VALPARAISO | Nancy Van Santen travels the nation and the world looking for the unique merchandise she sells at Piper’s Boutique.
The store has been in business for 30 years and remains the area’s foremost retailer of high-end children’s clothing and accessories.
From the start, Van Santen wanted her merchandise to be different from what was available locally.
“If you could get it at the mall, why would you come to us in Hobart,” she said. “I started traveling to buy unique merchandise.”
Van Santen opened the business named for her daughter, Piper, in Hobart when her children were young.
“I had two children and wanted to work with children,” she said. “I’d never been in retail and never even worked in a retail store. It was a lot to learn, but fun.”
It took two months from the store’s conception to its inception.
“There was a little children’s store in Hobart for sale,” she said. “We took it, expanded it from a baby store to size 14 and turned it into a boutique. We started slow and went from there.”
Van Santen often travels with her daughter – who owns a store with the same name in Fishers, Ind. – to Asia, Europe and India and other far away destinations searching for items to sell at Piper’s. They visit New York City, Atlanta, Dallas, and Los Angeles annually, and sometimes more often seeking the unusual.
Within two years of opening Piper Boutiques, Van Santen said the store was making a profit.
“It was a small profit but as it got known. It did very well,” Van Santen said. “Now, Piper’s is the largest children’s boutique in the nation, and possibly the world.”
In 2009, Van Santen was voted “Buyer of the Year Midwest” by Midwest Children’s Manufacturers and Reps.
Five years after opening the Hobart location, Van Santen opened a second and much larger Piper’s in Valparaiso. After two years of consideration, Van Santen closed the Hobart store in 2011.
“It was too much,” she said. “I could only be in one place at a time. The economy was going down and I couldn’t split myself anymore. Concentrating on one store is easier.”
Retailing is now different from what it was 30 years ago, she said. A lot of clothing manufacturers have come and gone and the marketplace has changed.
“Thirty years ago there were no Marshall’s, no online, no Target,” she said.
Yet Piper’s has survived because its upscale merchandise is different, unique and can’t be found anywhere else in Northwest Indiana, Van Santen said.
Something may be different at Piper’s in the near future. Van Santen’s husband, Jerry, recently retired and she thinking it may be time for her to do the same.
“I’d love to sell it and retire, and see it go on,” she said.