Two antique dealers bring the rustic past to downtown Greensboro and Winston-Salem
Photographs by Lynn Donovan
The Farmer’s Wife
339 S. Davie St., Greensboro, (336) 274-7920, farmerswifeantiquesandflowers.com
Shopkeeper Daniel Garrett can rightfully claim to be both an urban survivor and a retail trendsetter in downtown Greensboro. Over three decades ago he started his eclectic antique shop, called The Farmer’s Wife, on a shoestring budget and chose to hang his shingle “below the tracks” on South Elm Street, an area that was at least a decade away from urban revitalization.
Garrett quickly found his niche, however, by selling select antique pieces that fit his eye of “simple and unfussy,” an artistic philosophy shaped by growing up on a 100-acre family farm in Pleasant Garden and earning an art degree from UNCG. “I was always drawn to things that are old and practical but have beautiful lines, a simple elegance and fine workmanship,” he explains. “It can be anything from a farm table and chairs to a piece of vintage farm equipment. It doesn’t have to be perfect. Nicks and scratches just show how useful it was.”
As he explains this, Garrett sits on one of four handsome, 19th-century, fan-back Windsor chairs at a walnut-plank kitchen table that’s soulfully bare of paint or ornamentation.
On a facing wall of exposed brick, elegantly framed botanical, architectural and historic prints hang, including pages from a hand-scripted ledger chronicling a pre-Civil War cotton mill. Nearby, calipers, cotton scales and a mobile made of industrial plumb bobs speak of his reverence for the rural past and a good eye for well-made objects of desire — vintage jars, industrial shears, and even a box full of movie-marquee letters that seem to possess a patina of theatrical beauty the way they are displayed.
If a visit to the Farmer’s Wife — a name Garrett borrowed from the title of a 1910 women’s magazine — feels a little like stepping back into a vanished America, best to go with the flow. The shop has a retro-rustic charm all its own, something beautiful and unexpected everywhere the eye wanders. Updated primitive antiques, natural curiosities and a museum curator’s sense of art and function — not to mention an outstanding floral service — define the firm’s enduring popularity. And its location for the past 15 years is so appropriate, a formerly run-down brick building on Davie Street just north of the aforementioned railroad tracks in what used to be called “Hamburger Square,” an area now buzzing with commercial galleries, brewpubs, upscale restaurants and vintage boutiques.
One by one, the half a dozen antique dealers that used to call South Elm home closed up shop and moved on years ago, giving way to a reverse-migration of urban homesteaders. They may have been inspired by Garrett’s stunning restoration of the three-story brick building that began life in the early 19th century as a grocery warehouse. Garrett transformed the street level into his unique antique shop and florist service while creating a gorgeous two-level loft home that hearkens to an time when owners lived above their shops. In a narrow space out back between the building and a remarkably close set of railroad tracks, Garrett created a lush and cozy three-tiered shade garden full of boxwoods and Japanese maples that make it feel more like a serene Buddhist prayer garden than a former alleyway to a once-busy rail yard. “This place is my therapy,” Garrett quips. “It’s where I go when I need an escape.”
If he gently rues that he may indeed be “almost the last man standing” in terms of downtown antique dealers, Garrett was clearly in the vanguard of a movement that has brought new life and vitality to old factory and textile buildings across the Triad.
“It’s nice to see downtown doing so well again,” he says, recalling his early days doing visual merchandising for Meyer’s Department Store when downtown was home to at least four of them, now all gone.
“Whatever role we’ve played in that change is hard to say,” he reflects. “But our customers seem to appreciate the affection we have for a simpler time when beautiful things were made by hand. That’s why we are still here.”
We couldn’t agree more — which explains why one of Garrett’s beautiful wooden antique French bread-making boxes captured our fancy, striking us as the ideal birthday gift for a wife who loves to bake in the old-fashioned way. Simply put, it will be bringing us back to the Farmer’s Wife very soon.
— Jim Dodson
315 S. Liberty St., Winston-Salem, (336) 893-5777, facebook.com/repeatoffendersinc/
“When I first opened, I got calls from people who used to think I was an advocate for prisoners and ex-cons,” says Patti Hamlin, owner of the cleverly named Repeat Offenders, which she opened two years ago on Liberty Street in downtown Winston-Salem. Hamlin’s mission, however, is not to save wayward souls from a life of crime, but antique furniture from a life of grime — and neglect, and disrepair.
