Natalie Grens more or less opened her business, , on impulse. Her husband and brother-in-law were helping their mother run a small gift store in Worth and while driving down Harlem Avenue she saw a vacancy.
“I called about it, got the details, said, 'OK,' and I rented it,” Grens explained of opening the store in the Tiffany Square shopping center 22 years ago. “I was enjoying the business and wanted to strike out on my own.”
Grens has had a bit of a wild ride since then.
“Business is not like it was, not at all,” said Grens, shaking her head, and agreeing that it's partly due to the economy.
Natalie's has been forced to adapt as trends come and go, and in many ways change the type of business the store does.
Most people probably have some recollection of Ty Inc.'s Beanie Babies. The stuffed animals were a craze in the last half of the 90's and people paid top dollar and stood in long lines to get them. One of those lines was at Natalie's.
“We actually rented another shop here just to store the boxes of Beanies we had coming in,” she said. “People were lined up before the store opened.”
Grens recalled that she used to sell the toys at cost to her children, who were in college at the time. They could flip them for double, and didn't have to work in college because of it.
“I used to sell the USPS boxes the things were delivered in for ten dollars,” said Grens, laughing at the irony of it. “One day I made six grand just on Beanie Babies.”
Beanie Babies crashed like the housing market when, according to Grens, the company over-saturated the market. Beanies that were once worth hundreds, suddenly lost their value.
Stores that sold just Beanies were finished, but Grens hadn't opened her store just to sell the latest craze. So, while Ty's fad earned themselves a sure-spot on Vh1's “I love the 90's,” Grens went back to business as usual.
Still, she admits, it's not just those bean-filled animals that lost America's collective interest.
“To younger women, collectibles [like Precious Moments and Department 56] are just something more to dust,” she said. “People just don't collect like they used to. People still gift for special occasions, but don't collect for themselves.”
Grens said she saved when the Beanies and collectibles were bringing in the dough and lived below her means.
“If I hadn't, I couldn't keep this shop open today,” she said.
So, why stay in business if the glory days are over? Simple, the store isn't just about the bottom line.
“I still like doing this,” Grens said. “I really thought we would be going out this year, but we are going to try some things.”
Grens said she will shift the focus of the store to closeout items, although she will still carry everything she does now. The 59-cent greeting cards will not be going away either.
Grens remarked on the popularity of her reduced cards, and used the occasion to share an observation the sexes and shopping.
“Men never argue about price and actually, when I ring up 59 cents they say, 'ma'am are you sure you rang that up right,'” Grens said. “I asked my sons once, 'do men ever check the price or do they just take your world for it?' They said I could charge anything I wanted when a man came to the register and he probably wouldn't know or argue – but they said 'Mom, you know you wouldn't be able to do that.' And they're right, I can't.”
Natalie's Gifts and Closeouts is located at 7206 W. College Drive in Palos Heights' Tiffany Square Shopping Center.
“Even in this mall, it's, 'here today, gone tomorrow,' you just never know how much longer you're going to be in business these days,” Grens said.