Backstory: Boutique retailer changes to keep up with fashion, customers

vbridges@newsobserver.comMarch 25, 2013 

Sarah Torian, co-owner of Sara's Too in Northgate Mall, shows customer Normie Bullard, of Pembroke N.C., scarves in the ladies boutique in the Durham mall. Torian has been in the retail business in Durham since opening International Jeans & Things in 1981 in Triangle Square Shopping Plaza.


  • Advice from Sarah and Bennie Torian •  Know your customers. •  Shop with your customer in mind. •  Offer quality customer service.

— Sara’s Too Boutique is filled with colorful ladies’ fascinators and hats that twist, shade and flutter. Shoes and accessories also sparkle in the showroom that is loaded with decorative dresses and evening suits for a range of tastes and special occasions.

But the real star of the Northgate Mall women’s boutique is Sarah Torian.

Torian has navigated Durham’s bumpy retail climate for 32 years by catering to consumer demand and special orders, and by building a base of customers who don’t mind paying a little more for clothes with flair.

In 1981, Torian, 68, and her husband, Bennie, a Durham native, moved to the Bull City from Maryland and opened International Jeans & Things, a store that sold jeans and tops at Triangle Square Shopping Plaza in southern Durham. Before opening the store, Sarah Torian worked in accounting for Pepperidge Farms and Bennie Torian worked for a government contractor in Washington, D.C.

They moved to Durham with a plan to provide a boutique option for women who live near and work in Research Triangle Park.

“We moved on a weekend,” Sarah Torian said. “We started work on that Monday.”

They planned for the income from the store to cover their salaries, but Bennie Torian returned to his job in Washington, D.C., after a couple of weeks because they needed the money.

After six months of commuting, Bennie Torian, now 70, opened a landscaping business, Ranto’s Maintenance, which still serves the Triangle area.

In 1985, after assessing her customer base, Sarah Torian decided to change the store’s inventory to appeal to career women and renamed it Sara’s without the ‘h’ to differentiate it from Sarah’s Florist, an established Durham shop.

Sales started to pick up, and traffic increased with the changes and as new stores opened in the area, she said.

Sarah Torian opened another Sara’s at Creedmoor Crossings on Creedmoor Road in Raleigh in 1989, but it only survived a year or so. The location wasn’t right for a boutique at that time, she said.

In 2002, she opened Sara’s Too in Northgate Mall.

Sara’s Too carried women’s apparel and accessories for special occasions such as mother-of-the-bride and special-order prom dresses, church suits and dyeable shoes.

“That side of town was business,” she said about the Triangle Square store. “This side of town was church, special occasion, after-5 dinner suits.”

The move brought new customers from various Triangle communities.

Meanwhile, sales at the first store slowed as a result of other nearby companies either closing or cutting back on staffing and the opening at The Streets at Southpoint mall.

In 2005, Sarah Torian closed the original Sara’s, her “baby,” she said.

“Change comes about,” she said. “And you have to adjust to change.”

Over the years, traffic has slowed at Northgate Mall, too. But Sara’s Too stays in business with the help of her customer base, along with special orders, which account for about 50 percent of her sales, Sarah Torian said.

“If they don’t see anything in the store, then I show them the catalog and they order what they like,” she said.

Bridges: 919-829-8917

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