The Gunfather is about Louie Tuminaro and his close-knit Italian family, native New Yorkers who moved to Hamilton, Mont., to pursue Louie’s dream of creating the best gun store in the West, together. There are three generations of Tuminaros on the show: Louie (51 years old), the Gunfather, and Theresa (48), his wife of 24 years and who is nicknamed T-Bone; Louie’s dad Joe (77), who is called Pops; and Louie and Theresa’s kids, “Little” Louie (14) and daughters Nicole (20) and Allie (22), round out the extended family. Louie’s firearms business, the Custom Shop Inc., is a family operation and we see the Tuminaros in action working together to get things done. Louie is the driving creative force that made the Custom Shop a reality in 2007, but he is quick to tell you that the Tuminaros are a team, and moreover, he loves his team.
Louie’s focus at the Custom Shop is mainly buying, selling and restoring high-quality collectible firearms from the 1940s through the early 1980s – where there’s strong nostalgic interest – as well as sought-after out-of-production classics like Colt’s snake guns: Python, Cobra and the Anaconda. In addition to all of this, he wanted to do for firearm enthusiasts something akin to what custom-car shops do for car buffs. The firearm restoration services he offers are extensive. Louie is particularly passionate about restoration work because, from his point of view, he isn’t working on just any gun. The firearms on his workbench are someone’s precious family heirlooms. Clients aren’t looking to increase collector value of their restored guns, but rather restore the appearance and function for personal enjoyment. They bring their treasured guns to the Custom Shop because Louie has a reputation for candid assessment of what can and can’t be achieved in a restoration and surrounds himself with exceptionally talented artisans to execute the work. When Louie opened up his shop in Hamilton, which is located in the beautiful Bitterroot Valley of western Montana, he discovered a wealth of local talent that shared his interest in this level of firearms work and perfectionism – people like Pam Wheeler, the checkering queen, who has been hand cutting checkering for 30 years.
Louie and Pops are both self-taught gunsmiths and do most of the typical mechanical repairs, fine-metal polishing and refinishing in house. They also have their own stock-duplicating machine that can reproduce any gunstock accurately. Though they can make any gunstock for a customer, Louie explains that it isn’t always economically practical. It requires lots of hand sanding, inletting, fitting hardware and finishing. The result can be a stock that costs more than the rifle it’s being installed on. On restorations, they will try to preserve and repair the original wooden stock whenever possible. They keep duplicated stocks, identical to the factory originals and fitted with original hardware, for the more common collectible rifles – for example pre-64 Model 70 Winchesters – on hand all the time. When more elaborately figured wood blanks are used to make stocks for the highest grade rifles, prices can run up to $3,500, but that’s not a lot when the rifle is worth $15,000. The Custom Shop sells several stocks a week, mostly to customers who have had theirs broken during the course of shipping by common carrier. In addition to the stocks Louie crafts with his own hands, he has scores of new old-stock-original replacements for top-end Browning, Sako, Colt Sauer, Weatherby and J.P. Sauer and Sohn‘s rifles ranging from $400 to $3,500.
Louie says he got his love of shooting and skills from Pops. They were a working-class Long Island family. They weren’t poor, but they didn’t have much money. Louie and his little sister Lisa walked to public school, and their parents taught them traditional values, the importance of hard work, integrity and respect. Pops made a career with the Ford Motor Company in sales, and once Louie turned 10, Pops brought him to work every Saturday to help out washing cars and doing the jobs a kid could do. Louie developed a serious love for cars at that time, which he still has to this day. Pops taught him what a proper work ethic looked like and encouraged him to develop skills with his hands. Together these things led to a healthy confidence and a liberating realization that he could do things for himself.
For teenage Louie, the realization came the day the water pump on his 1972 Chevelle Super Sport quit. Instead of taking it to the repair shop, Pops took Louie to the auto-parts store and let him fix it for himself. When Louie reached his early 20s, he asked Pops to help him get an entry-level job at an auto customizing shop because the creativity and variety of the work was irresistible to him. Within two years Louie was managing the place. It was during this time that he met Theresa, who changed his life for the better in countless ways. They were inseparable and a perfect match. Louie calls her his rock. A rock is the best foundation to build on, and build they did.
It wasn’t long before Louie decided to go into business for himself. The work ethic, skill and confidence he learned as a boy continued to pay off and he soon had the largest car-audio equipment business in Suffolk County, N.Y. It was the first of many successes. Theresa would later manage their sports bar while raising their daughters. Pops, in addition to being a car man, was an avid gun collector, hunter and competitive pistol and shotgun shooter. Louie grew up watching with curious fascination as his father worked on guns on the kitchen table. When he got old enough, he was working beside his father, and the two enjoyed being a part of the shooting and hunting fraternity, which is large and vibrant in Long Island despite what anti-gun politicians from New York would have you believe. They hunted and vacationed in upstate New York, and Louie quickly got Theresa enthusiastically involved in the shooting sports too. When the kids came, they were naturally raised as shooters. The family hobby laid the ground work for the family business to come.
