By Ellin Youse
The streets of Mount Vernon, Ohio are lined with run down office buildings. Railings with peeling paint and crumbling brick walls prove the small Midwest town has seen more prosperous industrial times, but “open” signs continue to hang on store doorways.
Mannequins in window displays and the occasional sidewalk sale are some of the few vestiges of surviving businesses that are able to stay afloat mostly because of fruitful early years.
Concealment Unlimited looks like one of these businesses. If it were not for the American flag printed logo splashed across the store’s front window, the little shop would blend into the dismal remains of Mount Vernon business. But one step inside proves it is nothing like its neighbors.
The pale, baby blue walls of Concealment Unlimited are brightly lit from the vintage, crystal chandeliers hanging above showroom floor. A lightening fixture from 1920 hangs next to a sign on a wall that reads, “defend yourself!” and illuminates a large case of pink mace.
Racks upon racks of purses fill the main floor, leaving just enough room for customers to catwalk around as they browse the shop.
Office manager Carrie Swingle softly hums along to “The Phantom of the Opera” soundtrack playing from her computer as she tediously records yesterday’s Amazon sales (all 216 of them) into a Google document.
As owner Nikki Artus emerges from the back supply room, she picks up a bedazzled, turquoise hobo bag and runs her fingers over the dark brown stitching.
“This bag is one of our cheaper options, going for $130,” she said. Not everyone can afford the $300-$400 bags so we try to provide a range of prices for our customers.”
From the extravagant bags to the romantic lighting, the store’s glamorous atmosphere suggests it to be a fine leather bags boutique.
But just as the dismal economic status of the town outside disguises the success within the shop, buttery leather of all shades, crystal embellishments, studs and artistic design mask the true purpose of each bag—every purse in the store is designed with a hidden front pocket for easily accessing a concealed weapon.
“A woman in the store the other day told me she was at the grocery store and when her card was declined, she started pulling everything out of her bag and placing it on the counter trying to find some cash, including her gun,” Artus recalls as she counts the store’s inventory.
Jennifer Walters, a retail account specialist at Concealment, stops unpacking a fresh shipment of black leather bags and laughs.
“Can you imagine being that clerk who told her her card was declined?” she chuckles. “Like, I’m sorry you can’t pay for your milk! Don’t shoot, just take it!”
As Artus emerges from the back room with a large, rust colored tote bag, she says, “This is why it is so important to be able to effectively conceal your protection. See the muff style pocket here?” Artus asks, unzipping the front pocket of a sidesaddle style tote bag.
“That’s where you put your gun. The holster clips in, so even if you accidently unzip the pocket, the gun won’t fall out unless you pull on it. That’s what makes it safe. It’s easy to pull out, but only when you command it too. It’s not just gonna fall out all over the place.”
Artus founded Concealment Unlimited in 2009 after applying for a conceal carry weapons license. After a series of run-ins with attackers, Artus decided it was necessary to learn to protect herself, but she struggled finding a purse to conceal her gun.
She began selling specialty conceal carry bags to friends, family and neighbors from her home, but after the birth of her disabled son she and her husband, Brien, deemed it necessary to open a store.
Looking around at the store’s glamorous arsenal of inventory, it’s hard not to feel like a member of Charlie’s Angels. A thigh holster for wearing under dresses hangs on a hook near the front door; a basket of plastic pink handguns sits on the checkout desk.
Walking to a wall in the back of the store that is completely dedicated to the individual hand gun holsters, Artus picks up a strappy, canvas contraption and lays it over her stomach.
She pulls two of the straps out with her arms to show its length, and then pulls them through and hoists the straps onto her shoulders. Artus calls the canvas bondage a body holster, saying it is intended to conceal a gun under one’s clothing.
“The problem with this damn thing is the canvas material, it’s so scratchy,” Artus said while adjusting the body holster under her bosom.
“Another nice option for a body holster is this bra we carry with the holster built right in between the cleavage, but if you’re like me, you might not like it.”
Artus looks down at herself and runs a hand down her plump figure. She looks up, smiles and laughs. “Frankly, I got enough in my bra as it is.”
After a few minutes of reaching around her torso to tighten and buckle straps here and there, Artus finally gets the body holster just right. She reaches in between her breastplates and pulls up to draw out her invisible firearm.
“See, the problem is having to pull up makes it harder to get your gun out,” Artus said. “It’s comfortable because it goes under your boobs and is held up by your shoulders, but you still have to wear a big shirt so the gun isn’t noticeable.”
The bell above the door politely chimes, and Artus frantically squirms out of the holster as she hears footsteps.
The visitor is John Jones, a promotional products supplier coming to show Artus the rape whistles she ordered to serve as free gifts to customers. As Artus inspects and compliments the whistles, Jones looks around the store.
“Maybe I’ll pick up something for my wife while I’m here,” he says. “She just got her license. I like the idea of her being able to protect the kids when I’m not there.”
Artus puts the whistles down and talks shop with Jones for a while. Jones leaves with a basic, black shoulder bag, and Artus and Swingle begin discussing the rising amount of women applying for conceal carry.
All of the women in Concealment Unlimited have conceal carry licenses, but not all of them acquired them strictly for protection purposes.
Swingle, who says she and her husband enjoy the sport of target shooting, takes a break from typing to point to a fluorescent orange target paper behind her desk.
“This is the target paper from my best shooting session,” she says.
On the paper is the outline of a man, and Swingle points to the bullet marks near where the man’s heart would be.
“See that? Yeah. He’s dead,” she giggles.
While Swingle enjoys the sport aspect of being a gun owner, Artus’s chimes in to say most women, like her, apply for conceal carry licenses initially for safety purposes.
About 10 years ago when Artus lived alone in downtown Columbus, a man broke into her car and then tried to break into her apartment. Then, five to six years after her first attacker, Artus was driving to work when she was involved in a bout of road rage with a man on a motorcycle.
“Someone must have pissed in his Wheaties that morning because he just decided he was gonna mess with me.” Artus said.
She laughs nervously, waving her hands in the air to suggest she has given up understanding the motorcyclist’s motives.
“He kept trying to run me off the road. He followed me into a parking lot and tried to break into my car. I just kept thinking ‘what do I do, what do I do.’ I was defenseless.”
Artus combs her hands through her short, wavy hair. Obviously recalling the accident puts her on edge.
After her road rage incident Artus and her husband immediately applied for their conceal carry licenses. As Artus finishes her story, she looks down and wipes the hair out of her eyes.
Looking up again, Artus says, “but before all of that, of course, was my mother’s murder.”
A man with a gun murdered Artus’s mother, shooting her in the back and head, when Artus was 15-years-old. Artus looks vulnerable for another minute, but shrugs her shoulders and paces around as she begins to shelf several bags with rhinestones.
Artus’s run-ins with attackers and the tragic loss of her mother explain why she advocates for gun rights, while firmly supporting legislation requiring mental health screenings when purchasing firearms.
“The guy that killed my mom was arguably insane and the people you hear about in the atrocities in the news are, without question, mentally deranged. Sane people normally don’t do that.”
Artus stops shelving bags and looks out the store’s front window.
“I do think the government needs to do more for the mental health system in general. There’s no treatment for these people, and they can still get guns. Something’s gotta change there.”