BY KATE HANZALIK
CAZENOVIA — Two hundred years ago, 74 Albany St. was a bar and a trading post. Twenty years ago this past July, the building became home to the much loved, world-class boutique filled with all things French, Lavender Blue.
Over the years, co-owners Judith Warburton and Eileen Lowe have learned a lot about embracing risks, seeing opportunities, and appreciating serendipity. In fact, the two grew up 40 miles away from each other in Cheshire, England unbeknownst to them. Their children were born in the same small cottage hospital eight years apart. Their husbands were recruited to work in Syracuse around the same time.
It wasn’t until Warburton and Lowe met at a dinner party in Cazenovia that they realized their shared history, a history that blossomed into a future that has changed the landscape of our town – and the interior of many homes around the world – for the better.
The inspiration for Lavender Blue began with Warburton’s fascination with the art form of coated French tablecloths, and her wish to solve an age-old problem for Americans.
“We had all traveled extensively in France and seen the unique table linens with their cotton base and acrylic coating that allowed everyone at the table to relax as every spill could be wiped up leaving no trace – so different from the traditional white damask that stained at the first drop of wine,” she said.
The idea of selling these tablecloths didn’t really materialize until Warburton slipped and fell one day.
“It was just serendipity. On a bad day, I saw the shop; the barber had a sign in the window, ‘For Sale By Owner,’” Warburton said. She took a look around, “And that day, all those ideas came. I thought immediately of Eileen because I was sure we would work well together.”
“Judith had a vision for the store. It was an opportunity to bring France to Cazenovia,” said Lowe.
The former director of financial development for the American Red Cross was willing to take the risk.
“It’s a willingness to be able to not be too sure of what’s ahead of you,” Lowe said.
Lowe’s husband, David, and Warburton’s husband, Peter, were happy to support their wives.
“[They] worked tirelessly with [us] in preparing the old barber’s shop (owned by Ford Lamb for 40 years) to be the space to transform our dining experience into a joy, and blast of colors from the South of France and particularly Provence,” said Warburton.
“We had people on the first weekend coming in and singing [the English nursery rhyme] Lavender Blue,” said Lowe.
At that time, they had one supplier, but that changed over the years.
“In our attempt to bring the very best items to Cazenovia we started our yearly visit to France to discover the perfect designers and distributors – then [we] expand[ed] our search to Spain for our ceramics. At times we felt like the adventurer Marco Polo bringing back treasures from Europe,” said Warburton.
Now they offer a treasure trove of products from dozens of suppliers to customers all over the world. People often stop in or call to talk about their travels. They ask for advice about places to go in France. To some, the store is a travel destination.
“[Lavender Blue is] a touch of class, and wanderlust,” said Alex Altamonte, owner of H. Gray Supply Co. “We get to travel going into the store. There’s nothing like it around here, or anywhere.”
Lowe and Warburton have sold their products at garden shows, lavender festivals in Clinton and Skaneateles, the French festival in Clayton, Walnut Hill Farms in Pittsford, Thousand Islands, to name a few. They also partnered with Mackenzie Childs and collaborated with students studying advertising and business at Cazenovia College.
After 20 years of success, they have some words of wisdom to share.
For those interested in owning their own business, Lowe said that networking is key.
“Reach out for advice. Talk about what you would like to do. Be willing to open up and be receptive,” she said.
Warburton is concerned that young people are despondent and distracted by their cell phones, but she has some advice to offer.
“I would really love it if young people knew there are opportunities out there. They should investigate when opportunities come up,” Warburton said.
While 20 years has moved quickly, Lowe and Warburton are grateful for the support they have recevied from the community.
“We are really grateful to the community for a lot of support . . . It has been a gift in my life to experience all the people we’ve met,” Warburton said. “Twenty years has gone quickly but has brought magical moments and has, hopefully, added many memories as families sit and gather around a table set on a Provencal tablecloth.”