Cherchez la Fermière

The French Farmer’s Wife brings a slice of authentic France to Kernersville

By Nancy Oakley   •   Photographs by Sam Froelich

It’s a quarter-to-nine on a Thursday morning in spring, and already, a handful of customers are lined up, eager to see what’s behind the massive doors of Kathee Zurian’s barn in Kernersville.

She and her business partner, Gail Cekuta, meanwhile, are busy setting up coffee and cookies on the tables just inside, while their marketing director, Janet Cooper-Bridge, is snapping photos. Cekuta’s husband, David, is taking his place behind the cash register. “I just do what I’m told,” he jokes. (Zurian’s husband, Charlie, prefers to avoid the fray, taking refuge in the house, several yards up the hill from the barn.)

On the stroke of 9, the doors open, and the patrons wander in, instantly mesmerized by the sight before them: a jumble of rustic French antiques and vintage American pieces, all artfully arranged in “rooms,” as if the chapters of a storybook had suddenly sprung to life. Welcome — or rather, Bienvenue! — to the enterprise that Zurian and Cekuta have dubbed The French Farmer’s Wife.

It all started three years ago, when the Zurians, who were by then empty-nesters, decided their Southern California home wasn’t the best place to spend their impending retirement years. “My husband and I moved here after he got a job at B/E Aerospace,” Zurian explains. Through an internet search, she had chosen the house and barn that occupy a hilly stretch of land just beyond Colfax. “We had horses in California, and horse property,” Zurian continues, “and when we moved here, I said, ‘I don’t want to do the horses anymore.’” Instead, she decided to fulfill a lifelong dream: “Open a barn and have an antiques store.”

She opened a booth in Greensboro’s Antique Market Place mall, and it was there that she met Cekuta, who also had a booth. “I’ve been here for about 17 years,” Cekuta says, picking up the thread. The Wisconsin native met husband David in California and the two moved to Texas, where they lived for about eight years. There, Cekuta became acquainted with the trend for shabby farmhouse chic. On visits to the town of nearby Fredericksburg, she was enthralled by the shops and window displays of designer Carol Boulton Hicks. “Her windows were amazing!” Cekuta enthuses. “She inspired me and my friends; she was the first one that looked at things that weren’t perfect as beautiful. And we thought, ‘Wow! This is a cheap way to buy antiques.’” Even more inspiring to Cekuta about the rustic look: “Everything told a story,” she says.

She noticed a similar sensibility in Zurian’s booth at the antiques mall. The only difference? “I’ve just always loved anything French,” says Zurian, who frequented eBay for French finds. “I just started changing everything to French. My whole house is French.” 

Cekuta remembers the day she and Zurian met. “She was shopping. She had enamelware in her cart, and I’m like, ‘Oh! Those look really good.’ And she said, ‘This is what I’m going to do with them.’” Zurian then decided to pay a visit to Cekuta’s booth. “I knew she had good taste, because the things she picked out were the best,” Cekuta remembers. The two started talking and discovered more in common: Not only had they lived in the Golden State, both their husbands, it turned out, worked at B/E, although in different divisions.

“And so, I told Gail I had a barn,” Zurian continues. “You’ve got to come see it. I don’t know if we could do it. It would require a lot of work.”

It had been a working horse barn, complete with a hayloft on a mezzanine level. With the help of Jose Hernandez, the caretaker who had maintained the property for its previous owners, the two women and their husbands gutted the structure, ripping out the mezzanine and stalls, cleaning out layers of animal waste and power-washing the walls. “It took almost a year,” Zurian recalls. She insisted that the floors of the former stalls be covered with gravel, the likes of which you’d see in a neat courtyard or backyard garden in the Loire Valley, the Mediterranean or just about anyplace in The Hexagon.

The result is the perfect venue for staging the merchandise that the two antiques buffs collect far and wide.

“I have a friend who brings containers back (from France),” Zurian explains. “So I’m able to pick through his containers, but other than that, we go to flea markets.”

“We travel,” Cekuta adds. To their old stomping grounds, California, and its “great flea markets,” to Texas, where Cekuta’s son still lives. To upstate New York. “I’m on the phone with Kathee, sending her pictures: ‘What do you think? What do you think?’” she adds. Zurian, who once hauled horse trailers, is intrepid when it comes trucking the merch up and down the Interstates.

Why so much effort for just a monthly, three-day sale?

“You’re not really getting the thrill of the hunt when you find a good piece in an antique store and mark it up again,” says Zurian. “It’s really difficult to resell it. So, we try to find the best prices.”

Because the two are spending so much of their time on the road, short monthly sales make sense.

