BUENA VISTA — She heard the sirens from her home around 8 p.m.
Becky Fairchild, her husband John and her 16-year-old son Bradley raced down the hill to her clothing shop on Magnolia Avenue. The floodwaters were already coming up the street by the time they arrived.
She stepped into her pitch-black store, which had lost its electricity earlier in the day. With but a single flashlight among them, they started moving racks of sweaters, skirts, shoes, belts and dresses to the highest shelves . But they didn’t have much time.
Becky looked at the mannequins with long gowns brushing against the floor. They would surely be ruined.
Out of nowhere, 40 neighbors and friends rushed into the store. They worked together in the darkness to move all of her merchandise upstairs or to their own homes.
“They came to help,” Becky said. “I don’t know how they knew I needed it.”
“That’s just the way Buena Vista is,” John said.
They finished just in time. As Becky locked up the shop, water lapped against the front door. By the next day, 6 feet of water had accumulated inside and the store was closed for two weeks to repair the damage and to clean up. Because of her neighbors, Becky didn’t lose a single piece of merchandise or furniture.
The November 1985 flood proved to be Virginia’s costliest. Across the state, the damage estimate tallied $753 million. Roanoke alone sustained $225 million in damage with more than 3,000 homes and businesses affected.
But the floods hit Buena Vista particularly hard. The community is situated around a bend of the Maury River, and five creeks flow through its residential areas. The Maury River, which crested at 26 feet during the flood, left $50 million in damage to the city.
Over the next year, businesses and factories closed. Two devastating floods in less than 20 years — the first in 1969 after remnants of Hurricane Camille hit Virginia — was enough for people to give up. The city lost hundreds of jobs.
One year after the flood, The Roanoke Times wrote a story about the cleanup efforts and the effect of the 1985 flood on Buena Vista. The newspaper published a photo of Becky standing in her shop, surrounded by costume jewelry. The caption read: “Becky Fairchild said her dress shop business is lively; she wants more merchants downtown.”
Becky is still waiting.
Becky’s wait seemed to be coming to an end when, in January 2018, developer Ed Walker purchased 16 properties downtown for $1.67 million with the hopes of revitalization.
But so far, no businesses have taken the bait.
Since March 2018, Walker, who played a major role in reviving downtown living in Roanoke, has been working on cleaning and restoring some of his newly purchased properties. He’s spent about $200,000 on new roofs, paint jobs and facade maintenance, he said. In April, he and his team launched a Go BV campaign and website to help market the buildings to potential developers.
Walker said he’s looking for more Beckys — men and women who love Buena Vista and want to see it succeed, people who are in it for the long haul.
“She exemplifies what we believe could happen there,” Walker said. “You just have to find five, six, seven other people like that.”
Becky opened her store in 1982 in a former drugstore. At that time, it was the only available property on Sycamore or Magnolia avenues, the two streets that run the length of downtown. The city center was filled with hardware stores, groceries, restaurants and drug stores. Residents never had to leave the area for anything they needed.
But now, and especially after the floods, most of downtown is vacant.
Becky started by selling “sportswear,” women’s clothing like sweaters, skirts and accessories. But during her second year of business, she went to pick out her inventory, saw a selection of prom dresses and fell in love.
She picked out eight different styles and went to the vendor. He took out his clipboard, poised his pen and asked her how many she wanted in each size and color.
“I want one dress, in one color, in one size. And that’s it,” Becky said.
“That’s retail suicide,” he told her.
But she ordered the eight dresses and hung a sign in the store window that just read, “Prom.” Within the week, she sold out.
She told the girls if they bought a dress from her, no one else at their prom would have the same one. Becky made sure of it.
Back in the ’60s, Becky went with her parents to buy her own prom dress — a white dress with a turquoise bow on the back for $80. But when she arrived at her senior prom at Parry McCluer High School, her friend said, “Don’t turn around.” Another girl had on her exact dress.
Becky never forgot it. To this day, even if she gets an extra dress of the same style, she never lets two girls from the same school buy it.
Prom season at Becky’s starts in January. Students from all over the region — Rockbridge, Alleghany, Botetourt, Augusta, Amherst, Roanoke and Appomattox counties — buy their prom dresses at Becky’s Bridal and Formal.
Victoria Ramsey, a rising senior at Parry McCluer High School, started her prom dress search in January. She tried on dozens of dresses and continually came back to see any new ones Becky brought in.
Ramsey is the third daughter from her family to buy her prom and homecoming dresses at Becky’s. Her mother, Barbara, met Becky when she tried on wedding dresses there and she’s brought her daughters back for every occasion.
“Becky, what do you think of this one?” Victoria asked as she twirled around in a flowing, mint-colored gown.
“Look at that, look at the little princess,” Becky said. “Oh, Vicky.”
“I really like this one,” Victoria said.
“I do too,” Becky said. “That’s it.”
