Jeff Simmons came home to Morehouse Parish after college in 1983 and turned to the only thing he knew.
“The only thing I really knew a whole lot about was hunting and fishing, and I wanted my own sporting goods store,” Simmons said. “There was a little 500-square-foot building out on the Mer Rouge highway that we renovated and opened shop.”
There were just two problems, he recalled with a chuckle.
“We didn’t have enough inventory, and we didn’t have enough money,” Simmons said.
That changed over the next 30 years. Today the original store where Jeff sold guns, ammunition and fish baits is a thrift shop.
Now, Simmons Sporting Goods is a 100,000-square-foot complex billed as the South’s largest sporting goods store.
“I never dreamed this,” Jeff said from a table in The Blind restaurant overlooking the massive store.
Hard work paid off, but Simmons is the first to admit the cards just fell his way.
A year after starting out, he moved to Bastrop to an old filling station turned boat dealership that was going out of business. But it took weeks to get the building in good enough shape for him to even let his wife Robin come look.
“I had a job at the hospital, and I kept wanting to come by,” she said. “Jeff wouldn’t let me. Finally, when I came, it was bad. I got busy with a hammer, chipping up old tiles off the floor so we could replace it.
“We lived in an apartment, worked on the store by day and stayed up late at night putting little round orange stickers on fish baits and marking them for 25 cents.”
Then the cards started to fall.
“There was a big West Brothers store in town with a nice sporting goods section,” Jeff Smith said. “It closed. Then, in about a year, Howard Brothers — which also had a full line of sporting goods — closed.
“We were the only one left.”
Jeff Simmons had been building relationships with sales and marketing reps from major sporting goods companies while guiding. At that time, he spent 60 straight days guiding turkey hunts in Texas for folks with Mossy Oak, Realtree and others.
He made some deals to boost his inventory, and over the years he has increased the size of the store nine times, including adding a huge warehouse area.
“Next time we add on, these kids are going to do it,” he said, glancing across the table at son Hunter and daughter Lindsey. “We all work here, and we couldn’t have done it without each other.
For Hunter Simmons, the involvement was preordained.
“I didn’t have much choice,” he said. “I’ve been hunting with Dad since I could hold a gun, and I’ve worked here since then. I love the retail business and like helping people.
“My first job here was picking up cigarette butts outside, and I made $5 a week. I thought I was the highest-paid employee.”
Lindsey Simmons also got her start at the store in the summers, but when she went to college she never expected to come back and stay.
“When I came home from LSU, I was planning on staying for just a little while,” she says. “But I love this. It’s a dream job, and I can’t see doing anything else.”
Here are a couple of reasons why it never gets old.
“We had a turkey-calling contest and had renowned champion turkey callers from all over in here to compete,” Hunter remembered. “This old guy we had never seen before came in with a beard down over his belly, strutting all over the store like a turkey.
“He was barefoot, and when it was his turn to call he just blew away the competition and won the contest. He was amazing. I have no idea who he was, and we haven’t seen him since.”
When the Swamp People TV show first came out, Jacob and Troy Landry came to the store to sign autographs.
People started lining up at 3 a.m., and by daylight the line was all the way down the outside of the store, to the construction gate at the nearby paper mill and back. People parked as far as a mile away at the courthouse and walked in.
It took all day to move people through.
Every gas station in town sold out of gas and every restaurant sold out of food.
One lady stood in line so long in the heat that she fainted. Robin grabbed the nearest thing to her in the tent sale — a pair of camoflauged underwear off the rack — poured a bottle of cold water on it to put on her head.
When she came to, she just said, “Don’t make me leave. I just want to see them.”
“It was complete chaos, and we literally shut down the town that day,” Robin Simmons said. “I had to apologize to a lot of people, but after the dust settled they all came and told us, ‘Thank you.’
“Who would have thought?”
Of course, being so close to Monroe has been a regular stop for some famous waterfowlers.
“We’ve had the Duck Commander guys in several times,” Lindsey Simmons said. “But one time Willie and Si were here and when a young couple got to the table for an autograph, the boy took the microphone (he had called ahead and OK’d what he was about to do), got on his knee and proposed.
“Thank goodness, she said, ‘Yes.’ It left everybody laughing, crying and shaking their heads — including Willie and Si.”
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