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.”
Store owner appreciates faithful customers, history
The jazz man
If Bob Thompson’s 30-year career as a professional musician has taught him anything, it’s that there are really only two kinds of music.
Leave a good legacy, and respect others’
The death this week of the Rev. Jerry Falwell led to a network and cable blitz of commentaries on his life. We’ve been bombarded with a flurry of eulogies, criticisms, apathetic shrugs and lots of news footage regarding Falwell’s faith and foibles.
Crossfit Nation: Working out the WOD way
Just as fashion trends come and go, so do fitness fads, and Cyndie Chinn had tried them all.
Living large in smaller spaces
How is it possible that as your nest gets emptier, your garage gets fuller? Living off the grid sounds tantalizing — the extreme version of paring down. But are you ready for solar panels and growing your own groceries or would a smaller home do the trick?
- Relishing the faith of little children
‘Guns’ for Life
With the latest World Health Organization figures showing global life expectancy increasing from 64 years in 1990 to 70 years in 2011, staying healthy enough to add quality to the quantity of life is an important consideration.
Crack open the power of the coconut
Now let’s get this straight …
We know about Parrotheads. And Cheeseheads. But when did Coconut Heads become cool?
Move over, argan — you are so last season. Another exotic oil is taking lead role in everything from shampoo to weight-loss supplements. That cast-iron skillet seasoning, stretch-mark banishing essence of the hour is — coconut oil.
Free summer serenade concert to be held
Aurora Celtic, sponsored by Ivy & Stone, presents the free Summer Serenade concert Saturday at 6 p.m. on the Brown House lawn in Summersville.
WVU Extension: Healthy summer eating tips for all occasions
Summer and early fall are the times of year for family reunions, potluck picnics, pool parties and various other celebrations where we like to share food.
Endowment still helping students attend college
The “Beckley College, College of West Virginia, Mountain State University and University of Charleston-Beckley Alumni Association Fund” has the distinction of having the longest name of any of the 400 permanent endowments managed by the Beckley Area Foundation.
- More Life! Headlines
- The jazz man