And it was. Victoria bought the dress that day.
Becky’s husband John said Becky is the one that attracts young women to the store, not the hundreds of designer prom and bridal dresses that fill the racks.
“There are people that come in here and if she’s not here, they’ll leave,” he said. “They want Becky.”
For the past eight years, Becky has been forced to take a back seat at the shop. In 2012, she noticed a small white fleck on her nose. She put some rubbing alcohol on it, but the next day it was bigger. She closed the shop, went to her doctor and told him she thought something was wrong.
About a week later, he called her with biopsy results. It was a melanoma, and a rare one.
Becky asked him if she was going to die. He told her not to worry yet, that he was going to call the best doctor he knew at the University of Virginia.
“How can we reach you?” he asked.
“Well I guess I’ll be at the shop,” she said.
Eventually, Becky had surgery to remove a large part of her nose. She went back to the shop after a few days and sat down, looking at all of her gowns. She would need to have reconstructive surgery on her nose, but that would mean she would have to be out for three months to recover.
“I was thinking, ‘In God’s name, what am I going to do?’ ” she said.
At that moment, just like in 1985, the front door opened and in walked a neighbor, Pat Gibson. Gibson’s daughter had modeled for Becky and worn her dresses in pageants.
She told Becky she had heard about her diagnosis and asked what she could do to help. Becky told her she needed to be out of the shop for three months, and before she could finish, Pat offered to take over.
Other neighbors chipped in throughout the months leading up to the surgery and during Becky’s recovery.
“You would have thought the president of the United States had his nose taken off,” Becky said. “I cannot tell you how they rallied.”
Four and a half years later, Becky found another melanoma on her neck and had to be out of the shop again for surgery. But this time, it had metastasized. The doctors wanted to sign her up for a new kind of immune therapy, but they weren’t sure if she would be approved.
She got a call at her shop from the woman in charge of the immune therapy patients.
“I don’t know if you remember me,” the woman said. “But you did my wedding.”
A few weeks later, Becky started the therapy.
Becky said this prom season was her best in eight years because she could finally devote her time to the shop fully. For 37 years, they have survived the ups and downs of Buena Vista and her own life — floods, economic downturns, cancer diagnoses and medical treatments. Even then, she said, she’s never once thought about moving her shop away from Magnolia Avenue.
That’s what she calls the “BV backbone.”
“We’re strong-spirited,” Becky said. “We don’t want to give up. A lot of people gave up and moved and went. But it’s a certain mindset that you have that you don’t want to fail. You want to keep on.”
Little girls come to the door of Becky’s Bridal and Formal to look at the glittering dresses perched on the platform in front of the window. They ask their parents if they can just go in and look.
They can’t wait to be Becky’s girls, Pat Gibson said, and to buy their first dress, usually for a middle school dance or to be a junior bridesmaid.
From that first dress they’re hooked, and then they come in for every homecoming, every prom and then one day they’re Becky brides. And then they bring their own daughters in.
Becky’s is more than a store. It’s where longtime friends catch up with each other, where locals swap gossip and where people seek refuge from what’s going on in their lives.
Everyone in Buena Vista knows Becky. And Becky knows everyone in Buena Vista.
“She’s amazing,” Gibson said. “She’s a force. She’s Becky. You know how Cher only needs one name? Well, she’s Becky.”
And that’s the kind of person, someone so uniquely Buena Vista, who developer Walker is looking for when he searches for tenants and buyers.
Walker said he’s interested in developing Buena Vista in a way that makes sense for its residents. He wants to build a new library branch to replace the old, small one right across the street from Becky’s shop. The library is the most utilized building in town and cannot accommodate the kind of programming its staff wants to create.
Walker said he also wants to create what he calls a blackbox, a space that can serve multiple functions for community groups, government meetings or small businesses. It would host events, meetings, anything the community needed. He also wants to build a town square next to Becky’s, where people can do much of the same thing, but in an outdoor space.
“There is no reason in the world Buena Vista can’t be a thriving, exciting little municipality,” he said.
He recently hired Jamie Goodin, a former Main Street Lexington employee, to be the project’s manager. Goodin will serve as a private economic development director for Walker’s spaces and to attract people to the city in general. He’ll also help coordinate efforts between Walker and his team, the city government and residents.
“He’s got a real good mind, a lot of heart,” Walker said. “He’s organized and knows how to put a plan in action. He’s got a lot of momentum and personal velocity and we’re thrilled about the difference he can make.”
Becky said she feels confident in Walker’s plans and intentions. She said he’s familiar with the area and understands all of the twists and turns of Buena Vista.
“We like Ed Walker,” she said. “He’s gonna help us. But he’s got to have some help, too.”
Meanwhile, Becky will keep running her shop, attracting customers and staying loyal to Buena Vista — till the day she dies, she said.
Her BV backbone is as strong as ever.