Louie had actually entertained the notion of going into a firearms business for several years before the golden opportunity finally presented itself. He’d made a lot of contacts in the community through the course of buying and selling guns that interested him, but it was the sale of his business that was the major catalyst for the career change. For the first time in his life, Louie had financial resources and time at his disposal simultaneously. At that time, Theresa had concerns that the neighborhood they lived in and loved was not headed in a direction they wanted for their children, and Louie had been charmed by the West during the time he’d spent hunting there. One day, Louie just walked through the front door and told Theresa that he thought they should consider moving to Montana and open a gun store. She was looking for houses on the Internet that same night. Theresa’s support buoyed Louie up for this bold move. Truth be told, the prospect of leaving everything they had known behind them scared her, but she had confidence in her husband, and saw a great opportunity to grow as a family. Pops, by then retired, was likewise supportive. Louie did his research and planning with their help and they left a life on the Atlantic shores of Long Island to set up a new family business venture in Big Sky Country, in full view of the snow-capped Rocky Mountains. “We grouped together as a family and ran this company,” Louie told me. “We started it, designed it and created it. We did everything as a family. I consider us all a part of this.”
The Custom Shop, as a physical location, is an artistic expression of the family. It was intended to look as if it had been in business on that little old-town street for a century. The interior was built with reclaimed lumber and decoratively peppered with just enough taxidermy and vintage Western decor to give it a 19th century style but with a modern flair. Custom Shop’s signature 10-foot outdoor-sculpted sign featuring a huge Colt cap-and-ball revolver next to the words Custom Shop was the product of Louie’s imagination and several months work.
As a business, Custom Shop became a huge success with international clientele. A great deal of that comes from the Tuminaros’ basic business philosophy. “We put all our heart into what we do,” Louie says. “A lot of our business is repeat customers and referrals because when you treat somebody right, you’ve got them forever. It’s very important that you win the trust of your customers. The only surprises I want my customers to have are good ones. If I say a gun is 98 percent, it’s probably really 99 percent.”
Seventy percent of Custom Shop gun sales are via their website, which is exceptional because each firearm they offer is presented for online customer inspection using five to 10 excellent digital photographs. These images are professionally staged and extremely detailed. Derek Poff, the man responsible for them and a show regular, has 20 years experience behind the camera.
While Louie and Pops are working on guns or away with little Louie scouring gun shows and estate sales across the country for marketable firearms, Theresa is the public face and voice of the Custom Shop. When you call, you talk to T-Bone. If you want something, you’d be wise to tell her because when she says that she’ll be on the look out, she’s 100 percent serious. She created and maintains what she calls “T-Bone’s Watch List” located on a corkboard behind her desk. When the boys bring home the gun you want, you will get a call from her and the first right of refusal. This takes a lot of mental energy and time, but it shows just how seriously the Tuminaros take customer service.
The Tuminaros are all NRA members, and Theresa came up with the slogan “Family, Freedom and Firearms” to describe the things that are most important to them. The thing that sold Outdoor Channel on The Gunfather was that it is really a case study in successful, multi-generational parenting. For the Tuminaros, shooting and other outdoor sporting activities were the family recreational outlets, so it was a perfect fit for the network. Viewers enjoyed the insights into the firearms business, but the more compelling aspect of the show was the genuineness of the Tuminaros just being a family. Louie says, “We love Outdoor Channel for letting us share our family with America. They don’t script us. They let us do what we do. What you see is who we are. When you see me kiss my father and tell him I love him when he’s leaving, well, I do that every day.” When viewers see Louie put aside the gun business for an afternoon to support his son in his first paying job outside the family, it is very clear that The Gunfather puts being a father far ahead of guns. Family comes first, exactly like Theresa says.
If all this sounds refreshing for television, by all means tune in to Outdoor Channel on Monday nights at 8:00 p.m. to watch the second season that started on Dec. 28. If you want your family heirloom firearms restored or to buy or sell collectable guns, contact Theresa. If you become a fan of the show, and I suspect you will, make sure to thank her because she’s the one who made it happen. The day Louie walked in and said “I think we should be on TV,” she got on the phone and cold-called Outdoor Channel, miraculously got connected to a show producer (that just doesn’t happen), and won him over on the idea of a program about their family. Is it any wonder why Louie has been so successful? Between Theresa and Pops, how could he fail? ASJ
Editor’s note: You can visit the Custom Shop online at customshopinc.com.