by Samantha Yates
The markers of a struggling city are apparent in downtown Buena Vista. In this city of 6,700 residents, ‘For Sale’ signs and boarded up storefronts are common.
But not all the city’s businesses are failing.
“We have kept our head above water with the help of the customers coming from all around,” said Rebecca Fairchild, owner of Becky’s Country Casuals. Fairchild was born and raised in Buena Vista and opened her shop 33 years ago. She says she and her husband have succeeded by reaching way beyond the city limits.
Fairchild first sold high-end sportswear at Becky’s Country Casuals before she started selling prom dresses in 1983. She said her first eight prom dresses sold within a week. Since then, she has stopped the sportswear and expanded her merchandise to collections of prom and bridal dresses.
“If we relied on just Rockbridge County, nobody would survive,” Fairchild said. “But we reach out. In a business like this you have to.” Fairchild’s husband, John, estimates that 80 percent of their customers come from more than an hour’s drive away.
Buena Vista has been struggling since a series of major floods hit the city in 1969, 1985, 1992 and 1995. The floods took a toll on the industries that drove the city’s economy. When the last flood hit, many businesses left town.
The Fairchilds blame the floods for the city’s increasing number of closed retail storefronts, too. They estimate the 1985 flood caused Buena Vista to lose 1,400 manufacturing jobs. Becky’s Country Casuals flooded as well, but the Fairchilds were able to survive, thanks to the help of people they call “the flood angels.”
“It was surreal, there came through the door … about 40 people, Buena Vista people. And they said, ‘Becky, what can we do?'” she said. “They took my antiques and picked up my dresses and started to move them upstairs. Every last piece, there was nothing in here. After that they all left to go help somebody else.”
Unlike Fairchild, Deb Bollinger opened the Amish Cupboard on Beech Avenue just four years ago. It took a big commitment, said Bollinger, who was born in Lancaster, Pa., and has roots among the Amish people there.
“I took my retirement and we mortgaged our house, we put a second mortgage on our house, and we put all of our investments that we had saved up every year into this business,” Bollinger said. “It was a tough decision, but I do love it.”
New to the area, the Bollingers used everything at their disposal to broadcast their new store.
“We did a billboard, we did advertising, we did radio, we did newspaper, we have a Facebook page,” Bollinger said. “So we really had to get the word out.”
Bollinger knows that some failed business owners are quick to blame Buena Vista’s government for not doing enough to encourage downtown business. She said there are times when she doesn’t feel supported by the local government, but she recognizes that Buena Vista doesn’t have the money to help businesses out.
“You have to get out there. You have to spend money to make money,” she said. “The biggest thing going into a business that I underestimated was the capital needed to get you to break even point. It is a lot. At four years we’re at break even.”
Fairchild doesn’t expect help from the city, either.
“We do not rely on our city government to help us in any way,” she said. “They don’t have the money; they’re in enough problems as it is.”
Fairchild says some business owners who left got discouraged because they wanted a quick buck, and that wasn’t going to happen.
“They had no faith in themselves or the people around them,” she said. “We would advertise, but they wouldn’t even advertise. I mean, we still advertise in magazines. Just because we’ve been here for 33 years, I don’t want people to forget.”
Fairchild acknowledges the impact of nearby chain retail stores like Wal-Mart, about eight miles away. To compete with such places, she says, you have to have a niche that is different.
Andy Wolfe, a veteran newspaper executive and businessman who returned to Buena Vista in 1997 and opened a public relations firm in 2004, agreed that Fairchild has done just that.
“I look at Becky’s and I see people coming from everywhere to shop there because she has this specific niche, and she’s very good at it,” Wolfe said. “She provides exceptional customer service, and that’s what people want, and they’re willing to travel for it.”
Down the street from Becky’s, Wayne Huffman, owner of Bald Bear Outdoors on Magnolia Avenue, has stayed in business for 22 years.
“During my slow months, which is generally May through July, sometimes I may only have 10 or 12 customers a day, and some of those don’t buy,” Huffman said. “But in my better season, which generally runs August through March, especially the fall season, sometimes I could have 100 customers.”
