Alumni

Portrait

Armies are marching through Bari Novey’s home in the suburbs near the University of Richmond. Day and night, they are storming fortresses, charging on horseback, crouching as snipers, and loading cannons. Some lay dying while others raise spears and lances and play fife and drum. They wear kilts and pantaloons, waistcoats and bandoliers, fur loincloths and plumed helmets as they aim and fight and tumble and fall with weapons drawn and limbs flailing.

It’s easy to look at Novey, B’65, sitting among them and see a boy still among his toys.

He began collecting and painting toy soldiers as a child of 7 or 8 and never stopped, advancing along the way to the more sophisticated military miniatures that have conquered the shelves of his study. They number in the high hundreds, if not thousands — he doesn’t really know for sure. Most are about 3 inches high and recreate the period of the Napoleonic Wars of the early 19th century. Among them are also Zulu warriors, American doughboys, and a pith-helmeted British field officer with an uncanny resemblance to Scottish actor Sean Connery.

Miniatures like Novey’s are distinct from toy soldiers in their level of craftsmanship and attention to historical detail. Evidence of both are on abundant display as Novey points out particular pieces. Here is a Waterloo-era Napoleon, who stands defiant with a legion d’honneur medal pinned to his chest and his trademark left hand in his waistcoat.

Next to the little emperor is a French hussar, or light cavalry officer, that Novey bought in London. Finely detailed molding and painting gives texture to the braids of the rope around his waist. On a face emerging from a high red jacket collar with a gold-braided edge, the hairs of his moustache poke out under a sharp nose and determined eyes. “I wouldn’t give this one away for anything,” Novey says.

He comes by his attention to sartorial detail honestly. For decades, he put his Richmond business degree to work in the family’s retail stores, Bloom Brothers. His grandfather founded the first one in Virginia’s southside region in 1911. “He never was a rich man, but he was a fantastic guy,” Novey said.

One store eventually became six dotted across southern Virginia towns like Lawrenceville and Franklin and over the North Carolina border in Edenton. Novey worked in the main office in Emporia, Virginia, until 1988, a time when big box retailers were forcing so many family businesses like theirs off of main streets and out of business. For the next 15 years, Novey ran a place he called Bari’s Men’s Shop. When he closed it in 2003, the family had been in the clothing business in southern Virginia for 92 years.

Novey was building his collection of miniatures on the side the whole time. He bought far more than he sold — and still regrets selling off a Civil War collection that he tried, and failed, to buy back almost immediately — and steadily elevated his collection’s quality along with its quantity. His hand not as steady as he’d like, he sometimes shipped pieces to artisans for painting.

The hobby fed his enduring love of military history. Ask him about particular figures, and he will tell you about the battle they are recreating, whom they were fighting, what was at stake, how it turned out, and why it mattered, then and today. On the shelf space not lined with miniatures, he keeps a collection of books, artifacts, and ephemera that shed light on the Napoleonic and other wars.

Now semi-retired, he is wistful about his pastime from a bygone era, even apologetic. “It’s kind of a weird hobby,” he chuckled. Later, he added, “My kids aren’t too interested in them.”

But there was a different story being told in the eyes of a visiting 12-year-old boy seeing a collection like this for the first time. Before the boy left, Novey placed in his hands a small cardboard box containing a dozen Napoleonic-era figures, blue plastic snap-offs not so different in quality from the ones that first fired Novey’s youthful imagination. The boy painted his first one that very night.