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Gun shows becoming traveling malls as they go beyond firearms

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A few aisles away, Rick Audino, a North Carolina art dealer, had a corner booth where he was selling $2,000 paintings of Civil War scenes by John Paul Strain. He’d sold more than a dozen. Many of his buyers at shows in the Washington area — "the only place in the country left with money," he said — are government contractors or federal law enforcement officials, or occasionally a CIA officer.

They come looking for new holsters or other gear but often leave with a painting instead. Audino does not have a gallery. He has gun shows.

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"If you have a gallery, you are waiting for people to come to you," he said. "This way, we bring it to them. People say, ‘Oh, I didn’t expect that here.’ Then they go, ‘Oh, I like that.’ Then they buy it."

At the Annapolis Gun Show last month in Maryland, Henry Sobel stopped by because he was thinking of buying his first shotgun. Instead, he was nibbling on beef jerky.

The beef jerky at gun shows — a staple like Auntie Anne’s pretzels at the mall food court — is often so delectable that people drop by just to pick up a pound.

"I’ll give you pepper first," said Trish Holsinger, the co-proprietor of Holsinger’s Meats & Deli, which was across from a table of high-powered rifles and a not-so-small cache of ammunition. "It’s black pepper. It’s subtle. The red pepper is not subtle. It’s slap-your-face hot."

Sobel tried the slap in the face. His assessment: "Whoa."

Sobel, an Annapolis OB-GYN, did not leave with the hot stuff, or a shotgun. He did leave the show — his first — with $21 worth of beef jerky and a dried pig ear for his dog Killian, who was turning 5.

"It’s a real grin to leave a gun show with beef jerky," he said. "My wife is very opposed to guns, and she wasn’t thrilled with me coming to a gun show. But now I’m coming home with all these treats for everyone, so it’s a win-win."

Trish and her husband, Bob Holsinger, are part of a multi-generation meat business operating near Hagerstown, Md. They have been selling at gun shows for about two years. Trish and Bob’s father were not convinced that there was a market at gun events, but now they do about 10 percent of their business at the shows.

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"When he first said ‘gun shows’ to me, I gave him a look like, ‘What?’ " Trish said.

Now the Holsingers often sell more 200 pounds at a show, at $18 a pound. Their company does more than 100 shows a year.

"He was right," Trish said, "and I was wrong."

A man was standing at their table holding a shotgun from the 1800s. He was sampling several varieties of jerky.

Asked his name, the man said, "Tom." Asked his last name, Tom said, "Why?"

Asked whether he liked the idea of beef jerky at gun shows, Tom said, "If it wasn’t for the guns, I wouldn’t have any jerky."

Copyright 2014 The Salt Lake Tribune. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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