As the nation sank into recession in 2008, business continued to hum at Cherie Boutique Francaise, a Wayzata perfume and beauty products emporium that evokes the aura of a European boutique with its crystal chandelier and antique showcases.

Mind you, the hum was considerably less vibrant than it had been: Sales rose just 3 percent last year, to $792,000, after growing at an annual rate of 28 percent in the four previous years since its 2003 opening.

But that's not bad, considering that consumer spending last year took the steepest plunge in 28 years -- and the fact that Cherie Boutique's wares do not exactly fall into the bargain-basement category.

What they do fall into is the luxury classification, including an inventory of fragrances, body lotions, soaps and makeup, the majority of which are imported from Europe.

Let me define luxury: The store's bestselling soap, made by Fragonard in southern France, goes for $15 -- for one bar. A 1.7-ounce vial of Bond scent costs $125 and a tube of Fresh lip balm sells for $22.50.

Then there's the 1-ounce tube of Caudalie Paris face cream, another bestseller, that fetches $68, and the designer sunglasses that go for up to $150.

The store has succeeded because "women love beautiful things," said proprietor Diane Wissink, who owns Cherie Boutique with daughters Sally Clayburn and Jennifer Carpenter. Thus, even in tough economic times, "they might splurge on just one item," Wissink said, although she noted that there still are customers who'll spend $500 or more in one visit.

But "luxury" is not defined solely by price, she argued: "Luxury also includes the quality of the product and what it adds to the quality of life," she said. Thus, her soaps contain vegetable oil rather than mineral oil that can dry the skin, and it's triple-milled to press out the air and make the bars longer-lasting.

Similarly, natural oils used in perfumes eliminate the allergic reactions sometimes created by synthetic elements, and there's no mineral oil or harmful preservatives in the skin-care products, either.

And one of Cherie Boutique's faithful, Mary Adamson of Tonka Bay, truly appreciates it all: "It's just beautiful quality," she said of the makeup, face cream and soap displayed around her. "It might seem expensive, but it lasts longer, and it's much more effective."

Besides, to its loyal clientele, Cherie Boutique is a destination, a pleasure trip that blends atmosphere and aroma to emulate a Parisian perfumery.

"It's a lovely environment, and it smells good, even in the wintertime," Adamson said.

Of course, the Como Park conservatory does, too -- and it's free.

Nonetheless, when the economy went into free fall late last year, five years of uninterrupted growth came to an end, with Cherie Boutique's sales falling about 20 percent in the first five months of 2009.

Wissink remains optimistic, however, noting a sales resurgence late in May that promised a return to at least minimal growth.

Childhood fascination

Her interest in beauty products began as a child playing with her mother's makeup and perfume, "which were always high-quality," Wissink said. But the notion of opening her own store didn't really blossom until 2001 on a trip she and her daughters took to Paris.

"Every time we went into a [beauty products] shop," Wissink said, "I'd say something like, 'If we had our own store, I'd want to sell things like that.'" The idea grew stronger when she realized she was shooting more photos of window displays and shop interiors than of such tourist attractions as the Eiffel Tower.

Back in the United States, the plotting of the Cherie Boutique began in earnest, including a trip to visit her son in Chicago, where she bought a 16-foot-long, floor-to-ceiling display case, a green antique from an old herbal shop in Paris.

"It had the look I wanted," she said.

A native of Ankeny, Iowa, Wissink did the bookwork and helped with the buying for the furniture store her parents operated. Her dad also had an interest in a local homebuilding and lumberyard business, where she also did bookwork and, on occasion, glazed a window or two.

"It was better training for running your own business than you could get in college," she recalled.

She opened Cherie Boutique in 500 square feet on Wayzata's Lake Street, then moved to the present 4,000 square feet across the street. The lease included an upstairs area that Wissink wasn't using, so she allows her husband, Jay Wissink, to use it free for his marketing and advertising business.

It's only fair, considering that he loaned her $50,000 to start the business, a sum he doesn't expect will be repaid.

"We've been married 40 years," he said by way of explaining the transaction. "All I asked was that she doesn't ask for any more."

Not likely, considering that Wissink has no business debt and pays cash for her inventory, which stands at about $250,000 worth of product.

Dick Youngblood • 612-673-4439 •