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Thursday, July 14, 2011

Vintage Garden… A Mom’s Lifelong Dream

Vintage Garden… A Mom’s Lifelong Dream:
Brick Walk retailer a one-stop for gift giving
By Mike Lauterborn
(posted to 7/14)
© 2011. All Rights Reserved.

Fairfield, CT – An entrepreneurial spirit and interest in gift items and cut flowers has entrenched a busy Fairfield mother of three boys in one of the hottest retail complexes in town.

Kathy Lee, owner of Vintage Garden at 1189 Post Road in the Brick Walk Promenade, grew up in Westport and worked in retail bakeries in high school. Senior year found her at Greens Farms Bookstore, which incorporated a bakery.

“It was a wonderful environment, with books, gifts, baked goods and catering – a great business recipe,” Lee said. “I kept the scenario in the back of my mind.”

Lee went off to the University of Southern California to pursue business and entrepreneurship, ultimately landing in Boston in 1989. There, she started in accounting, then managed the flower/gift shop. “I had a great mentor there – the director of the gift shop – who took me to trade shows and showed me the ropes.”

In 1994, she returned to Westport to work in floral management at Hay Day / Bertucci’s. “I didn’t know a lot about flowers, but two women on staff – Fairfielders Maureen Ringel and Phyllis Hartkopf – guided me along,” she said. “The place was like a farmstand. We sold individual flowers and custom created floral arrangements. I really gained a passion for cut flowers and gardening.”

She remained at Hay Day until 1999, when her first child was born. “I stayed home to raise my children, but always knew I would fulfill my dream of opening my own shop.”

Lee kept track of retail space openings as child two and child three arrived, until she became aware of the creation of the Brick Walk center, and inquired about availability in January 2009. “Three weeks later, I was signing a 10-year lease,” she said, adding, “Kudos have to go to the Kleban family (the developer / property owner) for making it very easy for me to open up during an unstable economy.”

Lee worked with Ken Kleban’s architect and construction managers to build out the space. “I was very happy with the result,” she said. “We opened May 1, 2009. The reception from the community was tremendous. We heard from shoppers, ‘Fairfield needed a store like this, we’re happy with the mix of stores and I feel like I can get a beautiful gift for any occasion at affordable prices.’”

Regarding her inventory, Lee said, “I pick all the things I love – fresh-cut flowers, plants, decorative containers, jewelry, personal accessories, picture frames, candles and seasonal items. Beach-themed items are very popular all year round. We carry baby items, like blankets, too. Much of our inventory can be personalized.”

As to the demographic the store attracts, Lee said, “We’re definitely geared to women shoppers, and we seem to be the go-to place for hostess gifts. Generally women are buying for other women. In fact, females of all ages enjoy the shop. A favorite moment for me is when a little girl comes in and says, ‘This is my favorite store.’ I see myself in them, at the same age.”

Lee said Vintage Garden is a community friend. “We try to give back and collaborate with other small businesses, especially within this complex as we can draw shoppers as a whole and provide a wide spectrum of products and services to meet their needs,” she said. “It’s worth noting that the majority of businesses in Brick Walk are women. There’s a unique sisterhood here, and together we participate in annual concerts, a farmer’s market and Christmas stroll, all within the complex.”

Reflecting on her achievements, Lee said, “It’s not easy trying to juggle a family and business, but I think it’s important to show my boys I can fulfill my dream and still be the mom they want me to be.”

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