By Alexa Epitropoulos | [email protected]
If Pauline “Pat” Shweky wasn’t working behind the counter of Robcyns, she was most likely crocheting an afghan for you or another newfound friend.
While Shweky was best known as the longtime owner of the retail shop that outfitted generations of young girls for school and dance recitals in Alexandria, she was also known for the relationships she forged within the community.
“Our customers are like family and she loved selling. People would say she could sell ice to an Eskimo, but she believed in what she was selling. She loved the interactions,” Cindy Queen, Shweky’s daughter, said.
Queen, who started running the shop after her mom retired in 2003, said her mom could
never leave the store behind completely. Slowly, Queen said, she reduced the amount of days Shweky worked to four per week.
“She loved it. Someone asked her, ‘If you could do it over again, what would you do?’ And she said ‘I’d work more,’” Queen said.
Queen said Shweky’s passion for the job came down to her customers, many of whom started coming to her store as children. She counted Tipper Gore, the wife of former Vice President and Democratic presidential candidate Al Gore, and Dorothy Helms, wife of former Sen. Jesse Helms, as customers.
“We’re on our third generation of customers. Now the grandparents are coming in and my mother used to dress them. There are women who are close to 70,” Queen said.
Taryn Queen Baynham, Queen’s daughter and Shweky’s granddaughter, said it was in her
store that Shweky was the “truest version of herself.”
“She was the most masterful salesperson I’ve ever encountered in my life. If I were a customer, I would blow my entire paycheck,” Baynham said. “Not that she was trying to take advantage, but because she had such a keen understanding of what people wanted. She really took the time to get to know each customer who walked through the door. Because of that, there are customers who still come to the store who started when they were children. … We have women who come in who are buying toys and clothes for their grandbabies and, meanwhile, my grandma helped them buy their first training bra.”
Retail came naturally to Shweky for more reasons than one. Born Pauline Rishty and raised in the Syrian Jewish community in Brooklyn, her family moved to Alexandria in the 1930s. The family opened a store on King Street in the 1940s, which Shweky started working in as a 17-year-old.
She met Morris Shweky through the tight-knit community she grew up in. Morris Shweky, who was in the U.S. Army, was later stationed near Alexandria and the two married in 1944.
The two began to work in the Rishty family business together until venturing out on their own with Baby Fair, which then became Young Fair and, finally, Robcyns, an amalgam of the names of the couple’s two daughters: Robin and Cindy.
Their store was located for 30 years in Arlandria on Mt. Vernon Avenue. Even when economic challenges plagued the neighborhood in the 1970s, which the Washington Post interviewed them about in a Sept. 15, 1977 story, the couple stuck it out.
Though the Shwekys always operated their store in Alexandria, the family has resided in Maryland since the 1960s. Morris and Pat Shweky first lived in Chevy Chase and then moved to Bethesda, where they remained for the rest of their lives.
“She loved the customers here. She didn’t want to start over somewhere else. Even moving from our old location in Arlandria … [which] is so close – she didn’t want to leave because she didn’t want to lose her customers,” Queen said.
Her customers followed her, however, when the Shwekys moved to Bradlee Shopping Center in 1986. She soon made a new cadre of friends, Baynham recalled.
“When I was younger, I used to come and work in the store on Saturdays and she would
run errands in the center. She’d go to the bank and make a deposit and everybody knew her there and she knew them all by name. It was like walking into Cheers,” Baynham said. “… She was the unofficial mayor of the shopping center.”
Her customers and employees became part of the extended family as well.
“When we moved, I told her we were going to redo [my daughter] Meggie’s room. She asked me what color. I thought she was just making conversation. Four days later, I had a beautiful afghan,” Meghan Herzing, an employee at Robcyns for eight years, said.
“She was always so comforting to me. One thing she’d say to me that I never heard growing up was, ‘It’s ok.’ She always said that,” Herzing said.
Equal to Shweky’s dedication to her customers and employees was her devotion to her husband, daughters, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
“My sister and I never felt lacking in anything because she was a very involved mother,” Queen said. “She came home, got dinner on the table in 20 minutes and we always had dinner as a family. She always was involved in school. She was a supermom.”
Baynham remembers the many days spent with her grandmother growing up.
“She started watching us when I was six months old. She would take us to swim practices and piano lessons. We were always going places. We never sat around and didn’t do anything,” Baynham said. “She wasn’t someone who was content hanging out and doing nothing – even on her days off, which my mom forced her to take, even into her 90s, she would fill her day with as many activities as possible.”
She enjoyed taking her grandchildren to the many parks around the greater D.C.
area and playing a game of War, Gin, backgammon or Dominos.
“We respected her and she taught us so much that she was like a friend,” Baynham said. “Our days with her, it was never an obligation – it was something we all loved.”
She also relished sitting in her backyard, taking in the sun, or drinking a cup of coffee while crocheting. Shweky crocheted afghans for nearly everyone she met, from the man who serviced her car at the Lexus dealership to employees to extended family members.
“When she met someone, when she would decide whether to make them a blanket, or if
someone she’d known for awhile had heard of her crocheting prowess, she’d always ask, ‘What are your colors?’” Baynham said. “Right after that, she’d go and find her coupon and go to the craft store and stock up on yarn. She would turn around and make these really stunning blankets.”
“The blankets are all over,” Queen said. “Hopefully people are feeling the love.”
Shortly after Shweky became ill in January of this year, Baynham set out to learn the skill that Shweky had used to show love and appreciation for almost a lifetime.
“I didn’t know how long we had her. The prospect of being without that knowledge was unimaginable to me,” Baynham said. “… It was a really gratifying moment because I had wanted to learn for so long. It was so much a part of who she was – it felt almost like she was passing the torch to me, that this huge honor was bestowed upon me. … It’s been therapeutic, throughout all of this. While she was sick and now since she has passed, I’ve been doing a little every day as a piece of remembrance to her.”
Queen and Baynham said the family is stunned by the outpouring of grief from those who knew Shweky. Though she is gone, Baynham said, the family will continue to keep her legacy alive.
“It’ll be hard, but we are so adamant to keep her alive in as many ways as we can,” Baynham said. “Whether it’s crocheting or making recipes that she made all the time or holding family traditions that she cherished, it’s a continuing way for us to honor her and make sure it still feels like she’s around, even when she’s not.”
Shweky is survived by her daughters, Robin (Tony) Baker and Cindy Queen;
granddaughters, Alexandra (Brad) Rohrer, Taryn (Daniel) Baynham and Griffin Queen; great-grandchildren Baylee and Bodee Rohrer and niece Honey (Ronnie) Ogens. She was predeceased by her husband, Morris Shweky.
Her services were held on April 4 at King David Memorial Gardens in Falls Church.
Her family observed Shiva at her residence on April 8 and held minyan services at 6 p.m.