By Steve Holt
If you ask Robert Schweitzer of Schweitzer Linen, what’s the secret of their success, he doesn’t hesitate.
That is immediately clear when you walk into the crowded, cozy store on Columbus Avenue at 82d Street.
“I’m proud of the breadth of our inventory,” Robert says. “We have a ton of different fabrics. We do our own design; we do our own manufacturing. We pay attention to detail. We might not be the most efficient, but we really believe in what we do.”
The Schweitzer story begins in the late 1960s, when Robert and his parents emigrated from Bucharest, Romania where they’d made bedding.
“It was the typical immigrant story,” he said in a phone call with the Rag. “You come here with nothing, you move to the Bronx, and you try to find a job. In 1969 or so my parents opened a little store. Over many, many years, we slowly developed a business.”
That first store on Madison Avenue has relocated a couple of times. Today there are two larger Schweitzer stores, on Madison between 82d and 83d, and on Lexington between 72d and 73d.
After college at Brown University, Robert stepped away from the family business, working in management for General Electric for about three years. In 1981, he “realized if I could manage somebody else’s business, I could manage my own. So I came back, and I hung out with my father for about six months,” he said. “I loved my dad, but we were both very, very strong characters, so I decided to open my own store.”
He settled on the Upper West Side because it had a similar feel to their first location, but would attract customers reluctant to go “all the way” to the Upper East Side. An architecture lover, Schweitzer also liked that the legendary Endicott Hotel was right across the street.
That original tiny store now boasts a thousand square feet of linens and luxury, and a loyal, no, passionate, customer base. Stepping into it is like stepping back in time – they still handwrite receipts — into a dreamy bedroom. “We offer hand embroidery, because we have a customer base that still wants hand-embroidered sheets,” Robert explains. “Most of what we sell needs pressing, because it’s pure cotton or pure linen. That may not appeal to many people, but our base wants it, because they know how it feels, how it serves them, how it improves their lives.”
Here’s one testimonial: “I bought a set of Schweitzer linens and I felt like I had redecorated my apartment. I wouldn’t say they changed my life, but they definitely improved my mood! And their towels are amazing.”
The people who work at Schweitzer’s are just as important as the customers.
“Marjana (Xhafa), our sales associate on Columbus, is one of our newer employees,” says Robert. “And she’s been with us for 20 years. We have people that have been with us 35 years. So that tells you it’s a family. They don’t work for us; they work with us. And whatever we can do to help, we do. They know we value them. We’re kind of a big, extended family.”
Marjana is originally from Albania; her colleague on Columbus, Maria Garcia, is from Nicaragua; Robert’s wife Yvonne has roots in Puerto Rico.
“But it doesn’t matter where you come from. That’s the beauty of this country. You go and you do the best you can. It’s difficult, but then you embrace the struggle. When you’re in a place like New York, where everybody lives on top of each other, you realize that everybody is the same. It might not be perfect, but it’s wonderful that such a diverse place can live together. I’m grateful for New York. I’m grateful for the United States. I think it’s still a beacon of light for everybody.”