That’s not to say you’ll find rundown pieces for the D.I.Y. set in her bright, elegant showroom facing the children’s museum, Kaleideum Downtown. No, when you walk through the doors of Repeat Offenders — after Hamlin’s two aging dogs, Rocket, a black Lab, and Cracker, a Westie, greet you — you’ll find beautifully constructed, lacquered tables, some with stencils painted over the wood finish, others fully painted, and some, still with just a hint of paint as trim. Or you might see a milk-painted dresser with French phrases in cursive script, a nod to Hamlin’s penchant for French country style. At one end stands a bar made from shiplap; over there, a shelf constructed from a door pediment. A metal basket containing old-fashioned wooden barbells stands in a corner; another wicker basket holds bunches of lavender swathed together in mattress ticking. Colorful napkins and quilts fill the shelves of a handsome cupboard, whimsical planters fashioned from upside-down cheese graters adorn one wall, while bright abstract canvases of Old Salem by local painter Leland Powers grace others. Tea towels, candles, bar accoutrements are all thoughtfully arranged throughout the three rooms.
Hamlin, who opened the store two years ago when her husband’s job managing a NASCAR driver took him to Ohio for the better part of each month, curates her wares for several reasons. For one, cluttered antique stores are a pet peeve, says the dealer with the dry wit and the salty tongue: “There’s shit everywhere and they smell like Grandma’s underwear drawer!”
She should know, having grown up around antiques. “I redid my first trunk when I was 16,” Hamlin says, explaining that she would accompany her mother on shopping excursions. As an enticement, her mother would encourage her daughter to look for the McCoy ware animal figures she collected. With Hamlin’s father in the Air Force, the family moved to California from New England, where Hamlin recalls watching her mother at antiques auctions “with awe.”
When her dad died, Hamlin’s mother used the money she’d inherited to buy a house, fix it up and sell it, as a way of supporting her two children. “And she started doing it over and over again.” Before long, Mom was selling real estate and “had property all over”; she remarried and acquired four stepsons. “And in my house, if you got into trouble, you had to do hard labor — and with my big mouth, I was always in trouble,” Hamlin recalls. “I was always doing something.” Painting walls, installing flooring, pulling weeds, building things. “A lot of the creativity and how I look at things came from my mom,” she muses. “She was really good at picking out a really crappy house and turning it into a really pretty house. And same thing with furniture. She had an eye for it. And I learned that from her.”
With so many handy brothers and a shop on the California ranch where they lived, Hamlin, a self-professed tomboy, also took to woodworking. “I really liked working with the woodworking tools my stepdad had. So I was always building things. I’ve always enjoyed that,” she says. “I took shop classes in high school and stuff like that.”
After college and grad school, Hamlin’s life took a detour, when by happenstance, she was offered a job with a fledgling drag racing outfit some high school friends had launched. Over time, as the company grew, it needed someone to pen press releases. And that’s how Hamlin eventually wound up representing NASCAR teams, owning her own PR agency in Dallas. She gave it all up when she married longtime friend and former crew chief for Dale Earnhardt Kevin Hamlin, whose next job with Bull Racing brought the couple to North Carolina. “When I was traveling with him, I got into antiquing because you can only watch cars go in circles so many times,” says Hamlin. And she would sometimes accompany other NASCAR wives on shopping excursions, which clued her into a particular buying pattern: If they saw something they liked, a table, say, with a flower arrangement, they would buy the entire display.
Which explains Hamlin’s other reasons for staging her inventory: to help her customers visualize how to use a piece — by adding a runner, or some candlesticks or a centerpiece. And she knows her customers well. “I get soccer moms for days,” she says, nodding to the museum across the street. “What I found is, a lot of my clientele is thirtysomething working moms, a lot of the people from Baptist Hospital, they just want everything to be done, finished, ready to go.” Meaning, no time to refurbish unloved, D.I.Y. antiques.
So, from the woodshop in back of the store Hamlin spends hours at her DeWalt table saw, surrounded by the piney dust that settles on several old pieces, all sourced locally, awaiting a new life — an armoire darkened with age, a dresser charred from a fire — and new, custom ones, such as the farmhouse table that Hamlin built from stock lumber. The Fixer Upper craze, she explains, has driven up the cost of antique wood. “The farmhouse tables that I build, they’re the look that everybody wants — and at a price that everyone can afford,” Hamlin says. She adds that she’s determined not to overprice any item that she carries. “If I get a good deal on something, I pass it on to my customers.” And like her idol, Martha Stewart, she’ll “do it right.” Make sure all the hinges work properly, line the dresser drawers with paper. “It’s a reflection of me,” she says.
Then she might work from her studio in another room in back of the store, perhaps painting colorful motifs on the glass of old, framed windows, or dip-dyeing flannel shirts, a hot selling item among teenagers, for fall. She’ll switch out one eye-catching window display for another, maybe replacing the aqua wicker rocker currently causing customers to stop, for a blue dresser. And then, when Rocket and Cracker give her the it’s-time-to-go-home-and-eat-dinner look, Hamlin will close shop until another day. But her work still isn’t done: She’ll stay up, sewing pillows fashioned from antique grain stacks or plan an upcoming class on making wooden-painted quilt blocks.
“I enjoy everything I do,” says Hamlin. “I love coming here.” And as another car squeals to a halt outside her inviting window, it appears everyone else does too. — Nancy Oakley