Sentiments Bridal & Special Occasions set to close Dec. 27

NILES — From the dance floor to the wedding altar, Marie Brown made it her mission to help customers who patronized Sentiments Bridal & Special Occasions find attire that made them look and feel their best for their big day.

After more than 10 years in the business, she decided it was time for her next adventure. A couple of weeks ago, she made the decision to close the shop on Dec. 27. 

The store, formerly owned by Bernice Strotter, has operated in the downtown Niles area for the past 25 years — marking the end of an era in downtown Niles.

Brown, of Buchanan, said she is saddened to say goodbye to her customers, but excited for the next chapter of her life. Brown’s next endeavor will be finding a place to operate her Black History Museum, which temporarily was housed in the Abundant Church in South Bend.

“It’s time for me to go on to my next venture,” Brown said. “It’s time for me to do something different.”

Brown got her start operating Sentiments after visiting the store as a customer. She was searching for a flower girl dress for her granddaughter and after looking around, struck up a conversation with Strotter, who mentioned she wanted to retire. After leaving the store, Brown’s daughter, Jauselyn Wolverton, encouraged her to tell Strotter about her interest in running the business and Brown took her advice.

While Brown continued to offer customers formal attire as the new owner, she changed the business from consignment to selling brand new items, hand-picked from vendors in California, Texas and New York. 

In the store, customers can find an assortment of prom dresses, wedding dresses, tuxedos, shoes, purses, hats and jewelry. All of the items are on an “Everything Must Go” sale. Children’s dresses are going at $35 a piece, prom dresses at $100 and shoes and clutches for $10, to name just a few.

Before operating Sentiments, Brown said she had a side job as a wedding planner and said she enjoyed getting to be part of people’s life celebrations. Brown saw owning Sentiments as an extension of this.

“Any time somebody came into the store, they were in their happy spot,” Brown said. “It’s a wedding or a prom or birthday celebration [that they are finding attire for].”

In addition to offering customers formal attire, Brown said as a business owner, she also often lent her ear to those who needed it.

“I have listened an awful lot,” Brown said. “I not only wanted to sell them a dress, I wanted to help them and that’s the thing I will miss.”

In August, she also took part in an anti-bullying campaign called a Tom Thumb Wedding where local youth dressed their best and exchanged friendship vows. Participants also learned and recited an anti-bullying pledge. Brown helped the youth involved to pick out their dresses.

“When I put those kids in those clothes, their self-esteem shot to the roof,” Brown said. “They spun around, they did the James Brown, they took selfies, they were just so happy and I was the one who saw that.”

Over the years, she also donated dresses and tuxes to those in need, she said.

Seeing those who visited her store leave with a new sense of confidence was a major source of inspiration as a business owner, Brown said. As an expert in the wedding and events industry, Brown said she developed an eye for matching people with the right attire.

“My motto was, ‘If you don’t look good, I don’t look good,’” Brown said.

Unlike a big box store, Brown said she would pick out clothing for her customers to try on and could make alterations if necessary. The service and Brown’s ability to build relationships with her customers helped to spur business over the years.

Those passing by her storefront in the past week have reacted with sadness to the signage announcing the store’s closing.

“I have heard a lot of ‘I can’t believe it’ and ‘You can’t be doing it!’” Brown said. 

To her fellow downtown business owners, Brown advised them to find new and enticing ways to decorate their storefronts, inviting customers to check out merchandise inside the store. The storefront was changed every two weeks, she said.

Brown is the sole employee of Sentiments and she invited anyone who might be interested in picking up store ownership to contact her, because she wants to see the store remain part of the downtown.

To her customers that helped to build her business over the years, Brown said they will not be forgotten.

“[I just want to] thank them and let them know that I will miss them,” she said.

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