The narrow heart-pine stairs ascend above the bustle of the sporting goods store in Thomasville, Georgia, the scent of gun oil growing stronger with each squeaky step. It’s the last few wooden treads that seem to draw back time’s curtain. Antique European mounts come into view. There are polished wooden cases of sporting arms, and paintings and portraits hung floor to ceiling. Hunters and shooters climbing the last steps share a similar sense: This is hallowed ground.
Kevin Kelly understands the feeling. “There are only two Long Rooms on the planet,” he explains. “Purdey had the first. But this place is pretty special, too.”
For more than a century, the Long Room of James Purdey & Sons has anchored the gunmaker’s headquarters in London’s historic Audley House. The sprawling parlor began as part craftsman’s workbench and part sales counter to the world’s most discriminating shotgun buyers. Bespoke long arms were displayed on a massive leather-topped table, crusted with cigar smoke and sawdust. Shotguns crowded cases, their barrels rising up like the masts above the wharves of the nearby Thames. The Long Room became a spiritual center of fine shotgunning. “There’s a sense of place there that is very, very special,” Kelly says. “You feel like you have come to a Holy Grail in the gun business.”
Kelly would know. In 1973, he and his mother, Betty, opened Kevin’s Guns & Sporting Goods in Tallahassee, Florida, which grew into a regional icon and spawned a massive catalogue business that helped define the upland gunning lifestyle. In 1992, looking to expand to the historic quail-hunting region of the Red Hills, Kelly and his wife, Kathleen, bought an imposing redbrick 1885 building on Thomasville’s Broad Street. When Kelly first climbed the dark stairs into the open space upstairs, windows were missing and pigeons had taken up residence. Inspiration struck in an instant. “I thought, ‘Man, that could be a Long Room up there,’” he recalls. “But I kept it under my hat. I didn’t say a word to anybody.”
For a decade, the upstairs space served as part stockroom, part conference room, and part party space, as Kevin’s evolved into a Southern mecca for shooting sports. Over a few years in the early 2000s, Kelly converted the space into a Long Room–esque gun parlor and a suite of exquisite gun rooms to display a growing collection of fine sporting arms and art. Today the warren-like space hosts three separate gun rooms. One is home primarily to American double-barreled shotguns—L.C. Smiths, Parkers, and Winchesters—and African big-game rifles. In another bay reside mostly English guns—a forest of Purdeys and Holland & Hollands and E.J. Churchills. Kelly’s penchant for storied lever guns is evident elsewhere. There are more than fifty—Winchesters and Colts, largely, and many from the era of large-caliber buffalo guns. Fine shotguns from the Kevin’s line of personally designed models built in Italy are clustered everywhere—side-by-sides and over-and-unders in various levels of ornamentation. All told, there are guns that range in price from $2,500 to $250,000, and business is conducted around the Long Room’s massive wooden table, akin to the one in Audley House.
The upstairs sanctum at Kevin’s isn’t open to everyday foot traffic. But ask nicely, Kelly says, and you’ll most likely get a peek. The space isn’t a museum for hoarding history, he insists, but an expression of a very modern relationship to fine sporting arms. “No one here is living in the past,” he says. “My family is totally immersed in this lifestyle.”
In the weeks prior to D-Day, General Dwight D. Eisenhower and his chief of staff, General Walter Bedell Smith, commandeered the Long Room at James Purdey & Sons to plan the final, bloody invasion to wrest Europe from Hitler. Already, the marble pillars of the building had been pocked with air raid shrapnel. Years later, in 1975, an IRA bomb blew out every window in its east-facing facade. Yet history continues to be made at Audley House, where the Long Room still commands a sort of reverence.
Kelly harbors no pretensions as to having built a place of quite such gravitas. But like the original, his Long Room and its attendant gun displays seem to invite a sort of discovery that many upland shooters can’t resist. “That’s why we love to think about where these fine old guns came from,” he says, “who owned them, and what journeys they took on their way to little Thomasville, Georgia. You pick up one of these old guns and you open doors to history. You never know where you’ll end up.”