The tall man in the windbreaker wanted something. He gestured vaguely, patting the air into a rectangle. "It's pretty hard to describe what we're looking for," he said, his eyes roaming the crammed shelves, glancing past the pencil sharpeners shaped like victrolas, past the black-handled dinner bells, past the jars of silver glitter.
A long pause. He would know if he saw it. Then: "Styrofoam, that's it. We need Styrofoam."
"We have boxes and balls and cones. Which do you want?" a clerk chimed back.
With the mall-ing of the suburbs, the slicking over of downtown, specialty shops cater to every shade of taste and fancy: There are stores for down comforters, shops just for gourmet jelly beans, outlets with nothing but heart-shaped merchandise. Everything in its place, but few places for everything.
Robertson's is one of the last.
William Robertson opened a variety store in East Falls Church on Sept. 10, 1935. "I was 23 years old," he said. "I was seeking to go into business of some kind."
For the next 25 years, Robertson's variety stores sprouted over the metropolitan area; one in Arlington on Columbia Pike in 1937, one two years later at Lee Highway and Buchanan Street in Arlington, then Broad Street in Falls Church, Wisconsin Avenue in the District, Kamp Washington Park in Fairfax City.
Eventually, most of them closed, shut out by high rents and glossy competitors. For a little more than three years, there has been just one Robertson's, shifted to roomier quarters in 1960, half a block up Buchanan Street from the original Lee Highway location.
Robertson owns the building, a single story of brick with a shingled overhang and a pair of plate glass windows hinting at the store's eclectic contents: pajamas and blouses on one side, wrenches and clocks on the other.
He sticks to the notion that the store should remain a trove of things -- pajamas and paraffin, mothballs and fishbowls.
"We always say to customers that if you can't find it anywhere, you can find it at Robertson's," said Robertson. "If they ask for it and we don't have it, we get it."
"We have little strawberry hullers, a little thing that pinches the top out of a strawberry without having to get your fingers stained. We have old-fashioned iron skillets, campfire coffee pots," said Libby Downs, who started as a clerk in the East Falls Church store 44 years ago and now is manager of the variety section.
Did anyone ever want something the store didn't have? Downs is stumped, but Robertson looks up soberly from a display of sweaters. "Horse collars."
John Kruse, who has been at Robertson's for 33 years, holds court in the basement hardware section, with the solvent applicators and the aerosol static guard. "Generally speaking, our customers are . . . a neighborhood type. Most of them are very conservative in their buying. They won't buy something, even if it's advertised, unless they really need it.
"We try to have what people in their everyday lives need from time to time."
Trends have whistled through 50 years of business, stirring up the selection, Robertson said. "Hula hoops were one of the most popular items. We bought a whole truckload of 'em, and all of a sudden, the fad died. I tried to sell them for 25 cents apiece and couldn't. So I hauled 'em off to the dump."
Mostly, Robertson's is crammed with the commonplace, shelves packed high with the answers to both emergency and imagination.
There are percolator tops and tablecloth clips, party hats and paper doilies and plastic straws. There are hairpins and corsage pins and tiny aluminum bells, earmuffs and suction cups, pink rabbits' feet and pacifiers.
There is a black metal lunch pail, the kind that resembles a rural mailbox without the post.
There are things you remember but never knew the names of -- lring with some of his work. Mother's Day, and skeins of plastic gimp, the thickness and texture of cooked linguine, for making key chains and fancy knots.
There are things you thought time forgot -- pronged wooden clothespins with smooth round heads, plastic hair rollers and sturdy rings of striped elastic labeled "garter belts."
Near the collar stays lies a small package of chenille bumblebees, their wings tiny loops of net stretched over wire. They are four for 89 cents.
There are things you can't imagine needing. But Robertson's customers say you never know.
"My daughter had a project for her kids; they were making little reindeer," said Richard C. Navarin, who has shopped at Robertson's since 1942. "They had the special clothespins, green felt for the ears, the things to make little antlers, the little eyes."
On the other side of the store, Frances Crumpton, 37, shopped for a bodkin -- a hook to pull elastic through a waistband.
"I grew up around here, then moved away. I just came back. I don't think the place has changed in 20 years," Crumpton said. Her son, Mechum, 7, inspected the eclectic display of sewing items aptly titled "notions."
"Mom, what's a fray check?"
"That's a thing you put on the edges of fabric so they don't come apart. I think."
Navarin scanned the craft display -- squares of felt in floppy piles, tiny plastic beads, eyes for stuffed animals in four different sizes, cardboard wrapped with metallic thread. "Every time I come in here, I walk out with something," he said. "When I cannot find something anywhere else, this is where I come. So I've learned my lesson; I come here first."