Tales of the Old West Gun Room: El Cerrito shop’s quirky building was originally an antique store

A postcard from the late 1950s or early 1960s for San Pan Antiques with owner Clarence Miller. The moose antlers that now adorn the outside of the building would come when it became the Old West Gun Room. Note the Shell station on the corner.

A mid-1980s newspaper file photo of the building after it became the Old West Gun Room. The antlers are there, but the gas station is gone.

The Old West Gun Room in El Cerrito looks like it’s always been there, partly because of the rustic building it calls home and partly for the way the building is decorated. Factor in the name of the place and it seems even older.
The only dedicated firearms store in West County is a throwback in a city that’s largely green and politically correct, harkening back to the days when that area west of San Pablo Avenue was unincorporated and largely unregulated. How else can you explain a 1948 building made of mortared stones gathered from the base of Albany Hill like something an early settler might have built? It had no electricity or plumbing, it had no sewer hookup. At least the 2-foot-thick outer walls provided ample insulation.
And it wasn’t originally a gun shop, it was an antique store.
Clarence Miller literally built Sam Pan Antiques from the ground up, touted his structure as a landmark visited by curiosity-seekers and even sold postcards, pictured here, of his creation.
The back of the postcard, also pictured, has some of the history of the shop’s origin.

The back of the postcard gives some of the history of the building’s origin.

Below is an El Cerrito Journal story from May 2010 by Dale F. Mead that does a good job filling in more details, other than the spelling of the antique store’s name:

Old West Gun Room draws clientele from ‘every segment of society”
By Dale F. Mead Correspondent

It’s perhaps the most unusual building in El Cerrito.

The Old West Gun Room on Carlson Boulevard is unique not only architecturally but as the only local dedicated gun store. And it lives up to its name inside and out, from the wagon-wheel fence and gates to crude stone walls to revolver door handles to the antique safe and vault door in the backroom.

Former owner David Cumberland, who bought the business in 1963, moved the Old West Gun Room to its current location, which he still owns, in 1968. The building itself was built by Clarence Miller from scratch to house his retail business, Sampan Antiques.

The structure was little more than four 2-foot-thick stone walls with wrought-iron windows and a corrugated tin roof. A stone-and-chain-link fence — real chain supporting wagon wheels — and wrought-iron gates featuring two bigger wagon wheels adorn the front. It had water but no toilet or electricity.

Miller built the walls by picking up rocks around Albany Hill and cementing them together, says Cumberland, 77.

“The story I heard, ” adds current Old West Gun Room owner Robert Weaver, “was that he drove around town in his Packard pickup truck picking up rocks.”

Miller also had a sheet metal workshop at the rear of the property, explaining the tin roof.

Miller chose a colorful neighborhood, Cumberland said.

Before World War II, “there used to be a wood boardwalk, a house of ill repute and two gambling casinos. The El Cerrito hardware store had a big dance hall upstairs. Next to it a bunch of gangsters were living in a big second-floor apartment.”

When Miller died and his building came up for sale, “the minute I saw the place, I said, ‘That’s it, ‘”‰ ” Cumberland says.

Miller’s wife, May, “wanted $30,000 for the building. I gave her $27,500.”

Cumberland added wood interior walls, a second story and electrical and sewer connections. He moved showcases and storage drawers from the old store. He retrieved the circa 1895 safe and vault door from demolition-doomed buildings. He mounted revolvers and rifles as door handles. Vintage guns went up on every wall.

“It appealed to people. From the minute we opened, business increased, ” said Cumberland, who hired Weaver in 1979. Five years later, Cumberland sold him the business and moved to Yreka. He recently moved to Florida.

His tenant loves the business and the building. It still is an antique store: antique guns along with modern ones.

“It’s the old guns that make it interesting. You don’t know what’s going to come through the door next, ” Weaver said.

The range of clientele also fascinates him.

“You meet everybody from top to bottom, ” he said. “Every segment of society owns guns.”

Weaver goes Old West when threatened, as would-be robbers found out in 1994 and 2003, sustaining gunshot wounds for their efforts. In the latter attempt, a customer also fired at the six assailants, at least one of whom was injured. One round struck a 15-year-old boy walking across the street, injuring him and leading to a lawsuit.

These days Weaver appears perfectly at home in his dark, quaint-but-busy habitat, and Cumberland glows with pride of ownership.

The only hitch may be those big, old wagon wheels Miller installed 60 years ago.

“I wish I could find out where he got them, ” Cumberland said. “I could use another set.”

Chris Treadway

  • Sandy Faccini Berry

    I always thought this was the coolest building growing up in E.C.