In 1948, Erwin Romanoff was living in Pittsburgh, selling shoes at Kaufmann’s and fretting about finances. He had a growing family and set out to start a business.
But where? And what?
“My father scouted around and found that he liked Washington,” said George Romanoff, who would be born later that year.
George’s dad and an uncle, Leonard Gross, opened Ace Auto Stores in downtown Washington and Canonsburg, where they sold seemingly everything: auto accessories, hardware, toys, trains, fishing gear, golf and baseball items ...
“There were some firearms,” George said of what was then a secondary line of merchandise.
Seventy years have passed since the founders struck out on their own, and while Ace remains a Romanoff-owned place, the name – and much more – have changed.
The owners streamlined their business by shuttering the Canonsburg location and becoming a hunting and fishing retail operation known as Ace Sporting Goods. Then they dropped the fishing in favor of that secondary merchandise.
Ace now deals only in firearms and related items. The store stands unobtrusively on the northbound side of Route 19 in South Strabane Township, its home since 1989, following 41 years on Main Street in the city.
The company has an enormous showroom – 6,500 square feet – and carries more than 4,000 guns. Talk about rolling out the barrels. It also has a formidable footprint.
“We are the largest gun dealer in Western Pennsylvania and probably among the top five in the state,” George said, referring to sales and, perhaps, space. “Our selection is extremely diverse. We have all kinds of firearms, new and used.”
George, 70, and his son, Ben, are co-owners, making this a three-generation family operation. “We’re extremely proud of that fact,” said George, an unwaveringly friendly man. “Seventy years is quite an accomplishment.”
To celebrate those seven decades, the owners have scheduled the store’s first weeklong sale – Monday through Saturday.
They are proud of their business and pledge devotion to their 15 to 20 employees, some of whom have been on the payroll 20-plus years.
The Romanoffs say they have a large and loyal clientele, which includes customers from West Virginia, Ohio and other counties in the region. But Ace has had to fend off heaps of local competition.
Dick’s Sporting Goods (Strabane Square) and Field & Stream (Old Mill) are across Route 19 and up the hill. Another Dick’s (South Hills Village) and Cabela’s (Triadelphia, W.Va.) are about a half-hour drive away.
Gander Mountain had been at Washington Crown Center, but closed last year. And those are just the big-box stores.
“It’s hard for a lot of businesses to keep going,” George said. “There is competition all around, a number of independent stores. And now we have another competitor: the internet.
“The pie is only so big, and if there is so much competition, you could lose some of the pie.”
To not only survive, but remain healthy in this environment, the Romanoffs stress that their company adheres to three guidelines: “have the most knowledgeable employees in the area”; wide selection; and competitive pricing.
“We may not have the cheapest prices, but we’re competitive, and we’d like to think we’ve treated people fairly,” George said.
There also are what the elder Romanoff described as “political winds.” He readily admits that, in an age of mass shootings, firearms is a polarizing subject. There have been calls for stricter gun laws, mental-health guidelines and more diligent adherence to laws that have been in place.
“Lack of enforcement of existing laws is a major problem,” said Ben Romanoff, who previously worked in the hotel industry.
“If someone doesn’t want to use firearms, we understand,” George said. “But be knowledgeable on all sides of the argument. Nobody wants to make sure firearms are in the hands of responsible people more than us. This is not only for safety, this is our livelihood.”
The Romanoffs believe they and their employees do their due diligence. Ben pointed out that “one-tenth of 1 percent of the firearms we’ve sold have been used for crimes.”
Although he has no immediate plans, George said he eventually will relinquish the company reins to Ben, one of his two children. (Another son, Burt, is an attorney in Sarasota, Fla.)
Ben’s intent is to keep on keeping on.
“The store will continue to operate the way it has,” he said. “We pride ourselves on what we do.”
Returning to that ever-present pie, his father added: “If we continue doing what we’ve done, we figure we’ll get our share.”