Agapanthus: An Oasis of Chic in Lakeville
Retail guru Arlene Dubin and shopkeeper Lynne Bragonier
Arlene Dubin remembers when “country style” was a contradiction in terms. When she arrived in northwestern Connecticut in 1970, her situation resembled the hit television show Green Acres about a sophisticated city woman giving up a penthouse (and stores!) for a farmhouse (and chores!) Arlene’s husband wanted to be a country lawyer, and he persuaded her to quit her high-powered job as a buyer for Saks Fifth Avenue to open an upscale inn on Route 41 in Salisbury. “We were ahead of our time, which is the story of my life,” she says. “When the gas crisis hit in the 1970s, that was the end of the inn.” Adapting to country life was not easy. When she’d walk into the pharmacy dressed in black, the clerks would always ask, “Who died?” She was especially dismayed by the rural retail scene. “There were no shops in Great Barrington!” she says in her gravelly smoker’s voice that hints at her days living in the bohemian Greenwich Village of the 1950s. “There were no shops in Millerton—except Saperstein’s!” So Arlene rectified the situation by opening a sophisticated housewares and gift shop called Settings in Lakeville (where there weren’t any stores either). “I sold table settings, African bronzes, whatever struck my fancy.” Settings operated in several locations before closing many years ago.
Arlene now works at Agapanthus, an eco-chic, hybrid home-and-fashion shop on Main Street in Lakeville (which is, coincidentally, across the street from the first home of the late, lamented Settings). In an unusual role reversal, she is mentoring her boss, Lynne Bragonier, a retail novice. Arlene has been instrumental in helping Lynne refine the concept of the store, which was originally going to be a variation on the upscale garden chain Smith & Hawken. “When I met Lynne, she had a vision but she didn’t have a clue,” Arlene says affectionately. “She invited me over to her house where she had all her merchandise, and I said, “This does not a store make.” Arlene encouraged Lynne to add clothing and jewelry to the mix. “When we first opened, people saw the tables in the window and thought we were a restaurant,” says Arlene. “They’d walk in and say, ‘What time is brunch?’” Arlene’s solution: She sprinkled pieces of jewelry on the table settings. “That’s what I did at my first store, too.” Agapanthus has become one of those stores where customers stop by even when they are not looking for anything in particular because they just want to hang out and look at pretty things. “They consider it an oasis,” says Arlene. “They love the ambiance—the light, calmness, serenity and colors.”
They also love Arlene. “People trust her taste and she tells it like it is,” says Lynne. Arlene is like a character out of a black-and-white movie, the tough-as-nails career woman with a heart of gold beneath the chic exterior. She enjoys reminiscing about her career at Saks Fifth Avenue, when the owner, Adam Gimbel, asked her to start an active sportswear department. “You couldn’t find a tennis dress made in America then,” says Arlene, who would go on buying trips to Europe. “You couldn’t find ski clothes made here either.” She also helped develop the concept of “fun furs” at Saks. “Women wore mink and sable, of course, but there were no furs for wearing in the country or après ski. That became a very big business.“She has brought Saks appeal to every place she’s worked ever since. She helped gentrify the Salisbury Pharmacy for its owner, Elaine LaRoche, who hired her to open Passports, a nearby Asian antiques and accessories store. When Arlene’s husband was at the Noble Horizons nursing home for two years, she opened a shop there. “We sold hats and scarves, jewelry, candy, things the residents could give to each other,” she says. Bragonier cannot imagine Agapanthus without Arlene. “Even though she balks when most assume she’s my mother, there is a strong connection—and she does try to mother me,” says Lynne. “Fiercely loyal, stylish, accomplished, opinionated, and politically savvy, she keeps me on my toes.”
329 Main Street, Lakeville; 860.435.8900
Monday - Saturday 10 AM - 5 PM; Sunday 11 AM - 4 PM
Lynne Bragonier outside her shop.