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Old barns become new upscale home-furnishing stores

By Terri Sapienza
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 9, 2011; 3:24 PM

It's 9 a.m. on a recent Saturday and the temperature is a frigid 15 degrees in Frederick. But Rebecca Flick of Reston has driven more than an hour to shop for furniture in a barn.

"I came looking for a chair for my den, and I found it," she says, pointing to a vintage upholstered rocker, slipcovered in a neutral linen, for $139. The trip was worth it, she says, "even though I can't feel my feet."

Barn sales are a new trend in decorating, offering an alternative shopping experience for antique, vintage and one-of-a-kind furnishings and accessories.

Think of them as upscale tag sales or cool shops without the storefronts. Their operating hours can be irregular, and some are only open a few times a year. Many are located in the farthest reaches of the Washington suburbs.

But these quirks, along with sneak peeks of sale merchandise offered on the barns' Web sites, blogs and Facebook pages, create excitement and anticipation for shoppers. And while these sales are still a secret to many, enough people know about them to rent U-Hauls, line up for hours and endure the elements, all to find distinct pieces for their homes.

"Once, there was a downpour during one of our sales," says Maria Nouchi, who runs the Barn Show in Gambrills. "The tent outside collapsed, but it didn't stop girls from shopping."

On a recent visit to Nouchi's barn in Anne Arundel County, some steals included a wood-topped industrial table ($625), a six-arm tin chandelier ($125) and an off-white painted French-style chair upholstered in a pink-striped fabric ($275).

Nouchi, along with two other dealers, hold three weekend-long shows a year in the barn behind her home. In between shows, the women scour flea markets, antique shows, salvage yards, estate sales and go on buying trips across the country, collecting interesting and unusual pieces for their customers.

"You can go to Pottery Barn and spend $1,200 for a console or come to something like this, pay a lot less and buy something that's real wood, well-made and has some provenance," says Gail Kramer, of the Barn Show and the Chartreuse and Co. barn sale in Frederick.

But barn sales aren't only about getting great deals. "It's about finding something that's been re-envisioned, reclaimed and re-purposed or just brought back to life," says Virginia Crum, who runs Chartreuse and Co. with 16 other dealers. "It's going to stand the test of time because it already has."

The sales are also about atmosphere.

"You get 17 creative women doing anything and you're going to get energy," says Crum. "It's like a party."

Barn owners and their dealers are mostly women who don't want the financial burden of a retail store and are attracted to the flexible hours to balance work and family.

"I have less overhead and more of a life," says Caroline Verschoor of Ekster Antiques in Hamilton, near Leesburg. Verschoor was a brick-and-mortar shopkeeper for 10 years. But last year, after growing tired of paying high rents and suffering through the slow economy, she started selling her old and new European wares out of her family's barn.

"I was spending tons of time decorating the store, which took away from home and family and from finding stuff," she says. "Now I have three months to prepare, and my customers benefit from better things at better prices."

Brandi Wotanowski would agree. A New Jersey resident, Wotanowski travels to Virginia several times a year to attend Verschoor's barn events. She plans trips to visit friends in the Washington area based on the latest sale dates. Over the years, she's brought home a dining room hutch, a velvet settee, a Swedish clock and an assortment of accessories.

"I love the fact that you go in there and it's like a treasure hunt," she says. "There's so much to see. It's not like a local furniture store; the pieces are wonderfully unique."

Lisa Vella Iantosca, owner of the Baileywyck Shoppes in Middleburg, says she has more male customers than female. "Men are very interested in old pieces and are also very knowledgeable about them."

Cool furniture, reasonable prices and a shopping experience that husbands enjoy, too.

What are you waiting for?

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