Rising star: How a boutique biz went national

It's understandable if one man's business has him seeing stars: The posters he has been creating since 2000– featuring pictures of the night sky on a particular date were selling at a rate of nearly 100 a day over the holidays. And that number may rise: He's just signed an exclusive deal with Houghton Mifflin for rights to the book Find the Constellations, by H.A. Rey, illustrator of the Curious George series.

 The man is Charlottesville's own Chris Vanden Wymelenberg. Just what is it about his Indigo Night posters that has big names like Marshall Field's and the Smithsonian Institution lining up to sell them?

At first glance, each image appears similar, with an indigo rectangle filled with stars and often the moon. But upon closer inspection, it's clear that no two are exactly alike: Not only are the stars always different, depending on the location and date, but each poster includes a custom message from the giver to the recipient along with an accurate astronomical description of how the stars appeared on the particular chosen night.

"Van," as friends call him, says that's the appeal. "There's a spiritual element," he says, "to connect with the night sky, the infinite, the beautiful."

Van's affinity for the sky at night goes back two decades to his time as a North Carolina-based yacht repairman and avid sailor studying celestial navigation. From that point on, he says, he was, well, starry-eyed.

When he and his "lifetime girlfriend," Michelle Cormier, a professional sailor and nurse, met seven years ago, the two decided to move north to Charlottesville to be closer to Cormier's family. But with no ocean nearby, maintaining a seaworthy vessel soon became burdensome. Van and Cormier sold their 31-foot sailboat four years ago to finance Indigo Night.

Though Van says reaction to his new business was immediately positive ("People were charmed," he says), explaining the concept could be difficult.

"There's no point of reference for this," he says.

That has dampened retail sales, he concedes, but he believes the descriptions offered in catalogs must be giving enough info to entice thousands of people to shell out the $49 for the 16" x 20" unframed poster. (A smaller version costs $10 less.)

Tampa, Florida, resident Jennifer Larson purchased an Indigo Night star map from the Marshall Field's catalog for her adopted daughter, born in China and abandoned by her mother the next day.

"I have often wondered about the first and last night that my daughter spent with her birth mother," wrote Larson in a letter to Indigo Night. "I imagined that they sat under the stars and hugged and cried... Then I saw your poster! I plan on using it as a tool to connect my daughter to her birth town and her birth mother."

In response to skeptics who might question the accuracy of the maps, Van says they've undergone some fairly intense scrutiny.

"It's not precise science," he says, "but it's science."

Charles Tolbert, an astronomy professor at UVA, calls the Indigo Night concept "very nice." While he objects to businesses that promise to name a star after a person ("meaningless," he says), he believes the Indigo Night service offers people a chance to "connect with the night sky." And he believes the off-the-shelf planetarium software used to create the posters is scientifically solid.

It's solid enough for endorsement by the Smithsonian, which tested the software for accuracy before agreeing to sell the maps through the Air and Space Museum gift shop.

Marshall Field's, a catalog owned by Target Corp. and distributed to millions of households, also thought the idea was a winner.

"Usually getting into a catalog takes six months," says Van. "We got in in one day."

That, he says, was a mixed blessing as orders increased exponentially almost immediately.

"We were in quite a panic the first year," he laughs.

With demand high, Van and Cormier added to the staff, bringing aboard graphic designers and writers. During holiday crunch time from November 1 to January 15, Indigo Night has six full-time employees. Come February, that number drops back to three. Each designer and writer, Van says, can produce about 30 star maps a day.

But productivity may soon have to rise when the new line of H.A. Rey-inspired children's posters and t-shirts becomes available this spring. In addition, each new Find the Constellations book sold will come with an Indigo Night insert, so the "potential is huge," says Van.

But although the couple is still shooting for the stars business-wise, their personal goal is decidedly more down to earth or perhaps out to sea: buying another boat.

"We're going to settle in here," says Van, "but we need to have sailing in our lives."

Chris Vanden Wymelenberg