Huffman has one part-time employee; Bollinger employs six people. Both owners say they pay their employees more than the minimum wage. Even so, they and other merchants acknowledge that they can’t replace all the jobs – and the wages – that left with the factories.
Huffman said it wouldn’t be hard for him to find more people to work for him, but the problem is getting enough customers to support a bigger work force.
Bollinger is committed to starting her employees at more than the minimum wage because she doesn’t think people can survive on less.
“The way we work it out is that you come in, we start you at $8 or $8.50 an hour, which is above minimum wage, and then it’s up to you,” Bollinger said. “I look at the effort you put in and the initiative you put in. We’re actually paying some of our employees more than $10 an hour.”
But she realizes she cannot pay everybody more than $10 or $15 an hour, and meeting payroll means that she can’t take a salary for herself some months.
“I’m still looking toward the future, and I hope that some day we will be profitable and I’ll be able to take a salary, but they come first. Our employees come first,” Bollinger said.
Jason Vassar, owner of J&S Auto on Magnolia Avenue, recalls when factory jobs in Buena Vista meant his brother could start out at $10 an hour. That was in 1987.
“When we lost Blue Bird, the bus manufacturing company [in 1992], a lot of families packed up and moved,” Vassar said.
Vassar has been running his auto shop for 15 years, with four mechanics working for him today. He considers himself “one of the fortunate ones” to still be in business, providing a service that the community will always need.
“I’ve been just as busy from the first day until now,” Vassar said. “We’re busy here, but you go to Lexington and they’re charging twice what I charge, because there’s money in Lexington.”
Vassar has always been a mechanic and has lived in Buena Vista his entire life.
“There used to be tons of places to shop up and down the streets when we were kids. Now you can’t even buy a pair of shoes in town,” Vassar said. “When I was a kid there were three car dealerships, now we don’t have any. There’s not any place to even buy a used car anymore.”
One type of business Buena Vista still has plenty of is beauty salons and barber shops. Kim Gilbert, owner of Expressions Hair Design, has been in business for 25 years. She says the competition of 13 other salons in town makes it tough for her to do well.
“In bigger cities when you finish hair school and you can go into salons the clientele is already there because there’s a lot of foot traffic,” Gilbert said. “Here, everybody that I’ve hired I’ve said, ‘You know, I’ll help you in any way that I can, but basically it’s up to you to get your clientele in here. You need to tell everybody you meet.’”
Gilbert has two full-time and two part-time employees, with another woman set to begin full-time in July. In salons, Gilbert said, you make your income on commissions or on booth rental.
“Commission is a 60/40 split; they get 60 [percent] and I get 40 [percent],” Gilbert said. “I’m basically like their boss and I take care of everything like the supplies and the taxes.”
Booth rental works differently.
“Booth rental is when you have your own station and then it’s like basically owning your own business,” Gilbert said. “They pay me rent by the week and then they’re responsible for their own supplies, anything that they need. I’m just providing them a place to work, pretty much.”
Some of Gilbert’s employees work on commission and some rent booths. Her goal is to base her business entirely on booth rental eventually. But in order for that to happen each employee needs to get enough clients to be able to afford her own booth rent.
Gilbert grew up in Buena Vista and remembers having everything she needed downtown.
“There were lots and lots and lots of stores and, I mean, we didn’t feel like we really needed to go to Lexington to get anything,” she said.
Today, she said, shoppers head to Lexington and to the big retail stores in the county, including Wal-Mart and Lowe’s.
Shaam Wheeler, a Buena Vista native who bought Buena Vista Hardware and Home Center two years ago, feels the competition from Lowe’s.
“The retail business is tough,” Wheeler said. “People tend to think that they’re saving a dollar by riding to Lexington, but they don’t put a value on their time or the gas that they use to get there. I think that we can grow our business here … we just need to support one another.
“I don’t know that we’ll ever thrive the way that we did, back in the…early ’80s,” Wheeler said. “But you know, if we don’t support one another we’ll never get there.”