Karin Michielsen grew up in retail, around her family’s shoe business in Belgium. So, when Michielsen’s first child was born, she realized she, too, wanted to open a small business to help support her family.
Michielsen envisioned opening a children’s store, where her kids would feel at home playing in the back of the shop. She launched Petit Bonhomme in the heart of Downtown San Clemente in 1991.
Since then, the store has drawn generations of customers to enjoy the unique pieces of children’s clothes, toys and accessories that the small business offers. And just as she imagined, her children often played in the back of the store as they grew up.
“They were always here in the back,” Michielsen recalls, before noting the store’s previous location in the downtown district. “I used to be on top of the street on El Camino (Real), so there we had a really big play area. But this location is much better.”
“Most people remember that; they say, ‘Oh, I remember that they were playing in the back,’ ” Michielsen continues. “Some people walked by, and I heard somebody say, ‘I think she has like 10 kids.’ That’s probably what it sounded like.”
Michielsen has also seen her customers’ children grow up before her eyes. Her eldest daughter is 33 now, and generations of parents have come through her doors looking for clothes and toys for their own children.
On the wall behind the checkout counter, Michielsen displays photos of the numerous families who have loyally shopped at Petit Bonhomme over the years.
The store quickly became a valued member of the business community, as San Clemente Times readers have voted Petit Bonhomme as the recipient of the Golden Ole for Best Kids’ Apparel and Toys for 2022.
Target, the nationwide retailer that offers a wide variety of clothes, toys, video games, board games, sporting equipment and more, earned the Silver Ole.
Except for 2012, the small, family-run store has been a finalist—either Gold or Silver Ole recipient—for the category every year since theBest of San Clemente launched 17 years ago.
“I’ve been here since 1991,” Michielsen says. “People that used to shop then for their kids, they come back for their grandkids, which has been really fun, actually. That’s kind of rewarding, and that keeps you going.”
“For a while, you don’t see those people, because then they’re teenagers, they get married, and now they’re having their babies,” Michielsen says.
Michielsen moved to Southern California in her 20s after backpacking around the world. Following a trip through Australia, New Zealand and then Hawaii, she said San Clemente was a great place to settle down.
Each time she travels back to Belgium, the trip back to San Clemente always feels like coming home, she says.
When Michielsen opened Petit Bonhomme, the first Gulf War had just begun and a big recession hit, she remembers. Initially, the store only carried European items; because of the recession and the push to buy American-made clothing, Michielsen had to switch gears.
The language barrier was also a struggle when Michielsen first opened the store.
“It was a struggle, because I didn’t grow up here, so when people would say terms like, toddlers or infants—I would think, ‘What is that?’ because it’s not my native language,” Michielsen says. “So, I had to learn a lot.”
Petit Bonhomme offers a wide selection of toys, books and unique children’s clothing and accessories.
Since Petit Bonhomme first opened 32 years ago, the uniqueness and quality of the clothing for sale have set the small business apart from its competitors.
“I try to find some real different and unique clothing that you don’t see everywhere,” Michielsen says. “Like if you go to the mall, you probably won’t find anything that I have.”
Michielsen adds that her clothes are of exceptional quality that can be handed down from generation to generation.