Man right on target with archery store

Business: A small store on Taneytown's main street is one of a handful in the area that caters exclusively to the hunters and marksmen who favor a bow and arrow.

March 25, 2002|By Childs Walker | Childs Walker,SUN STAFF

The glass storefront on Taneytown's main street allows a glimpse into a wilder world, with several hulking stuffed bucks and a fierce-looking stuffed boar prominently displayed for those ambling past.

The feeling of otherworldliness only increases inside The Bowhunter's Den, one of a handful of archery-only stores in the Baltimore area.

A stuffed black bear hangs from the ceiling, peering down at scores of owner Shane Fitzgerald's trophies, most adorned with a golden deer or a golden archer.

Beneath the counter, a row of hunting videotapes features titles such as Monarchs of the North, Get 'Em Early and Close Enough to Kiss, which sports a gold sticker boasting of a "2-yard kill scene."

Above the counter hanging from a wooden rack are the bows, a series of stout contraptions with telescopic sights that make them look more like rifles than anything Robin Hood might have used.

Nascent shooters needn't be intimidated, however, Fitzgerald says. He can take someone off the street who's never used a bow and, after a few measurements and about an hour of training, have the novice sticking arrows in a 6-inch-wide circle from 20 yards. That's how good the technology is and how good he has become at fine-tuning it, he says.

If that makes the sport seem too easy, an archer can try forever to shoot a little more accurately from a little farther away, Fitzgerald says.

He can stand 25 yards from a target and stick five arrows in a circle the size of a quarter. But he's nowhere near world-class -- he'd have to shoot just as accurately from twice as far. And compact bows, usually made of aluminum and equipped with scopes, have become too easy to use, Fitzgerald says, so he often hunts with a curved wooden bow with no scope -- more the Robin Hood type.

Growing popularity

Archery, both as a target-shooting sport and as a means for hunting, has steadily built a following. More than 30,000 Marylanders and almost 5 million Americans shoot bows at least occasionally, according to the National Statistical Abstract.

Carroll County has several clubs that gather weekly for target practice.

Fitzgerald, 35, got his first bow when he was 10, began shooting seriously when he was 12, killed his first deer at 13 and could take his bow apart and put it back together by the time he was 15.

His wife got so sick of his hunting absences that before he left for a convention in Pennsylvania a few years ago, she said she'd move out if he booked another trip. Faced that weekend with a journey he wanted to take, he booked it and called his wife with the news. She said she was moving out. "I'll help you pack," he recalls saying.

She is now his former wife, and his new fiancee has taken up hunting. She had her first kill, a wild hog, near Breezewood, Pa., last fall. Fitzgerald keeps behind the counter a photograph of her with the dead animal.

A lifelong Taneytown resident, Fitzgerald took a factory job out of high school but spent so much time shooting and tinkering with bows that he figured he might as well turn a profit with his hobby. So he bought the storefront on Baltimore Street in 1992.

At first, he worked only afternoons. About six or seven months later, though, he began manning the store full time -- except during the September-to-December bowhunting season, when he often passed his mornings stalking a prize buck in the woods. He still allows himself such dalliances.

Though his profit margin can be slim during the winter months, Fitzgerald says, the business is relatively stable. He has hundreds of regular customers, and every month word-of-mouth brings a few more, some from as far as Hawaii and Africa, he says.

Customized service

Other stores in the Baltimore area -- from Wal-Mart to the Bass Pro Shops Outdoor World in Anne Arundel County -- carry bows, often at slightly lower prices. But the sales staff at those stores don't make their own string or know how to tune a bow and customize it to an individual's style, Fitzgerald says.

One man came to him a few months ago with a bow he bought at a large retailer and complained that his elbow was whacking the shaft every time he fired. Fitzgerald asked the man if he was left-handed.

"No," was the reply.

"Well, they sold you a left-handed bow," Fitzgerald said.

Fitzgerald says people make up the extra $15 or $20 he charges by saving money in the long run on maintenance and tuning fees. He can't understand why people willing to spend $350 to $1,000 on a bow would carp about spending a little extra for his service. He'll make sure a bow has the finest string, is the correct length for a shooter's reach, has a tension matched to the shooter's strength and has a perfectly adjusted scope, he says.

Some of his loyal customers agree.

Professional archer Tony Ruggeri has been shooting around the world for 25 years and says he won't take his bows to anyone but Fitzgerald.

`High-powered machines'

"A lot of the new bows are high-powered machines, and they're very touchy as far as accuracy, so the technician really has to know what he's doing," says Ruggeri, who lives in Chambersburg, Pa. "But if Shane sets up a bow, that bow will always outperform the shooter. I've never come across a problem he couldn't deal with."

That's why Ruggeri makes the 40-minute drive to Taneytown when his bows need even the slightest tweaks and why he has recommended Fitzgerald to customers around the world.

Based on orders containing only a few measurements, Fitzgerald has customized bows for customers in South Africa, Ruggeri says. He says he's watched those customers pull Fitzgerald's bows out of their boxes and within 10 minutes fire arrows into 4-inch- wide circles from 20 yards.

"I think that's pretty cool," Ruggeri says. "He's damn good."

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