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Mabou in the News

House of Exotica

Store draws far-flung customers with foreign goods

by Stacey Morris
The Glens Falls Post-Star

SARATOGA SPRINGS--Mabou is a playground for adults that sprawls over three stories and for nearly a full block (462-468) of Broadway. From floor-to-ceiling are treasures ranging from Buddhas carved of blue frosted glass to hand-cast monkey lamps to exotic pieces of furniture -- only don't call it a furniture store.

"We think of it as more of a lifestyle store," said Betty Straus, who opened Mabou along with her husband, Mark, more than 30 years ago.

But "adventure" would also be an accurate description of Mabou. Opening the glass doorway to the store is like landing in Oz -- once inside, you've entered a lushly decorated continent full of dark wood cabinetry, taut leather armchairs and potted palms with an intoxicating Casablancan vibe.

"We don't sell just furniture, but our byline is 'furnishings for the well-traveled home,'" said Mark as he pointed out a marble-topped wooden credenza from Egypt painted with an intricate floral pattern.

Well traveled, indeed. Near a case full of glittering faux emerald and diamond jewelry is someone's future dining room table, its wood surface adorned with two ornate tapestries and mammoth brass candle holders from India, gold tassels tied seductively around their middle. With an inventory that ranges from sofas to African masks to hand-woven rugs from countries around the globe (Indonesia, Peru and China, to name a few), it's hard to picture Mabou's original 1971 incarnation.

Back then, the store inhabited one half of what is now Bruegger's Bagels, and sold mostly gift items like jewelry, clothing, candles and greeting cards.

"Mabou evolved over time as our interests and tastes changed," recalled Mark. "The changes just happened organically." Which meant that, as the couple's two children were growing, toys were added; when Betty and Mark took an interest in gourmet cooking, a line of cookware was sold; the universal simplicity of candles and cards became accented with whimsical gifts like an Isle of Lewis chess set and a model Olympic racing-class Norwegian sailboat.

Ultimately, other interests became so consuming for the couple (primarily, wanting to raise their children), they led to Mabou's seven-year hiatus in the '80s.

"I helped start the Spring Hill Saratoga (a Waldorf school)," said Betty with a smile. "My son was in the first, first-grade class."

But, eventually, the allure of operating Mabou beckoned and when their children were older they decided to open again.

"We missed our customers a lot," said Mark. "Running a store like this is a very social thing, they're like family."

"And we missed traveling," said Betty. The couple often find themselves out of town on national and international business trips for the store, though some of the trips are taken by Mabou's buyers.

"Over the past three years, our rug buyers who travel to India, Pakistan and Afghanistan have to travel with bodyguards," Mark said.

Finding the unique, Mark and Betty say they go to such far-flung lengths for hard-to-find items for one primary reason -- their customers.

"We have people shopping here from as far away as Manhattan and Connecticut," he said. "The buying and selling of goods is a secondary function -- we're a service organization serving the needs of the community -- sales volume is related to how well we meet the needs of our local, regional and visiting population."

Ray Brooks, owner of the leather store Brooks on Broadway, said he's furnished three homes plus his new Saratoga Springs business courtesy of Mabou. "It's a destination store which is truly unique, they have things you won't find anywhere else," he said. "And the price is absolutely just can't find the same kind of items with a similar style or price in Manhattan." Brooks said that, while he's purchased several rounds of dining room tables, dressers and wall units from Mabou, his favorite finds are what he calls "artifacts," objects with an ancient relic feel that aren't offered en masse. "It's always fresh be really successful, you need to be something you can't get anywhere else and that's Mabou."

But, even though some of their clientele shops in Mabou for their second and third homes, Betty said it's a myth that the store is only for the wealthy. "There are things here for all budgets," she said. "Some of our things are priced promotionally."

Sharing the Wine
The secrets to Mabou's success were even included in the 1996 book "From Vision in Action," by Christopher Schaefer in a chapter titled "The Principals of a Successful Business."

At the end of last summer, Mabou expanded to its current three floors along Broadway, plus a clearance boutique in the basement. After surveying a newly decorated bedroom in the eastern corner of Mabou's cavernous second floor, Mark and Betty wended their way upstairs to the rug gallery, where dozens of handmade, vegetable-dyed rugs hang. "Our customers love the rugs because they come from so many different regions," said Betty, gliding past a red and gold rug from Turkmenistan. Past the rugs and a display of silver camel candle holders, Mark and Betty made their way to the third floor's walnut and burlwood bar. "This is part of our daily ritual," Mark grinned as he poured his wife a glass of Saratoga water while Steve Tyrell crooned on the nearby stereo. "We'll usually share some wine in the evening with our customers," said Betty. "It's a nice way for us to end the day."

Betty smiled as she took another sip of Saratoga water. "Mabou is a Native American word that means sparkling waters...we didn't know that when we named the store...who would have known it would fit so well with Saratoga?"