The customer was clearly in a dilemma when she walked through the shop's door.
What can one possibly purchase as a baby shower gift when the sex of the tiny newcomer is still unknown?
Debbie Melnikoff was quick with her answer.
The owner of Dream Baby Boutique on the Loudoun Street Pedestrian Mall in Winchester propelled her customer toward a wall covered with Loved Baby apparel -- a neutral-colored, mix-and-match clothing line for infants, whether they're made of either snips and snails, or sugar and spice.
Customers "love the 'Loved Baby' butt on the pants," Melnikoff said with a laugh, indicating miniature pairs of rompers with the logos emblazoned on the seats.
Another display features a menagerie of stuffed animals with fuzzy faces and in a variety of species, including ducks, giraffes, bears, frogs and, the most popular item, according to Melnikoff, an impish monkey. They are also available as teethers and are washable, organically made.
Then Melnikoff guided the customer to other selections in the store: Glamourmom nursing tanks with detachable straps that make feedings both discreet and comfortable; robes and pajamas in a variety of soft colors and fabrics; BellaBands to adjust clothing that may not be properly fitting the expanding mother-to-be; and Belli Skin Care for pregnancy pampering.
The customer, pleased with the suggestions, added gifts for the expectant moms. Melnikoff wrapped the purchases attractively and sent the satisfied customer off with pleas to come again.
"This is always a happy place," Melnikoff said with a bright smile. "People come in and they're happy to be buying a gift for a baby."
The store's interior reflects the cheerful mood Melnikoff strives to create. The pale yellow walls and light-colored floors contrast in a funky yet soothing way, with the secondary walls painted blue and dark rose. Baby furniture scattered about gives the store a comforting, lived-in feeling and showcases a few of the styles available for parents to order, whether they're seeking classic or contemporary.
Perhaps the most impressive of the stock is the high-quality furniture that Melnikoff offers by order.
"Bratt Decor furniture is the maker of the finest children's furniture," Melnikoff explained. "[There is] a huge selection of solid wood and slate and pewter collections -- dressers, bookcases, changing tables, mirrors. And the bonus about shopping here for your furniture is that I pay for the shipping."
Some store pieces displayed are highly unusual and rather untraditional -- for example, a black wooden crib with a matching dresser (which transitions to a changing table when a piece is added) and mirror. On the more traditional side, also displayed is a bassinet of white iron, swinging from an arch and draped with soft netting.
The shop is one of a kind for the area, Melnikoff said. The nearest store with the same selection, she said, is located in Fairfax. She stressed the importance of meeting her customers' needs so a long trip need not be in order.
"The goal for me is to carry merchandise that is unique and different from what's already available in town," she said. "People like getting that gift that they know won't be repeated."
The store is quirky. Not really just a clothing store, not really just a furniture store, not really just a toy store -- Melnikoff sees her shop as the place to go for that perfect, hard-to-find baby gift.
The store boasts stroller toys, stylish diaper bags, christening gifts, embroidered crib pillows, mother's nursing clothing and blankets, bath toys, skin care products for mom, blocks, puzzles toys, and PeePee TeePees for diaper-changing ease. And how about a trio of Pair and Spare Socks? The mismatched, recycled cotton footwear comes three to a set, just in case one goes missing. "You know how our socks get lost in the dryer?" Melnikoff said.
She also carries a variety of organic products in addition to the stuffed animals, including bisphenol-free baby bottles.
But a boutique? Melnikoff says you don't need to be intimidated.
"People think that when they hear the word 'boutique' that you're expensive ... that's not always the case," Melnikoff said. "I have merchandise in here starting at $5, and you can get a great gift for $25; it's important to have reasonable prices."
Some great gift ideas that Melnikoff recommended for a reasonable price are: a Loved Baby outfit; an organic blanket and rattle combination; some bottles of skin care; and knitted caps in the shape of bears, princesses or the favorite, according to Melnikoff, a cupcake.
She is the only employee of her business, and exudes her warmth and enthusiasm in dealing with her customers. Listening to the customers' wants is essential, she stressed.
"It's important to show them things because there are so many baby things out there. The merchandise, it goes and goes and goes -- there's a lot of it," she said. "And when you show people how things work and what their purpose is ... they like that."
And if you're looking for something out of the ordinary?
"Of course, I don't know all the answers to the questions, but if I don't know, I'll try to find it," Melnikoff said.
Especially impressive is her ability to manage a business with only a high-school diploma -- she graduated from James Wood-- although she does have a background in retail management. The idea to begin the store started with her desire to find just such a shop during her own pregnancies. The materialization of the store seemed to fall into place just at the right time.
"Once I decided I was really going to do it, I took off. It hit me and I started runnin' with it," Melnikoff said.
Melnikoff started her business in September, and says, even in a tottering economy, she is optimistic about her prospects for success.
"I'm starting at the bottom -- I can't get any lower," she said with a laugh.
What: Dream Baby Boutique
Where: 16 S. Loudoun St. (Pedestrian Mall), Winchester
Owner: Debbie Melnikoff
Brands Available: Bratt Decor, Loved Baby, MiYim, BellaBands, Aimee, Kootie Bug Designs, Elegantbaby, Belli Skin Care, Glamourmom