One of the best kept secrets among antiquers and treasure hunters can be found in a drafty barn between Cotati and Sebastopol.
One weekend a month the barn door swings open to reveal a whole new set of surprises for the crowds of seekers who line up by the dozens to be among the first to surge inside.
Fine inlaid cabinets, upholstered chairs, antique lithographs, bone china from France, lamps, tableware….almost anything you could dream up for a home, and a few you wouldn’t imagine.
It’s called the Farmer’s Wife Barntique, a trove of vintage finds for the home and collectors, offered at prices low enough to excite bargain hunters and antique dealers while raising money for Petaluma’s homeless animals.
“You’ll never know what you might find at our barn sales. It’s never the same sale twice,” said Lesley Papola, the cheerful spark plug behind the unique pop-up sale that materializes only on the first weekend of the month, Friday through Sunday.
Sonoma County is full of antique stores, and on any given weekend there are many estate sales from which to choose. But what sets the Barntique apart, regulars say, is the quality of everything in the “shop” and the way Papola and a tiny but mighty crew of volunteers arrange everything in the rustic space, with its wobbly wood floors and corrugated metal walls.
Furniture is arranged in vignettes that never stay the same. Every month, mixed in with the remainders of the last sale is a fresh array of donated antiques and collectibles. Everything has been completely rearranged to create a whole new experience, even for Barntique regulars.
“The trick for me is to never allow the barn to look the same twice. We will literally take a piece and move it onto a different wall. We’ll move all of the art. Nothing stays where it is save for a few anchors,” said Papola, who learned the art of staging working nine years for Pottery Barn.
It’s the first sale of the year, and Papola is bundled up in a heavy jacket, boots, scarf, gloves and knit cap. You’d think she was about to head up to the ski slopes. But this is the necessary uniform for a winter weekend in the drafty barn, where it’s all about the bargains and not the amenities. The cold doesn’t damper the enthusiasm of browsers. In one corner a man tests out an Australian didgeridoo, which sounds like a foghorn.
“Lesley has a tremendous eye not only for what to put into the space but how to display it to help us see what’s there,” said Robert Clink, a lighting designer, antique dealer and interior designer. “It’s an ideal situation. We get to see things in their best light and they’re great products. She doesn’t waste our time with a bunch of junk.” Clink and his wife, Michelle Bevilacqua, regularly shop the Farmer’s Wife Barntique for unusual furnishings and accessories for their Mill Valley shop, Revelation.
“It’s like eye candy. She makes it easy to pick and choose what we want, and we love the cause. While we may not have the income to give $400 or $500 to animal rescue,” he added, “when we invest in a product we get to support something we believe in while also doing something for ourselves.”
Clink’s most unusual find, and the oddest donation so far to the Barntique, was an ornate Indian elephant saddle that Papola playfully marketed as a “Marin Dog Bed.”
“We had a mohair cushion made for it. It’s a great conversation piece in the shop,” said Clink. Last week he scored a set of dining chairs made in North Carolina, the capital for fine American furniture making.
Papola started out selling fall crafts seasonally in a barn at a Petaluma pumpkin patch, but after three years the owner sold the property. She wound up volunteering to do something similar as an income source for the Harvest Christian School in Petaluma, in 2012 setting up in a barn on Skillman Lane. Two years ago she decided to go solo, setting up a legal nonprofit with the mission of raising money for the animal shelter where she got her own dog.
Papola said she wanted to support the organization because she believes it’s serving as a model for other shelters.
“They have a 97 percent placement rate, which is off the charts,” she said. ‘I’m choosing to reward excellent behavior and keep that going so that it can expand and grow.”
Her headquarters is a barn on Highway 116. She relies strictly on donations, primarily estates. She works with an estate liquidator who passes along entire estates or what is left after an estate sale, for clients who benefit from the charitable donation tax write-off. In some cases that can be a greater financial benefit than selling pieces for a fraction of their value.
Papola, who takes a small salary, sifts through the large truckloads of donations when they’re dropped off and creams off only the good stuff. Everything else is donated to other charities like Alphabet Soup, a thrift shop that supports the Petaluma Educational Foundation. Her right hand woman is longtime friend Danielle Couch, who manages the software support desk for a shipping company by day and on weekends volunteers at The Barntique.
“She curates everything. It’s so well edited,” said Dahnja Schiro, a regular who, on this cold January day, is going through a huge collection of antique lithographs beautifully framed, trying to decide which ones to buy for a rock bottom price of $25 each. “You don’t have to rummage through stuff. The quality and prices are shocking.”
With more than 20 years of retail experience, Papola keeps her prices reasonable to keep the merchandise moving and to make room for the new arrivals.
While she has a good working knowledge of antiques, she doesn’t claim to be an expert and doesn’t invest the time to deeply examine each piece. So she prices accordingly, leaving it to buyers to decide if an item is worth her price. She has frequent 50 percent off sales when she has an abundance of something, but she stands firm on pricing with those who try to horse trade on the first day and refuses to sell anything outside her prescribed hours to be fair to all her customers.
It takes her a full week each month to set up the sale, moving and carefully arranging pieces to show off everything to its best advantage. When the doors open, the two-room barn is packed.
“This is not for the faint of heart. This is back-breaking work, but we love it,” she said.
Papola promotes heavily through social media and tries to persuade her customers to share the word on the notion that, while it may bring in more customers — hence competition — it will also lead to more and better donations..
Shoppers are advised to dress warmly, and to bring a truck and a friend if they’re planning to buy furniture.
“We’re very bare bones,” Papola said. “We pay a minimum rent here. I don’t have heat. I don’t have hot running water. I don’t have garbage service, Internet or phones. We’re trying to do this on a shoestring so we can give as much to the shelter as humanly possible.”
You can reach Staff Writer Meg McConahey at email@example.com or 521-5204. On Twitter @megmcconahey.