Robynn Nussbaum and The Shoe Lounge

WSA, the World Shoe Association trade showWSA, the World Shoe Association trade show known as THE “shoe show” in the western U.S. 2004/Diane Taylor

Robynn Nussbaum put her heart and soul into The Shoe Lounge. It was a small, yet elegant, haute couture footwear and accessory store she opened at Del Rayo Plaza across from Fairbanks Country Club.

An avid tri-athlete and marathon runner with three young children and four step-children, the 44-year-old Rancho Santa Fe resident had a passion for shoes. She dreamed for years of opening an upscale shoe outlet where local women could shop for the latest, and greatest, fashion footwear in a subtle and relaxing environment.

But the nurturing Nussbaum first wanted to raise her children through their early years. She wanted to make sure they had a mother’s guidance before embarking on their journey through school and life.

And Nussbaum had a serious stumbling block, as well, on her own journey toward her field of dreams. She suffered a rare, serious, and painful form of cancer that struck quite suddenly and surprisingly, especially considering her devotion to fitness and a healthy lifestyle. She underwent treatments, but the cancer returned again.

Fortune seemed to swing Nussbaum’s way when her cancer seemingly went into remission. Her 5-year-old joined her 7-year-old and 11-year-old at Solana Beach School District schools. All signs pointed to this as the right time for Nussbaum to pursue and share her passion for shoes with the good women of a community lacking a place dedicated solely to high-end footwear.

Another bit of good fortune further validated the notion the time was right for a plunge into fashion retail.

Initially considering a Flower Hill Mall location and quickly discarding .same as inappropriate, the perfect space opened up at Del Rayo Plaza. A small, but upscale Rancho Santa Fe version of a strip mall mainly known for real estate and design offices, a post office and pizzeria, the plaza had begun signing up retail tenants and art galleries.

A tiny space between real estate offices became available. It was kismet for Nussbaum and the shoe store she envisioned as a friendly place where girlfriends could come together and revel in their shared love of shoes. And so, The Shoe Lounge was born.

“We’ve been friends for 14 years,” said Kris Gelbart, a Carmel Valley real estate agent and one of Nussbaum’s inner circle of friends. “ She was an avid athlete, marathons, triatholons, whatever it was athletically, she had no fear. She would go for it.”

And loved shoes, Gelbart continued. “She was so up on shoes. She talked about that to everyone. She was an accessories shopping expert and would hold open houses with Rhonda Shelaker who owns Rhonda’s Closet in Carmel Valley.

“Once Robynn made a decision, she went for it,” Gelbart said. “One day she started looking at places to open a shoe store and before you know it, she was off to Italy buying a bunch of shoes. Once she decided to open the store, she was going to do it all the way.”

Ashley Miller, a professional ballroom dancer from San Diego, who also loved shoes, needed a steadier, daytime job and signed on as store manager. “Robynn had been exposed to retail, but this was her first retail store,” Miller said.

“I walked in and felt so much energy,” Miller said. “Robynn had the warmest energy to her of all the women I‘ve ever met. That first day we had one-quarter of what we do now. She was  really excited to get her business going. It was just a lot of fun figuring out what we were doing together.”

“Robynn wanted this to be a place where the women in this community just like herself could come and relax, enjoy some fun like going to a girlfriend’s house,” Miller said, “then find something special they were going to feel good wearing whether at a special event or every day when they were out taking care of everyone, constantly coordinating everyone’s life, women who still needed to feel pretty.”

Halcyon days, indeed

Ensued at The Shoe Lounge, outfitted with comfortable couches, soft colors and the finest fashions in shoes and purses punctuated with tastefully spun jazz and pop standards on a store music system. Nussbaum served champagne on Fridays to clients and a hot cup of cappuccino was available upon request.

“Robynn had an opening celebration for girlfriends only,” Gelbart said.”She had the champagne and cappuccino, foot wraps she would give you before trying on shoes and she had all these amazing shoes. She was ahead of the chain stores. You would see the shoes at her store and months later see them at Saks and Nordstrom. It was so much fun.”

Nussbaum had a small circle of the closest friends, to be sure, but an affable and welcoming manner that made anyone who crossed her path more than an acquaintance. Take for example, Jane Murphy, a homemaker and retired teacher from Rancho Santa Fe, who heard from a friend about the new shoe shop in town and simply had to visit, being a shoe fanatic herself.

“I’m a big shoe person,” Murphy said. “Some other boutiques have a few shoes, but nothing like this specialty shoe store. I went in and said, ‘Oh, my God,’ 

“I stayed at the store the first time 35, 45 minutes and talked to Robynn about shoes,” Murphy said. “She said this was something she had a desire to do for a really long time. She had been a mom for a number of years and had thought a lot about this I would go in there often after that just to see what they had. Robynn was so upbeat, such a strong woman. She was so pretty, extremely nice, friendly, caring.”

Rancho Santa Fe Autos now occupies the space that once housed Robynn Nussbaum’s Shoe Lounge./File

Nussbaum and Miller scoured the wide, wide world of shoes for the newest fashions. “This was her little baby,” Miller said. “We bought at Milan, Italy; New York, the WSA (World Shoe Association) at Las Vegas where it was like shopping on steroids, Los Angeles shows.

Unfortunately, the cancer returned, this time in a terrifying,  life-threatening form. Nussbaum underwent major surgery, not once, but twice at Scripps Memorial Hospital La Jolla , never fully recovering. She lost quite a bit of weight, going from robust athlete to less than 100 pounds, from energetic fireball to someone who could be active maybe a few hours at most.

“The cancer had stayed in her abdomen, gotten in her stomach and really spread,” Miller said. “It was very aggressive and she was in a lot of pain. She was pretty weak, but her spirit was always 100 percent.

“The amazing thing was she would throw swings at that cancer every day,’ Miller said. “She was the biggest fighter and strongest woman I ever met. Even after everything, with the spirit she showed, I thought she might pull it off, just might get healthy again.”

Gelbart said, “The cancer was very aggressive, but she never complained, always was upbeat. She battled it for a long, hard road. Out in public when she was in an intolerable amount of pain, the average person on the street would never know.”

Nussbaum’s battle against cancer took yet another turn when she went to Baltimore, for surgery at a hospital there with specialists. Gelbart and a select group of Nussbaum’s inner circle accompanied her. Following this round of surgery, physicians gave Nussbaum two, maybe three years to live.

Even that prognosis proved fragile. Nussbaum’s condition continued grave. She underwent emergency surgery. That didn’t work. She entered San Diego Hospice at GlenBrook skilled Nursing Center. The end, as it must for all, came to her there.

“Robynn finally came to peace,” Gelbart said. “She wanted to make sure her kids were OK and people remembered her being a good person. I try to take comfort in the fact she no longer is struggling in pain. I can’t imagine anybody should have to endure that kind of suffering. She was a happy, happy person, do anything kind of person in life. I think of her now out there running and swimming with the dolphins.”  

El Camino Memorial Park/Courtesy

Family and friends attended a memorial service at El Camino Memorial Park in Sorrento Valley.

 “A huge amount of people, over a hundred, attended,” Gelbart said. “Then, a few of us went to the store that was closed a couple of days in honor of Robynn. Ashley is going to plan some sort of celebration of Robynn’s life where all the last purchases Robynn made will be available. I think it will be a fun thing for us to go to because it was such a passion of hers. This was her dream and she felt a lot of satisfaction she accomplished this and was doing well at it.”

Gelbart added: “Robynn was happy and upbeat all the time and wanted to be remembered that way. She said to take life and run with it, take every step because life is short. And she wanted to be remembered as a good person.”

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