Bernstein’s clientele aren’t interested, he can off-load the weapon on the web.
I asked Bernstein what fellow Jews thought about his profession—considering that most American Jews strongly favor gun control (Jewish politicians tend to lead the way on the issue). Bernstein said that the reformed Jewish community hasn’t shown him much hostility. Orthodox Jews (of which he is one) tend to be more politically conservative than other American Jews. The members of his synagogue are fine with what he does for a living.
Jewish law generally prohibits carrying items in the public domain on the Sabbath. Jewish law, though, also provides for suspension of most laws in order to protect human life. After a jihadist attacked the Seattle Jewish Federation, I asked a rabbi if it was “permissible to carry”—without mentioned what I wanted to carry. The rabbi smiled and said, “Only if you are licensed, but don’t worry, at least a couple of our congregants are and are.”
When Bernstein gave a carry permit class at the synagogue, his rabbi took the course, passed and now carries, as do other members of his congregation. So now you know.
[Visit Bernstein’s website here]