Mounted on the exposed brick wall of Dan Garrett’s Greensboro, North Carolina, loft is an old wooden mileage sign that reads “Providence 1.” It’s white with black hand-painted letters and an arrow pointing the way. The piece isn’t valuable. He found it years ago, gathering dust in a friend’s garage in Pleasant Garden, the farming community where Garrett grew up. But for Garrett, a veteran antiques dealer, it holds a different kind of value. Seeing it daily makes him feel connected to his place and his people. Besides, he says, “if there’s a sign pointing to providence, you might as well follow it.”
Fifteen years ago, something akin to providence led Garrett to buy a three-story turn-of-the-century grocery warehouse, sandwiched between downtown Greensboro’s main drag and the city’s rail yards. It was lonely back then. Downtown had been on the decline, and when he moved his antiques shop, the Farmer’s Wife, into the building’s ground floor and himself into the top two, it was as if he were also moving back to a time when shopkeepers reigned over Main Street—and lived above it, too. Ironically, by assuming an old-fashioned lifestyle, Garrett became a trendsetter. In the years since his move, loft living has become as popular in the South as it is in Manhattan, filling former warehouses and mills with residents rather than tobacco and textile machinery.
But while Garrett may have been ahead of the curve, he’s no hipster. The sixty-four-year-old jokes that he’s probably the only person in North Carolina without a cell phone or an e-mail address. “I’ve always liked old things more than new things,” he says. “I used to go to auctions just to watch, to look and see what people bought. When I was in my late twenties, I decided to stick my neck out and try to make it in the antiques business.” He stuck his neck out again when he bought the 7,000-square-foot commercial fixer-upper.
Today, he’s as close as any historic property owner ever gets to finishing. First came a couple of necessary structural changes. He added a wood-and-glass entry to his ground-floor shop to accommodate the comings and goings of customers rather than bulk goods. (You can still see the curb cut that allowed horse-drawn wagons to enter the building; out back is a railroad spur for deliveries.) He removed a dangerous freight elevator and added a stairway to the second floor, half of which now serves as shop storage and half as his main living space, including a kitchen, a dining area, and a sitting room, all undivided. An original pine staircase hugs the wall on its way to the third floor, a wide open living area with a bed tucked into a rear niche.
Once the shop was up and running, Garrett turned his attention to his upstairs quarters. He had the narrow yellow pine floors refinished, but he didn’t fret over the gouges caused by a century’s worth of commercial traffic. A few sections of the interior brick walls had been painted white, but he didn’t do much more than clean them. Leaving things alone is one of Garrett’s aesthetic mantras. “I don’t like things that are perfect,” he says, pausing as a passing train blows its lonesome warning whistle. “Anything that’s old will have nicks or scratches. I don’t mind a little rust or chipped paint. They can sometimes be a plus.”
Garrett’s approach to design is equally down-to-earth. He describes an antique eight-foot-long church pew lining a wall as “plain-Jane with an old black finish. That’s the way I bought it, and that’s the way it is.” In his understated kitchen, simple wood cabinets with bin pulls support a galvanized steel countertop, which he and a buddy made by shaping sheet metal to a wooden frame and then mucking it up with vinegar, salt, and pot scrubbers. Anything but granite counters, he says. “I hate fussy, shiny things.” A vintage Coca-Cola cooler topped with the same material serves as an island.
Whether he found it, bought it, or made it, just about everything Garrett owns has a story. He stripped the boxy wooden top off an old horse-drawn seed drill and mounted it to serve as a floating mantel-like shelf. Above it, antique wooden foundry molds have been repurposed into something like abstract sculpture. He loves architectural fragments, like the weathered finial he turned into a handsome table lamp or the decorative (and very heavy) metal heating grate that became a coffee table with the help of an ironmonger friend who built a base for it.
Beyond just a love for objects from the past, Garrett has a way of seeing beauty in things that others might overlook. Take, for instance, a curved branch framing a lovely arrangement of silver pieces, wooden boxes, and china atop his dresser. “I have a friend who worked for a prominent family,” Garrett says. “He was sort of a butler.” One winter, the family’s gardener was pruning some pear trees espaliered on a retaining wall. He had removed a dead branch and was about to toss it. “My friend noticed and said, ‘Don’t throw that away,’” Garrett says. “‘I know someone who will want it.’”