Story and photos by Callie Broaddus
If you can maneuver past the high end clothing boutiques, inviting smells of gourmet food, and elegantly filled storefronts that entice visitors on Middleburg’s Main Street, you might discover that the best retail therapy can actually be found on the corner of Madison and Federal, under the proprietorship of a man named Bob Ball.
When you shop at Middleburg Millwork, you might walk in the door for the hardware, the lumber or the custom millwork that the business has been known for in its 49 years of operation, but it’s hard not to go home with at least one bonus when you run into Ball.
“He just kind of rubs off on you, and you leave with a smile on your face,” says Punkin Lee, the owner of nearby Journeymen Saddlers, which she has run for 40 years. “He runs a great business, and he offers the community a lot of great services out of that business that people aren’t that much aware of, and they should be.”
Lee is referring to the lesser-known sides of the business, the hardware store and lumber supply. With nearly 15,000 stock keeping units (SKUs) in the system and about half a million dollars in inventory, Ball jokes that he used to call the store his father David Ball co-founded the mini-Lowes of Middleburg. “But I got shot for that every once in a while from my old man; he didn’t like that,” says Bob with a laugh.
However, Bob isn’t joking when he says the shop can offer every necessity a customer could want from a big-box store. From salt to cement, from paint sundries and barn boards to baby pools and loose screws, they probably have it in stock. And if they don’t, they go above and beyond to get it for you.
“A couple weeks ago, a guy came in and wanted 15 gallons of paint,” says Bob. “Well, we had eight gallons of paint.” Bob and his wife Joyce live in Winchester, Virginia, about 20 minutes south of their supplier. “So I made a will call. I called the guy and said, ‘I’ve got the paint.’ And he said, ‘I thought your truck wasn’t coming in.’ I said, ‘You needed it, so I got it.’”
Bob’s can-do, will-do attitude is well known amongst his friends. At the Middleburg Business and Professional Association, he serves on the board alongside MBPA President Punkin Lee and another Federal Street neighbor, Tone Moore, owner of Popcorn Monkey.
“I think Bob is that last screw to tighten things and snug ‘em down. He really does give his all,” says Moore, who found a kindred spirit in Bob when the pair volunteered to lead kids in the Halloween parade two years ago (in full costume). “There’s no forethought; there’s no afterthought. There’s no, ‘Hey what’s in it for me?’ It’s, ‘We gotta get it done, let’s do it.’
“We’re kind of like the Batman and Robin, not knowing which one is Batman and which one is Robin,” says Moore of their participation in the MBPA, adding with a laugh, “I think he’ll get a tickle out of that.
“We kind of came in together, and we’re just kind of Frick and Frack in meetings,” he continues. “It’s always a good time; he’s very open minded and really a breath of fresh air. He typically says what needs to be said in a Bob Ball kind of way.”
What is the Bob Ball way? Moore says, “I think Bob is really good in a nonchalant and mentoring way at getting information out and being able to articulate what needs to be said. It’ll make somebody go, ‘huh,’ and kind of tilt their head like that dog with the ears flopping over.”
As a new board member at the MBPA, Bob wants to elevate the discussion around older and less tourism-centered businesses. “What about us old businesses that have been in town? What can be done; what can we do?” Bob says. “I’m all for tourism; that’s what Main Street is. But when they all go away, you’ve gotta work!”
With rising lumber prices and a soft building market, Bob finds himself
wondering where the business will be in 10 years. “There’s always the next step, and I just have to ride it, see what happens, what goes on,” he says. “But right now it’s taking care of the community. Be the working store.”
Thinking back to when his father still owned the business, Bob recalls a conversation he had with a man named Jimmy Roberts, who lived up the street. “He walked in one day when I was a young man at the front counter. He said, ‘Bob, I’ve got a problem.’”
Bob reenacts a look of trepidation. “I said, ‘What is it, Mr. Roberts?’ He says, ‘The problem is your store—and I’m going to tell your father this—there’s nothing in here fun. Everything I get in here I have to work with.’ ”
Bob chuckles in his convivial manner; clearly “work” and “fun” are separated by a very blurry line in his mind. “It’s just such a…I don’t know how to describe it. I get excited about coming to work every day,” Bob says with a smile. “Well, it’s all about the customer service and meeting people like yourself, and you know, it’s just—it’s fun!”
Judging by Bob’s staff retention rate, it really must be fun. Kenny Milbourne has been on the books for 32 years. Cindy Wines has clocked 16 years. Bob’s wife Joyce has put in around 11 years, and shop foreman Jimmy Beatty has been there for nine. Other employees worked for 28 years, 33 years and more. Bob has been there for 39 years, starting when he was a teenager making $5 every Saturday working 7 a.m. to noon. And that doesn’t include the years he spent as a child riding his Tonka truck in the old grease pits, remnants of the Ford dealership.
Milbourne, who works the counter and contractor sales, says Bob’s genial personality is the reason people tend to stick around. He says Bob picked up this trait from his father, who started the company on April Fool’s Day, 1969, alongside architect Dan Burner. “He can be tough, but he’s fair. He always has been that way,” says Milbourne.
Wines adds, “He knows what working people want, and he’s pleased with everything we do. We all know what has to be done. We do it, and we have a good time doing it.”
Whether you’re a first-time visitor to the area or a longtime resident, pop down to the hardware store to meet one of the friendliest faces in town, and you can grab that tape you always forget you need while you’re there. Like any town, Middleburg reflects the people who have built its character over the years. Fortunately for us all, this builder has all the right tools.
“Bob is Middleburg,” says Moore. “I mean you think about Middleburg, Bob encompasses everything that it’s about. He’s warm, he’s inviting, he’s natural; he just takes you in and embraces you. He’s the guy that’ll open the car door and pick you up off the street, take you home and wash you up, then pat you on your head and give you treats!”
To put it simply, “He dresses up and leads the Halloween parade, you know; he’s a participant,” says Lee. “And that’s what small towns need.” ML