By Lisa Shrewsberry
The produce harvest is a distant memory, but that doesn’t mean conscientious consumers are off the hook for shopping local. Businessman Kevin Traube has stood the tests of time and Walmart inside his niched retail nook, a surviving small business worthy of a case study for its amazing adaptability over the past nearly three decades. His is one Little Brick House impervious to the huffing, puffing and blowing-down winds of change and chains.
“Change comes and you either adapt or hold on to the ideas of the past,” says Traube, recalling the evolution of his business from an arts and crafts venue to a collectibles spot to a combination specialty store, mini-golf course and seasonal ice cream parlor. His philosophy is as casual as his reasons for beginning (he acquired family-owned land and wanted to do something different) and as quietly flexible as one of his largest product lines, granola-kissed casualwear, Life Is Good. Were his business sense captioned in like fashion, it would read: Make them happy, and they will come.
Pre-Tamarack artisan center, Little Brick House was one of the only local clearinghouses for West Virginia-made items. Once artists could have their products purchased in bulk, paid for in advance and featured inside the grand Tamarack turrets, fewer wished to display at smaller brick retailers like Traube’s, although he maintains the highest regard for Tamarack and its mission. “Then we became a place for collectibles.” Following the loss of a number of crafters, Little Brick House boasted several large, national lines like popular Tom Clark gnomes and Department 56 villages. Customer demand dictated much of the inventory, a merchandising practice that begins with the question, “Do you have this?” and which also explains a brief but glorious diversion into the Beanie Baby brouhaha. Much to the dismay of collectibles shops everywhere, the worldwide web became that guy in the prison yard who could get you things, and get them fairly cheap. What was left of Traube’s lunch, post artisan exodus, the Internet promptly ate.
Then one day while mowing the hilly backyard to Little Brick House, he started thinking. Harper Road, his location, was the busiest interchange in southern West Virginia. And if he knew anything about land, it was that they weren’t making any more of it. “You know, this hillside would be nice if it was something productive,” was his inner response. He remembered an entertaining place from his childhood called Hillbilly Golf, in Gatlinburg, Tenn., and it got him thinking more. “This place had such a history of tourists being knocked out by the beauty of West Virginia. It seemed a natural place to make a West Virginia-themed golf course.” That was 11 years and 18 holes ago. He connected with a friend to find an engineer willing to help him build Mountain State Miniature Golf, after hours spent in the pouring rain placing stakes where fun-loving, Mountain State-inspired obstacles, from Seneca Rocks to a mountain still to the Mothman, would emerge amid the green. The day the amorphous sludge was pumped downhill to form his dreams in concrete was a day he remembers “right behind getting married and having kids.”
As long as the weather has cooperated, they have come, customers from far and near. Traube’s adaptation received an adaptation of its own. “At first, I thought, ‘I could make some money doing this.’ Then I saw the tourists, the teenagers on dates, the grandmas and grandpas and I felt like the Grinch when he heard the Whos singing. I realized beyond making money it was meeting the needs of the community.”
In summer, 2012, he was all-in again — this time with the idea he could sustain a make-it-and-weigh-it ice cream parlor. Chocolate Moose Ice Cream and Sweets, so named for the “moth-eaten” stuffed moose hanging over the mantle in the parlor, saw steady traffic and several scheduled business meetings this past summer. “Both (the golf course and the ice cream parlor) are very seasonal ideas. For half of the year, I feel like a genius, for the other half, it’s ‘Hey, Buddy, can you spare a dime?’”
With southern West Virginia’s largest inventory of optimistic cotton casualwear and with artisan faithful Carol Dameron’s Pockbookity rag purses and trendy coal jewelry, Little Brick House’s strength this peak buying season is with inimitable stocking stuffers that go beyond the call of duty. In addition to these, don’t for a second think the wheels aren’t turning for another adaptation to keep his business relevant, no matter what the time of year. By Traube’s estimation, it sure beats the alternative.
“When you are a small business owner, you can easily fail by trying to keep your initial vision for your business intact,” he concludes, what he refers to as the “I’m going down, but I’m taking my vision with me” philosophy.
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Little Brick House Festive Five
1. 2012 Praying for Coal ornament by Carol Dameron. “This year,” writes Dameron, “the inspiration came from my Dad, who passed away in October. Two days before he died, Dad received a ruby encrusted lapel pin and a letter from the UMWA thanking him for 60 years of service. I want to honor him and every coal miner with this ornament. We all must pray for coal. It is the lifeblood of West Virginia.” A portion of the ornament proceeds will benefit the Women’s Resource Center. $11.
2. Aspen Mulling Spices. “Just add the cheapest apple juice on the market and let the spices do the rest.” $4.50, also in Spiced Orange and Sugar -Free varieties.
3. Blue Smoke Salsa. When it seemed the local salsa producer would go up in smoke, a restructuring and a focus on distribution saved them and their savory-sweet recipe. $6.
4. Chocolate-covered insects - a favorite topping for freaking out friends in the ice cream parlor, Traube admits. Equally effective to shock the (Christmas) sock. $3.
5. West Virginia Department of Natural Resources Calendar. “Each page is packed with information on hunting, blooming, the moon phases and anything a hunter or naturalist would love.” Proceeds go in part to assist the WVDNR. $10.