The Pony Express gun shop looks a little like a hunting lodge inside. Water buffalo heads and stuffed fowl adorn the walls, along with paintings of Indian chiefs.
Glass cases display $8,500 Italian shotguns and 17th-Century pistols with ivory grips. A handful of patrons browse through the aisles.
People speak quietly here.
"It's the tradition of this store," said Arthur Kabadaian, a Pony Express salesman. "We're into the elite."
Across the San Fernando Valley, at B & B Guns in North Hollywood, the place is noisy and busy. The guns most prominently displayed are Uzis, AK-47s and other paramilitary assault rifles favored by foreign armed forces. A photograph of Dirty Harry hangs on the wall.
Customers take a number and wait to be served by hurried salesmen, some of whom wear holstered pistols on their hips.
"When you're talking about a supermarket--you bet we're a supermarket," said a man who asked to be identified as "Bob the manager." "We sell 40,000 guns a year between our wholesale operation and two stores. But that doesn't mean our quality is bad."
This is the busiest time of year for gun shops. Deer and bear season opened in parts of California last month. Elk, wild pig, duck and dove seasons will arrive this month and in October and November.
"Everybody's getting pretty antsy right now," said Tom Noroian, the manager at tiny Art's Guns in Reseda, where 80% of the customers are hunters. "We can probably average five shotguns and rifles a day. People are getting ready."
But hunters aren't the only ones buying. Gun collectors, target shooters and people looking for self-protection purchase firearms year-round.
And they all have a place to shop in the Valley.
Of 20 or so local gun stores, some cater to the masses--B & B sells 20 handguns to non-sporting shooters each day. Other shops prefer to sell to serious enthusiasts. There are sporting goods shops that keep only a few guns. There are surplus stores that have a small counter at the back.
"I don't want to say anything bad about any of the stores," said Ted Hauser, who regularly peruses gun shops in the Valley. "It depends on what you're looking for."
Hauser has been a gun aficionado since childhood, and his favorite store is Pony Express, where he's been a regular for 20 years. Now that he's retired, the Northridge man drops by several afternoons a week.
"Look at the guns in here," he said.
It's primarily collector's fare at Pony Express. A Luger pistol from the Third Reich is priced at $329. An 1860 Henry rifle costs $10,000. People who buy such guns will probably never fire them. There aren't any paramilitary weapons in the shop, and that's fine with Hauser.
"You kind of get the feeling there is an extremism there," he said.
Hauser motioned to the paraphernalia displayed around the shop. Military uniforms from both World Wars. Cartridge pouches from the American Civil War. A life-size wax figure of Gen. George S. Patton stands in the corner with a $3,900 price tag.
"This place is like a museum," Hauser said, with obvious approval.
The atmosphere isn't so grand at Western Surplus in North Hollywood.
This place is billed as "Home of a Thousand Bargains, Levi's for the Entire Family, Guns and Ammo." The selection at the gun counter is limited, but prices are low. Electric Stun Guns were recently on sale for $24.99.
The Davis brothers, Mark and Eric, walked in one morning looking for a pistol. They were interested in a particular model and wanted to take it apart--some gun enthusiasts like to disassemble a pistol and get a good look inside before they put down their money.
But the salesman said no, and there followed a good deal of shouting. Finally, the Davis brothers stormed away. Outside on the sidewalk, they discussed gun ownership.
"I like to have some home protection," Mark, 23, said. He added that with so many shootings occurring, "I have a right to protect my family."
The problem is, Mark said, a lot of gun owners haven't been taught to use a firearm properly. Eric, 27, said guns should be added to the public education curriculum.
"They should have it in the schools," Eric said.
With that point made, the brothers left--there were other stores, other handguns to look at. They were heading to B & B where, they said, low prices outweigh an unpleasant shopping atmosphere.
"The guys behind the counter have guns and they have this attitude," Mark said.
From a block away, you can tell that B & B is a different kind of gun store. There's the big, concrete facade, and the premises are fenced off.
Inside, paramilitary assault rifles line the walls. Bayonets are prominently displayed with educational books, including: "Handguns and Self-Defense--Life Without Fear," "Rape--Fight Back and Win" and a paperback sporting the picture of a pistol-wielding woman and the title "Self-Defense Requires No Apology."