Stepping inside Groves’ Quality Antiques and Collectibles in downtown Bluffton, there was the unmistakable smell of old furniture mixed with the distinct scent of whatever pet bunny or cat was living in the store’s animal shelter. And always — from somewhere in the store — came a cheery, “Hi Hon!” that had long been Robin Wilch’s signature greeting to her regular customers. Who knows? Maybe she called everyone that. No matter. It made each person feel special, and that was Robin’s intent.
I’d known Robin since childhood, mostly as one of the older sisters of my friend, Penny. We were merely tolerated as the “little kids” and were for the most part, ignored as we settled into the magic of Barbie Central. But Robin had different memories of those days and surprised me with her comments. She also liked to tell me funny stories about my husband, who had grown up across the street from the Wilch’s house.
That was her way. She made a point of connecting with each customer. The same age as my brother, Tom, and a year younger than my brother, James, she almost always asked how they were and then told me some story about one of them.
Like any good small town store owner, she often remembered what each customer had purchased on prior visits and/or knew what that person was searching for. She’d direct me to a location in the store where she knew there was an item that I collected.
We often talked about “recycling projects” that we’d read about and often involved items she had for sale. If she didn’t have the right item, she’d assure me that she’d find one at an auction or garage sale.
When my daughter was moving into a new neighborhood in Cincinnati, she was delighted to find a vintage 1950s diner-style chrome and aluminum table that someone had left at the curb. The one thing it lacked was chairs. On my next stop in to Groves, I found a similar table with two matching chairs.
Discovering that we needed only the chairs, Robin offered to sell me just the chairs at an amazingly reasonable price. She would, she said, certainly find more of them soon enough.
Hers was the kind of store that customers returned to time and again — sometimes with a specific item in mind, sometimes just to look around…hoping to eye the perfect find. But with Robin, you didn’t need a reason. She was just happy to see her customers happy.
And so it was that when Robin died Friday, Oct. 19, after a brief illness, her death shook this small community. Each of her friends and customers has a story to tell.
In a nod to her signature phrase, “We’ll miss you, hon.”