“When the Economy Went South”

 As seen in Rug Insider summer issue 2010

When the economy went south in2008, few people I discussed it with at the time seemed surprised. “It was unsustainable” they said, referring to the constantly growing sprawl of new homes and stores that has characterized post WW2 America. I think we all felt that things were a bit out of control and that a correction was needed. But what we hoped for was a thinning out of the fast food restaurants and big box stores that have spread across the landscape like kudzu.

We now know, of course, who the real casualties were - art galleries, craft shops, Oriental rug and home furnishing stores have taken the brunt of it along with other small retail businesses and restaurants. Sure, we’ve seen large chains like Starbucks and Sam’s Clubs close some under performing locations but they’ll do that in the best of times as neighborhoods change or they cannibalize their own stores by over-expanding. A few like Linens and Things and Circuit City even folded up completely. But for the most part the big losers have been small purveyors of the so-called nonessential goods that make life richer and more beautiful.

It hurts when small or medium size towns lose their independent bookstores or their artists’ forums. The patrons who traditionally kept those operations afloat, may not have been regular customers of Walmart or Target in the past. But all that has changed. A greater need to be frugal has made bargain hunters out of almost everyone and the discretionary spending that that we in the Oriental rug business depended on has largely disappeared among the middle class.

With fewer serious customers coming in, more of our time is taken up by shopping-addicted tire kickers who ask endless questions and request photos of rugs they have  no intention of purchasing. Much of the increasingly familiar repartee we rug dealers have with these erstwhile customers does make for some bittersweet industry humor.

If you were a literature student in the 1950’s or ‘60’s you were probably seduced by the philosophy dujour – existentialism. Camus, Sartre and Genet were everywhere. Who could resist the idea that we are all individuals, each defined by our own actions,not pigeon-holed by our ethnicity or any other arbitrary grouping? Dry as the writings of its most notable proponents could be, their point of view was much more palatably presented in some of the “black humor” novels of the period such as Catch 22.

Pardon my digression but I can’t help but think of a particularly humorous twist on this theme. In Monty Python’s 1979 film Life of Brian, the main character, addressing a crowd assembled below his window, tells them “you’re all individuals” to which they respond in unison “we’re all individuals.” After the second such refrain a singular voice in the crowd says “I’m not.”

One of the tenets of that philosophy is that there is no such thing as human nature. I clung to that notion for as long as I could but by the time the one hundredth or so customer I was flipping rugs for said “I’ll bet you don’t have to go to gym,” it was beginning to seem a bit frayed. I suppose this is really just a cultural pattern but I can’t help being struck by the frequency of the aforementioned remark from people who could not have overheard one another making it. The term human nature (by definition: that which is natural in humans) is probably not applicable here because it is meant to cover more basic behavior which can be considered universal among us.

What, I wonder, does account for this and other incidences of group-think that have impacted our business?For decades, perhaps centuries, many of the most popular Oriental rugs had blue fields or at least blue borders. We were totally unprepared for the phenomenon that struck our market over the last fifteen years. Some of our most beautiful offerings are summarily rejected with the phrase “I don’t want to introduce blue to the room.” This, ironically, from the mouths of denim-clad customers who do exactly that every time they enter said rooms.

In this era of instant communication, ideas can spread rapidly but I doubt that rug color is a popular topic on Facebook. Ours is a fashion business after all and buying patterns do develop for no apparent reason. Maybe such trends are purely cultural and not evidence of human nature but underlying them is the nearly universal tendency to follow rather than lead, especially when it comes to taste.

In the last few years some of the very best Oriental rug producers have taken to shearing a rug that could last a hundred years, down to a thread-bare state resembling what people used to throw out. In addition to having no pile some of these rugs are practically without color or design, looking as if they are both faded and worn out. I am reminded of the scheme known as planned obsolescence that is so reviled in manufactured goods. It worked well for the big three in Detroit until foreign automakers came along and introduced us to more durable cars. I’m not suggesting that low/no pile is a scam on the part of the producers to sell more rugs. It was more likely begun to satisfy an appetite for “antiques” without the sticker shock. But the popularity of the secompromised weavings is a symptom of what ails our economy today. We have become a throw-away society that thrives on constant expansion with no particular regard for the state of our diminishing resources.

Electronics, appliances and all manner of machines have short life expectancies when compared to a full pile Oriental rug.  Why then have we turned one of the most authentic and long-lasting things you can buy into just another short-lived, disposable consumer product? Producers tell me that their customers love them but mine don’t. A scalped rug has no appeal what so ever among my quality-conscious clientele. If the survival of our industry depend son shifting trends, I hope the next one is more to the liking of my dwindling customer base.