His palms blackened with grease, John Mann maintains a cheery demeanor in the back corner of Mann and Sons Sporting Goods in Pinckneyville, studiously refitting a trigger on a rifle as he recounts his more than five decades in the gun business. The guns have worked on him as much as he has worked on them.
"I'm 62, and I've been doing this all my life," says Mann, quickly adjusting his black-rimmed glasses and gesturing toward his admittedly cluttered work space. "I've been standing behind that bench my entire life.
"It will work on you," he adds, noting that the decades of hunching has taken no small toll on his back.
But Mann will get something of a reprieve in the coming days after the process to sell his business to one of his longtime employees, Janet Ashby, is completed. Ashby, who has worked in Mann's shop for about 15 years, says she is eager to continue the long tradition of the sporting goods shop first established by Mann's father in 1946, but the transition does bring some added stress.
"It's all hitting in our faces right now," Ashby says with a laugh.
Ashby plans to make subtle changes to the business that also employs her son, Dustin Smith, as a resident gunsmith. Some things, like carrying the Red Wing and LaCrosse brands, will remain the same, as will the shop's gun repair services. Ashby, however, wants to move further into gun restoration, and she also plans to change the hours so that the store is closed on Mondays. "We want to have a life" away from work, she says.
The business' name also will get a tweak from "Mann and Son Sporting Goods" to simply "Mann Sporting Goods."
"We're keeping the (Mann) name," she says with conviction. "We'd be crazy not to!"
Mann had been searching for a buyer for some time, but Ashby only entered the equation after Mann's other efforts failed and he said to her, more or less, "Why don't you buy it?" Now that the deal is almost done, Mann is ready to step away, although the shop carries his own history as much as any particular product line.
Mann's father opened the location on West Water Street in 1961, and some of Mann's earliest years were spent by his father's side, where he first learned to clean the weapons that came into the store.
In his younger days, Mann had wanted to work on airplanes and even attended SIU for just that, but ever since his father died almost 40 years ago, Mann has been the shop's sole proprietor.
Mann is ready to step away -- ready to devote more time to his other smaller business interests, ready to visit the cabin he owns part of in Canada, ready to "just mow my yard," he says. Yet the shop has been a part of his life, and he knows he will be called back on occasion to work on a particularly unusual gun.
In the end, though, Mann is ready to embrace a new phase of his life -- and he is pleased to leave his shop in what he believes are good hands.
"I'm ready to slow down," he says. "I love to work on guns, but there's places I need to go and people I need to see."