Once their desired merchandise is acquired, Zurian and Cekuta spend about a month arranging the wares in vignettes throughout the barn. And their styling of the items sets them apart from antiques shops or shows or auctions. “We’re showing people how to use it all,” says Cekuta.

“It’s an experience,” Zurian explains, pointing to an oversized bottle arranged with others above. “They’ll see how to put something together.”

And indeed, going through the gutted stalls where horses once slept and chomped on hay, is like leafing through Peter Mayle’s beloved travelogue, A Year in Provence, or M.F.K. Fisher’s Long Ago in France. Over here, a basket of dried lavender wrapped in brown paper; over there, an area of screen doors and windows frames, dormers salvaged from houses that were facing demolition; brightly colored children’s water pails and building blocks; a Hungarian bee skep, its dried mud shell intact; and hanging directly above, painted metal utensil trays from France, Germany, “all over,” says Zurian.

Another “room” contains a bed frame and a pair of worn satin ballet slippers, as if one of Edgar Degas’ dancers had casually flung them aside after a long day of rehearsals. Janet Cooper-Bridge calls this “Cinderella’s Bedroom.”

An executive assistant for Hanesbrands since 2003, Cooper-Bridge has found a creative outlet with her own booth, The Barefoot Farm Girl, at Antique Market Place, where she met Zurian and Cekuta, and offered to take photographs of their wares. When it came time to publicize the barn sales, the two ladies immediately hired her to handle their marketing (a sideline for Cooper-Bridge), not only for the quality of her photography, but because she understood the concept of the operation.

“I was a food blogger for 10 years,” Cooper-Bridge explains. “We all know people eat with their eyes. What I told these ladies: ‘People shop with their eyes and their hearts.’” Seeing the rustic antiques arranged in an artful way, she says, tells shoppers, “You need these things, because you want to create this feel and environment in your own home.”

True enough. For who could resist a boxwood wreath resting against a stack of vintage suitcases? Or an old rocking horse, its papier mâché exterior worn off, except for the odd strip of newsprint here and there? Or tiny birds’ nests positioned near the base of a santo, a figure used in religious parades? Or the hundreds of breadboards in sizes ranging from small to enormous, all worn, some repaired, neatly laid in baskets near a wooden trays for baguettes, racks stacked with stoneware and an assortment of Turkish rugs and pillows? Across from these is a zinc washstand from a Catholic school, a washtub and a somber landscape in oils, bits of canvas missing.

In another area, which Cooper-Bridge likens to a French apothecary, is a cabinet with a scale resting on top of it and large glass jars containing Provençal vegetable soaps, and lotions.

“This is new,” Zurian says. “We’ve always wanted soaps and we wanted to find the right ones. So we picked each one. We wanted the colors right, the smells right. We’re real picky about that.”

The “apothecary” is cordoned off by a large chipped column, and just adjacent to it, a woman’s dress form covered in a linen corset. A gilt-and-crystal chandelier hangs overhead, and resting on a table nearby, brass shafts embossed with the fleur-de-lys at one end  — former curtain rods that have been repurposed as garden stakes. One half expects to see Madame Pompadour cast a gaze across the “apothecary” to the next tableau, where chipped green metal table and chairs might accommodate a couple of older gents sipping pastis over a game of boules.

But by Day Three of the sale, says Cekuta, “everything will be completely wiped out.”

“Torn apart,” Zurian chimes in.

It’s a lesson they learned from their very first sale last October. “Let’s put it this way: We were not prepared,” says Zurian.

“We started with just one register,” Cekuta adds. “Then we knew we had to get two.”

“The line was out the door to pay,” Zurian remembers.

Impressive, considering that The French Farmer’s Wife was advertised only through Facebook, Instagram and word-of-mouth.

Zurian and Cekuta weathered the deluge of customers, and the deluge from Hurricane Matthew; during the subsequent two sales, Zurian was hobbled with a foot injury, Cekuta’s husband had a heart attack, and her mother died. “But we got through it,” she says.

They have built it and the customers keep coming. On this mild spring day, Zurian has already fielded a call from a patron traveling two-and-a-half hours away; another showed up a day early. The shoppers, still filing in through the barn, some nibbling on the complimentary cookies, stare in awe at the French wonderland. “Some might stay for as long as two hours,” Cekuta observes. “It’s a lot to take in.”

No doubt, some are already anticipating the next sale at The French Farmer’s Wife, which will have a completely different ambiance. Perhaps something more bohemian. By Christmastime, they might display ornaments and glass as they did last year — or maybe not. The fun for Kathee Zurian and Gail Cekuta is conjuring up a new narrative with new merchandise. How ironic to create something so ephemeral with material things . . . and how very French.

The next barn sale at the French Farmer’s Wife I will be held July 13, 14 and 15. For information: 

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