Shoppers may think they're seeing double when they enter the Learning Express of Robinson because the owner-operators of the new toy store are identical twins.
Jennifer Palashoff and Julie Toussaint opened the franchise store Nov. 4 in the new Settlers Ridge shopping center in Robinson. Their mother, Cindy DiPasquale of Robinson, works in the store, too.
"We figured we're always together anyway, so we might as well work together," Mrs. Toussaint said. The decision to open the store goes back to November 2008, when she was laid off as a pilot for United Airlines.
The location of the Robinson store was no accident.
"This is our hometown, so we're happy to be here," Mrs. Toussaint said. The sisters attended Forest Grove Elementary School and graduated from Montour High School.
They'll celebrate their 34th birthdays this month, and they've been together all of those years, except for their four years in college.
Jennifer attended Washington & Jefferson College in Washington, Pa., where she majored in biology. Julie studied at Purdue University in Lafayette, Ind., because that school had a major in professional aviation.
"I wanted to be a pilot since I was 15," Mrs. Toussaint said.
The four years apart were extremely difficult.
"Freshman year, I came home to visit on Labor Day," she said. "Our phone bills were horrendous. We used all of our spending money calling each other." This was before there were inexpensive long-distance calling plans.
When they graduated from college in 1997, they were thrilled that they both ended up in the Pittsburgh area. Jennifer landed a job selling pharmaceuticals, and Julie was hired as a pilot for USAir Express, based in Pittsburgh.
In 1998, Julie married Steve Toussaint, a pilot for NetJets Inc., a Columbus, Ohio, private jet company. The next year, Jennifer married Nick Palashoff, who works in surgical equipment sales.
Jennifer was Julie's maid of honor, of course, and Julie was matron of honor for Jennifer.
The sisters have two children each, though neither has twins. Seven years ago, Emma Toussaint and Nicholas Palashoff were born 12 days apart. Stephen Toussaint is 5, and Paige Palashoff is 3.
The two families live near each other, socialize frequently and go on vacations together.
Mrs. Palashoff became a stay-at-home mom after the birth of her first child, and she became the caregiver for her twin's children.
"Once when I came home from flying, my son looked up from his crib, smiled, said, 'Are you my mommy?' " Mrs. Toussaint recalled with a chuckle.
The frequent mix-ups that have occurred all their lives don't bother either sister. Their husbands have no trouble telling the twins apart in person, but they sound exactly alike on the telephone. The women never tire about being asked what it's like to have an identical twin.
"We're used to it and we think it's actually a gift to be a twin," Mrs. Palashoff said.
Customers at the Learning Express of Robinson are likely to see Emma, Nicholas, Stephen and Paige in the toy store, where all children are welcome to ride tricycles and play with the toys and games that are offered for sale.
"We've had to bring our children to work more often than we thought we would,' " Mrs. Palashoff said, because of the busy holiday shopping season.
"It's been a mixed blessing" opening a new store during the height of holiday shopping, Mrs. Palashoff said. Being busy "is a nice problem to have, but we don't know our customer base because we weren't here last year."
Learning Express, an educational toy retailer, has more than 140 stores across the country, according to a news release from the company.
While many of the toys are "educational," the store also offers traditional items such as dolls, trains and plush animals.
"Civic fundraising is one of the keystones of the Learning Express brand," according to the company news release.
The sisters hosted a charity night Nov. 5 at the store, in which 20 percent of their sales were donated to the local chapter of the Autism Society of America. Plans are being discussed for a January fundraiser to benefit a local school's PTA. Residents of the district would get a 10 percent discount when they shop, and 10 percent of sales would be donated to the PTA.
Linda Wilson Fuoco can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-722-0087.