- Luke Awtry
- Vince Fernandez of Richmond with his Oriental rugs
When Amanda Gustin of Barre inherited three antique Oriental rugs, she knew that the family heirlooms required special care. As director of collections and access at the Vermont Historical Society, Gustin knows a lot about local history and artifacts, "but these rugs are completely outside my area of expertise," she said.
So when she needed to get one of them professionally cleaned, she contacted Vince Fernandez of Richmond. Fernandez, an Oriental rug expert with 50 years of experience, went beyond cleaning and repairing the rug, which had frayed at one end. He also pinpointed its age as about 100 years old — consistent with stories Gustin had heard from family members — and identified the region in northern Iran where it was woven and the techniques used.
"He's absolutely got that collector's mind, along with the technical knowledge," Gustin said.
Vincent J. Fernandez Oriental Rugs, along Route 2 on the outskirts of Richmond, doesn't attract much walk-in traffic. Fernandez's farmhouse and barn, which were built in the late 1700s, are nestled amid large oak trees. From the outside, the place appears as exotic as a Holstein cow.
But for collectors of fine Oriental rugs, the two-story barn offers some rare and unusual floor coverings from faraway lands: a mid-20th-century Heriz rug from Azerbaijan; a 19th-century Oushak rug from western Turkey; a 1940s Turkoman tent band from Afghanistan that, according to Fernandez, would have been used to decorate a yurt for a wedding.
"That's a Kurdish salt bag. The tribe is Jaf, 1880," Fernandez noted as he showed this reporter around his cluttered shop. "I can't explain to you how I know that. It's almost become like a sixth sense."
The 74-year-old Northfield native has been buying, selling, repairing and cleaning rare rugs since 1973. In an era when most contemporary carpets are mass-produced using synthetic fabrics and dyes, and are made to be discarded after a few years, Fernandez deals in fine, handwoven rugs that can last for generations. He's among a dying breed of experts who know how to protect those rugs and keep them vibrant.
- Luke Awtry
- Fernandez's rugs
Virtually all of his business comes through word of mouth, often from interior decorators who seek him out when they're designing a living room, bedroom, office or den for well-to-do clients.
If people are interested in decorating with an Oriental rug, Fernandez recommends starting from the bottom: Choose the rug before selecting a sofa, chairs and curtains, for which there are usually many more color and pattern options.
"'A carpet is the soul of the apartment. From it are deduced not only the hues but the forms of all objects incumbent,'" Fernandez said, paraphrasing Edgar Allan Poe's 1840 essay "The Philosophy of Furniture."
Then he quoted his favorite line: "'A judge at common law may be an ordinary man; a good judge of a carpet must be a genius,'" he said, before bursting out laughing.
Fernandez laughs easily and often. If he were paid by the word, he'd be very wealthy. A salesman with the gift of gab, he tells stories that begin on one continent and end on another — or lead to yet another story.
Yet one doesn't come away from a meeting with Fernandez feeling as though he's pulled some expensive wool over your eyes. While we spoke, I remarked on a beautiful 8-by-10-foot burgundy rug, priced at $3,900.
"You've got good taste," he said, "and I'm not just saying that to be flattering." Fernandez immediately identified it as a contemporary Turkoman, made in Afghanistan about 20 years ago. He pulled a book from a cluttered bookshelf and flipped to a page showing similar rugs from that region.
Upstairs in the loft, where more rugs were stacked knee-high in no obvious order, Fernandez pointed out another one, made of wool with silk highlights, with a weave density of 400 knots per square inch. Though I'd long assumed that a higher knot density equates to a better-quality rug, Fernandez quickly disabused me of that misconception, which is often peddled by rug dealers.
"Guess what? It's just the opposite," he said. In certain parts of the world, including North Africa and the Middle East, some rug makers never wove high-density rugs. Because of their techniques, craftsmanship and quality of materials, their rugs can command 20 times the asking price of one with a higher knot density.
"Judging a rug by the number of knots," Fernandez said, "is like judging a Picasso by the amount of paint."
Fernandez had no formal schooling in Oriental rugs. After attending Northfield High School in the late 1960s, he spent two and a half years at Norwich University before dropping out.
"I decided I needed more time to chase girls, have fun, ski bum and party," he said. After a cross-country trip to California with a buddy, Fernandez returned to Vermont in 1972 with no college degree or career prospects. He took a job in a Burlington supermarket.
One day, while visiting his parents in Northfield, Fernandez met Joseph Eways, a Palestinian man who moved to the U.S. in the early 1920s, then began selling Oriental rugs in Reading, Pa. Eways regularly traveled the East Coast buying, selling and maintaining Oriental rugs for his affluent clients.
Because Fernandez's mother once bought a rug from the traveling salesman, Eways called on her whenever he had business in Vermont, invariably arriving with a box of baklava.
- Luke Awtry
- Fernandez's rugs
During his visit, Eways mentioned that he had a large rug to deliver to a customer in Roxbury. Assuming that the 74-year-old salesman couldn't haul the heavy rug himself, Fernandez offered to help.
"He looked at me and bristled and said, 'The hell I can't! I've moved them for 50 years, and I still can!'" Fernandez recalled.
But Eways soon took a shine to Fernandez and offered him a job running his shop in Pennsylvania whenever he was on the road, which was most of the year. Fernandez accepted. He remembers thinking, six months in, "This is the first thing in my life that I get ... I just have a feel for these rugs."
Fernandez worked for Eways until 1976. Eways treated his protégé well, but Fernandez knew that the man would never leave his business to a nonfamily member. (Eways Rugs is still a family-run operation in Ruckersville, Va.) So Fernandez returned to Vermont and opened his own rug business.
In the years since, he's operated from the Chace Mill in Burlington, the Champlain Mill in Winooski, and a Church Street Marketplace spot above Ken's Pizza and Pub.
"That's when I was young and foolish and could carry rugs up and down a flight of stairs," he said.
Though his products come from all over the world, Fernandez said, he's traveled overseas for work just once — to Turkey. Mostly, he buys rugs at estate sales and auctions, as well as from wholesalers and importers in New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania. Often, his clients will show him a photo of a rug they like, and he'll find a similar one, with the client under no obligation to buy it.
Recognizing that most people can't afford the kind of handwoven floor coverings he carries, Fernandez offered advice to those who own one already or plan to invest in one.
First, he strongly urged people to get their rugs cleaned professionally by a knowledgeable expert. This involves "dusting" the rug, or using a mechanical device that shakes the dirt loose, before washing it, usually with soap and water to protect the vegetable dyes from running.
Second, he said, "a stitch in time saves nine." If an end starts to fray, stabilize it with a needle and thread. Never use tape to mend a tear, because it'll loosen and pull out the knots. Then have it repaired by a professional.
Third, Fernandez recommended investing in a good rug pad, unless the rug is placed on wall-to-wall carpeting. While most people assume that the pad simply stops the rug from sliding and makes it more comfortable to stand on, its main purpose is to reduce wear and tear. A good carpet pad can extend the life of a rug by years, if not decades.
These days, Fernandez is just happy to find people who still appreciate the workmanship of the products he sells.
"People aren't into antiques anymore," he lamented, noting that his sales are a quarter of what they were 20 years ago. "Here I am, a dinosaur. But some people like dinosaurs."