The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia


January 27, 2013

Sentimental stitches

Store owner appreciates faithful customers, history

Entering a fabric store, one known for attracting quilters, and encountering a man may seem unusual at first. Nancy’s Fabrics and its proprietor have grown in renown among persnickety customers. High quality, high thread count fabrics and fabric knowledge have set it and him apart from larger retailers — although what’s most unusual is Robert is a self-confessed non-quilter. Perhaps his eye for fabric was just lying dormant in his blood.

“Momma was a lifelong quilter, but her true passion was embroidery,” Robert details from behind the counter of his prolifically stocked store named in honor of his mother, Nancy, and situated across from the Ronceverte Train Depot.

“When I told her I was going to name my business after her, she told me in no uncertain terms I had to use the picture of her when she was 25, not 74.”

Momma Nancy Baker was a momma indeed. She gave birth to and raised 12 children total. Robert was number seven. “She had eight boys and four girls. Daddy worked during the day and Momma worked in the evening, 11 to 7. One of them was always there with us. I don’t know how she did it. I guess she didn’t sleep.”

Nancy passed away in 2003, at the age of 79. Robert, who had caught on to crafting as a recovering alcoholic in Seattle before returning to West Virginia to care for his ailing mother, opened Nancy’s Fabrics four years after she passed. Robert has been sober since 1991.

“If you don’t replace an old habit with a new habit, you go back to the old one,” he said.

The new habit rooted in sobriety morphed from ceramics into an attempt to sew porcelain doll clothes, which Robert quickly determined was not for his male psyche.

“Our attention spans are (holds up fingers about an inch apart). We want instant gratification.”

But there was something about sewing that transported him from momentary woes to a place of tranquility. While as comfortable as a quilt, the only completions his attention span would allow were the table runners he made and sold back in Seattle or, as he only recently learned, a quilt top.

“It is so relaxing to me. When I sit down at a sewing machine, the fabric draws all those troubles out of me. But when I sew the last piece on a quilt top I am done. My mind starts to wander and I mess up the stitches.”

The first quilt class he attempted was inside his own store. The instructor was traveling and needed to make it worth her while. He was one person short for the required instructor minimum. Not wanting to lose business, Robert stepped in.

Robert admits he can cut and sew blocks together until the cows come home, but he leaves the actual quilting these days to the pros.

More impressive than novice quilter, Robert is a proven success at business. There were many “naysayers” who balked at the idea of selling fabric for $8.99 per yard, the average retail price of his fabric when he first opened. Maybe in Seattle where a traffic jam was a traffic jam, but not in Ronceverte, where it meant three cars on the road at the same time.

But Robert was patient. And picky.

“When you pay $2 or $3 per yard for a fabric, that’s what you get — a $2 or $3 fabric you could read the newspaper through.”

Why, those would just be WOMBATS — wastes of money, batting and time.

His beginnings were abrupt and humble. As soon as a major retailer, the area’s final frontier for bargain fabric, announced it was closing its fabric department, Robert went to the Ronceverte Development Corporation for space to realize his dream.

“I had no thread. No needles. And 123 bolts of fabric leaned against the wall.”

Soon, however, quilters from near and far populated his shop, drawn in by Robert’s exacting standards and his service mentality. A group of a dozen quilters from Charleston travel here at least once per month. He’s had visitors from Marlinton, Elkins and Bridgeport who planned their trips around stopping at his shop.

“Quilters will drive,” speaks Robert of their known nomadic tendencies, recognized within quilting circles as the Fabric Acquisition Road Trip.

Each quilter to his or her own, and for each, there’s something Robert has to catch their collective eye. Frequent customer Ruth Iles of Lewisburg, one of Robert’s past class participants, didn’t begin quilting until five years ago when she retired from teaching. Robert knows to leave her alone and let her search for the boldest and brightest for her quilting projects from among his prolific shelves. In defense of her personal taste: “When I started, no one told me quilts were supposed to be muted and traditional.”

She’s one of the only ones, he quips, refusing help with his fabric recommendations.

Due in part to his “customers are king” attitude and his stream of business, as steady as a stitch in the hands of a master, Robert was honored in Charleston in 2011 as Ronceverte Main Street Association’s Business Person of the Year. His commendation from Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin is framed and hanging behind the counter beside an even more important frame.

Maybe it’s her color-retouched smile and rosy-cheeked innocence, her face embodying a time when quilters regularly got together to talk, to share ideas, to communicate in coded, slightly naughty acronyms, to eat cake and, of course, to quilt. The image of Momma has become synonymous with Robert’s shop’s success, and each time he has the opportunity to use it, on press releases, mailings, or promotional pens, it remains a worthy tribute.

“I did it in honor of her. You wouldn’t believe how much her picture has meant to this store.”

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