To those who have known her in the 34 years she has run her Arlington gift shop, Mary Phelan Baynes is a symbol of a more genteel and generous era when people gave Waterford crystal and French Haviland china for wedding presents instead of espresso machines and food grinders.
Her unimposing shop in the Virginia Square Shopping Center is a tiny emporium of elegance that her faithful customers say they will miss greatly when she closes it at the end of March.
With the closing, a year or so before the shopping center is to be redeveloped, customers reminisced about the role the Mary Baynes Gift Shop played in some of the major events of their lives -- the perfect place to find an appropriate gift for a special wedding, birth or graduation.
The stock is rapidly dwindling these days as Baynes and her staff of 10 women scurry around to help the steady stream of customers looking for buys in the kinds of staples and off-beat items she has kept on hand since she opened her first shop at 14th and I streets in Washington in 1932.
Amid the Beleek, Wedgewood and Oxford china, the imported music boxes and hand-cut crystal, and the lamps and the leather goods, the discriminating buyer can also find a cache of gadgets that are concessions to the age of the Concorde and body beautiful -- garment bags, electric plug adapters, collapsible hair-dryers and irons, digital jogging meters and brass umbrellas. It is not schlock, as the prices attest.
"I've always stocked quality merchandise," said Baynes, who only reluctantly admits to an 80th birthday coming in May.
Nearly 18 years after she closed her Washington shop, Baynes is preparing to close the Arlington store she opened on St. Patrick's Day in 1952, a tribute to her Irish heritage, which is also reflected in the Beleek and Waterford goods she sells.
In those days, she recalls, a Waterford glass in the Lismore pattern "It's sad. She's been so helpful to everybody around here -- no matter what the occasion . . . " -- Joyce Kilby cost $7 compared to $33.50 today. Other things have changed, too, since the days when she hosted promotional garden-club tea parties in her store at 3463 N. Fairfax Dr.
A scrapbook of a tea given there a year after Baynes opened shows that the event attracted the coverage of 11 Washington and suburban Virginia newspapers, and drew hundreds of veil-hatted, white-gloved women. The tea, gushed the now-defunct Washington Daily News, "was quite the biggest thing of its kind Northern Virginia had ever seen."
Brides, the papers wrote, asked her advice on everything from china and silver patterns to how to preserve precious bridal bouquets. She is still viewed by her customers as an arbiter of good taste.
"Pewter is a dead issue," Baynes says, pronouncing it a "fad" metal and no match for silver.
"People come to her for her knowledge of not only what will sell, but her knowledge of what people will recognize is quality," said Davina Conn, who has worked part-time at the store for 24 years.
Customer Charlotte Lane, who has lived in the area for 37 years, said she shops at the store "not as often as I'd like. I come here when I want to get something really nice."
Jane Woolard said she has been drawn to the shop for baby and wedding presents during the 10 years she has lived nearby.. "I know it's always here if I need it," she said, seeming as if she wanted the closing to be postponed but acknowledging that the day will come when the shop will be replaced "by a lot of business-office type things."
Joyce Kilby, who has shopped at the store every couple of weeks in the 35 years she has lived in Arlington, recently greeted the owner with sadness. "I just have to say what everybody else is saying," she said. "I'm going to miss you."
"It's sad," Kilby continued. "She's been so helpful to everybody around here -- no matter what the occasion, no matter how busy she is . . . . I always counted on her to have the appropriate things at the appropriate time. Christmas, Easter, Valentine's -- whatever -- you could always stop by to see what's new.
"The service we can't get anymore at other stores is what we got here," Kilby said. "She'd take care of the wrapping and even the mailing -- the mailing!"
While her customers rue closing day, Mary Baynes does not. "I think I'm going to do all the things women do in the daytime that I've never had time to do. I like museums, concerts, plays and theaters. But I can't do everything."
Her trips to Europe and China to restock her store may be limited, but she says she won't miss the past. "No, not at all," she said. "I think the future is just as interesting."