No matter what team, college, driver or athlete you root for, there’s likely something that will catch your eye at Sports Haven. The sports memorabilia shop has locations at 4 East Main Street in Salem, across from the Farmers Market, and 7541 Williamson Road in the Hollins area.
“Our slogan is ‘almost no team left behind’,” said proprietor Robin Bennett. “We’ve had people stop in at the Hollins store when there’s a wreck on 81 and they had to come off the interstate, and they’re blown away. They can’t believe how many different things we have.”
Bennett is a Northside graduate but no stranger to Salem.
“I have so much history with Salem for someone not to be from Salem,” he said. “When I was a kid I used to love to come to Newberrys, and when I was older I had a ’50 Mercury and I used drive through Main Street to see the car in the windows.”
Robin was always a big sports fan. He loved attending the Salem Rebels hockey games growing up and still has a passion for the game on ice. He carries many hockey “sweaters” at his stores, including the old Rebels’ jerseys with the maple leaf cut out of the confederate flag. That may not be politically correct in these times, but years ago it was one of the coolest jerseys in the Eastern Hockey League.
“My older sister(Joan) and her boyfriend(now husband, Guy Moyers) took me everywhere when I was a kid,” said Bennett. “They took me to my first Rebels game and in that game Dave Schultz fought Bob Shupe, who played for Charlotte and everyone hated. From that point I was hooked.”
Robin played youth hockey at the Salem Civic Center with equipment he got from a neighbor down the street. His friend Dennis Epperly’s dad, Ed, worked at the Salem Civic Center and brought home some sticks.
“We’d play on the driveway with tennis balls. I loved going to those Rebels games. I remember watching Jack Chipchase and he had the nastiest, dirtiest uniform,” said Bennett, imitating Chipchase’s habit of wiping his nose on his shoulder. “He was a security guard at Lakeside and that uniform was just as nasty.”
Robin developed his love of collecting at an early age. He was a good baseball player growing up but hurt his arm “throwing curve balls too soon,” and never played on the high school team. He regrets that now, but found other ways to be involved with sports.
“I’ve always been involved in some kind of hobby, always wheeling and dealing,” he said. “I used to pick up pop bottles, and when I got older I got a booth at Happy’s Flea Market, inside and out, selling sports memorabilia.”
Picking up pop bottles and dealing trading cards at Happy’s didn’t pay the bills, so Robin also worked for Proctor & Gamble for 27 years. It was a good job, but when he got a shot at an early buyout he took it.
“They had new management and I would have had to move to Detroit,” he said. “I was taking care of my dad at the time so I really couldn’t move, but I was able to get a buyout a year early. That was a good job. I missed the money.”
With time on his hands and a love sports, Robin decided to open the Sports Haven store in the Hollins area. It became a reality in July of 2012.
“I always dreamed of opening up a store full-time when I retired and my son, Joey, told me his friend Shane(Parks, a former Glenvar athlete and graduate) needed a job,” said Bennett. “I told him if he managed the store I would do the ordering and stuff, and he’s been with me ever since.”
At first Robin had a hard time turning a profit, but he was determined to keep the store open.
“I did everything I could to keep it going,” he said. “I sold cars, I collected scrap metal, I cut yards to keep the place going. I moved people, anything I could find to make a buck.”
He also continued to hawk his wares at events, traveling to North Carolina, South Carolina and West Virginia to sell sports stuff in addition to Virginia.
“We’d go to Martinsville and I had a friend who had a car lot across from the track,” he said. “I’d hustle tickets. I put a sign in my car window the day before the race, and the goal was to sell all the tickets by the end of the day. I bought some tickets for the Bristol race and a guy driving a cab saw my sign on the way to the track and pulled me over at a rest stop. He bought all my tickets and I tripled my money.”
The store became a hot spot for area sports fans when the word got out about the plethora of items Robin carried at the Hollins store. He found a location in Salem and expanded to open a second store in the summer of 2017, right across the street from the Salem Farmers Market. He’s planning a “Re-Grand Opening” of the Salem store for November 1st.
The pandemic has caused some problems for the business. Robin had hired former University of Virginia quarterback Bryce Perkins, who is now with the NFL Los Angeles Rams, to sign items at the Hollins store just before the pandemic hit, and that could have been a catastrophe.
“We ran an advertisement and got good response, but we had to quit advertising when the pandemic started,” he said. “We had already sold 150 tickets and now we couldn’t have more than 10 in the store at a time. We staggered people, like appointments, and it went off flawlessly. We had hand sanitizer stations and masks and he signed 250 items. We were catching it on social media, but everything went fine and we’re going to do another one sometime with Bryce. It was a phenomenal event.”
Robin says NFL items are his best seller, and you can find something in the store from any of the 32 NFL teams. The Cowboys, Steelers and “Washington Football” are the best sellers. The “Redskins” items were particularly hot sellers when the team announced it was changing the nickname.
“When they made that announcement I bought as much stuff as possible, and it went fast,” he said. “Everything I had signed by a Redskin is gone.”
College items, particularly from Virginia Tech, Virginia, North Carolina and West Virginia, also do well and everyone knows how passionate NASCAR fans can be. He has a variety of items, including helmets, that race fans just love.
“I worked with a lot of NASCAR people when I was with Proctor & Gamble,” he said. “I have a championship ring from the Truck championship and got invited to the NASCAR Hall of Fame ceremony and sat right across from Dale (Earnhardt) Junior. I have a hood from a truck that I got at Martinsville.”
Robin’s love of racing goes way back. He grew up a David Pearson fan and he’s always rooted for the Wood Brothers team.
“My dad(Joseph Bennett) helped build the track at Martinsville,” he said. “He cut out grades for people to sit on for the first race, before they even had stands, in the late ‘40s.”
In addition to the usual memorabilia Robin also is proud of some unique items, like a wrestling boot signed by legendary grappler Ric Flair.
“I first met him when I was working a Kroger meeting at the Homestead,” he said. “It was about eight years ago and he was still in great shape. He did 100 pushups and got up and went ‘whoooo’.”
Robin would like to further expand his business, but unless more teams drop their nickname he’s putting everything on hold until the pandemic subsides.
“I’d like to have a store in Vinton, that’s a growing area,” he said. “But I’m going to wait and see how things are going, at least until after the first of the year.”
Christmas is always a good time for business, and the Sports Haven will be a great place to find something for the sports fan in your life, no matter what team it is. But you better hurry, there’s been a lot of wrecks on Route 81 of late.