Shelves at Ballhagen’s Puzzles hold more than 1,800 varieties of puzzles in various shapes, materials and styles. The ceiling is a showpiece in itself: It’s decorated with puzzles that the owners have completed over the years.
SLEEPER – Puzzles have been a piece of Mitch Ballhagen’s life since childhood. When he was a kid, “we always had a puzzle up on the table,” he recalls, and notes that he’s slightly expanded the hobby as an adult. “I’ve probably got about five or six other puzzles of my own that are in a room in back that I do.”
Oh, and a store stocked with more than 1,800 different varieties.
That store — located just a stone’s throw from Interstate 44 — is Ballhagen’s Puzzles, a Laclede County business that’s been around for more than a quarter century. “Over 300,000 puzzles have sold in the 25 years just from here,” says Mitch, who along with his wife, Robin, took over the family business in 2015.
Just passing through
When Mitch’s parents opened the shop, it was a big move in more ways than one: The couple specifically relocated to the Lebanon area to begin the business. Back in those days, they were also dollhouse and furniture dealers and “wanted to be halfway between the coasts, so they could do shows,” recounts Mitch.
That exact number of puzzles sold — currently at 300,650 — testifies to their success. It’s posted on a board near the store’s cash register, a badge of pride that is updated regularly. “We’re not real well seen and everything,” says Mitch. “But people come.”
Those people, however, aren’t often from southwest Missouri: The store sits along Route 66, and travelers on their way down the Mother Road frequently come to visit. “A lot of people we get here are from other countries,” notes Mitch, who notes that people come from “all kinds of places” such as Germany, Australia and Switzerland. “A lot of times we don’t know (where they’re from) until they talk or we go over and look at the guest book and see,” says Robin.
And as it turns out, it’s another type of book that’s likely leading those guests to their door. Conversations with their customers have revealed that foreign guidebooks prompt stops. “We’re actually in some of (those books),” says Mitch. “I found that out not too long ago, actually.”
A puzzling pastime
Puzzle piecing, according to Mitch, is an American hobby that was especially popular during the Great Depression. “(Puzzles were) a thing that was cheap for people to do,” he says. “Puzzles have always been big. You’d be surprised how many people in the United States actually probably do puzzles.”
But puzzles offer benefits besides simply being a cost-effective means of entertainment. “A lot of people don’t realize that it can bring families together,” says Mitch. “You know, they sit there working a puzzle, talking about different things that’s gone on.”
And putting pieces together is a great opportunity to learn, especially for “kids that are having problems with their hand-eye coordination,” says Robin, who has worked at early childhood centers where puzzle play was encouraged. “You know, it works on a lot of their motor skills.”
To fulfill that need, Ballhagen’s stocks kid-friendly varieties. But that’s only one category of the store’s wares: Its shelves are filled with little of a lot. Besides the traditional on-the-table kinds, the store sells shaped puzzles, wooden ones that are handmade, 3D options and even mobiles to hang from the ceiling.
Wooden puzzles are one of the store’s wares, and are handmade by Mitch’s mother. “She does them one piece at a time,” says Mitch, noting that many of them contain “figure pieces,” such as the dog he discovered.
The featured images are diverse, ranging from cute kittens to pop culture icons, sports teams, landscapes, Route 66 themes and a whole lot in between. The variety of sizes is complex, too. “We’ve got them from 24 pieces all the way up to 24,000,” says Mitch, noting that when complete, their largest size in stock would measure a whopping five by 15 feet. (And yes, even though it carries a $300 price tag, they have sold that puzzle — three of them, in fact.)
But while diehard puzzle piecers will take on the challenge of a larger project, Mitch says the majority of the puzzles they carry for average folk are 1,000 pieces and range from $16.99 – $20.99.
Getting the word out
While the store is frequented by out-of-town guests, the Ballhagens see few local faces come to visit. “Believe it or not, we’ve actually had people from Lebanon order online,” she says. “And had it mailed to their house and was like five miles away. One of them, we took the shipping off and we just went and delivered to her house.”
Right now, the couple is focused on getting that traffic — foreign, online and local — up. Sales have declined the last three years, but 2015 was especially difficult. “We don’t really know why it’s gone bad,” says Mitch. But he’s optimistic. “January and February are usually our worst months anyway, so hopefully March and April will start picking up.”
One of the first steps may be increasing local awareness. “We’re getting more people from (Lebanon), but I guarantee that 90 percent of them don’t even know we exist,” says Mitch.
But once they know, they show. According to Robin, “We’ve had a lot of people who’ve come in, once they find out where we’re at.”
Want to shop (or order online)?
Ballhagen’s Puzzles (25211 Garden Crest Road, Lebanon; 417-286-3837) is open seven days a week from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Puzzles can be ordered online via the store’s website, which carries nearly 90 categories from which to choose.