Rug sales aficionado is the Prince of Persians

The Fresno BeeNovember 2, 2013 

Persian rugs are one of a kind and increase in value over time. The same could be said of Fresno's longtime Persian rug sellers.

The Persian Rug Collections store is celebrating 35 years in business. The father and son behind it — Mike and Michael Karbassi — recently moved the shop to a new location. It's now at 1731 W. Bullard Ave., near the Manhattan Steakhouse and across the street from the previous location.

Karbassi, 71, and his son, 30, brought with them lots of history, customers who have become friends and a deep love of the product they sell.

Walking into the shop is like walking into an overstuffed art gallery. Rugs of all colors and sizes are stacked in piles. They hang from the walls, and are bundled up and pushed into corners. The patterns reflect the region and the countries they come from.

The rugs in the store are all handmade from silk or wool — each tiny knot done by hand — and can take more than a year to complete.

"The smaller the finger, the finer the carpet," the elder Karbassi says, which is why the average amount spent on Persian rugs at the store is $1,800.

"They're like women," he jokes. "The older they get, the prettier they get."

Despite his love of the rugs, Karbassi never intended to be in the rug business. He was born in Iran and educated in the U.S. After graduating with a degree in accounting and a master of business administration from what is now the University of Central Oklahoma, Karbassi became a U.S. citizen.

He was working as an accountant for an American oil company in Iran in the late 1970s. Amid the chaos leading up to the Iranian Revolution, the company shut down and Karbassi couldn't cash out his personal bank account to take his earnings out of the country. Rather than lose the money, he bought 200 Persian rugs, with plans to sell them in the U.S. He figured he'd go back into accounting and the rug selling would be a one-time thing.

He was wrong.

Karbassi liked the business so much, he decided to stick with it.

"I love it," he said. "This is a different business. I know all of my customers."

He loves to chat with them and is quick to laugh. But mostly, he just wants to talk about the rugs. They last hundreds of years and appreciate in value like art, he says.

A rare Persian rug recently sold for $33.7 million at an auction in New York City.

At the Karbassis' store, there's a 200-year-old rug rolled up in a bundle. The velvety wool 121/2-foot-by 221/2-foot rug is in perfect shape — and has a price tag of $84,000. Karbassi got it from a family in Bakersfield who ate a meal once a year in the room carpeted by the rug.

As valuable as the rugs are, they haven't found a "magic" one that flies yet, jokes the younger Karbassi. He's just as animated when talking about the rugs. Michael Karbassi — his first name is actually Kia, but he started going by his middle name when the car maker Kia got popular — has grown up in the business.

He sold his first rug accidentally when he was 8. He had his own rug, a little 2-foot-by-3-foot one he'd sit on in the shop after school. He was telling a customer all about it one day and the customer declared he wanted to buy it, to Michael's surprise.

The elder Karbassi recalls that his son said, "Daddy, I sold a carpet, I want my commission."

"I gave him $10 and he said, 'That's not enough. I want $50.' "

That was the start of his first savings account.

Some customers have watched the younger Karbassi grow up and have become family friends. The Karbassis helped customer Irene Peloian replace the rugs she lost in a house fire. And Peloian ended up taking the young Kia out a few times, including a trip to the park with her godson of the same age.

"They're just so friendly and nice and we laugh a lot," she says.

Years later Michael got a management degree at Fresno State with an emphasis on entrepreneurship. He's now 30 and runs the store side-by-side with his dad, helping bring the business up to date with a website and customer databases.

Persian rugs are a topic many people don't know a lot about and the pair are quick to share details. True Persian rugs come from Iran. Though there are sanctions that prevent rugs from being exported from the country, there's an oversupply of them in the U.S., so it's not affecting the industry. The country that makes the No. 2 quality handmade rugs of Persian design? China, surprisingly.

The Karbassis want people to know how to care for them (don't vacuum the rug with rotating bristles — use an attachment — and flip them around once a year so you don't wear a path on one side).

Because people don't know a lot about the rugs, they can fall prey to scams, Mike Karbassi says. He says he's built a living by being honest, which keeps customers coming back.

That includes Coke Hallowell, a longtime customer and chairwoman of the San Joaquin River Parkway and Conservation Trust.

"He could give a seminar on how to … relate to customers," she says. "He's so kind and so trustworthy. I just would do anything he said."

That trust goes both ways.

Karbassi insists that customers take rugs home with them and test them out in their rooms before buying. Hallowell had three of them rolled up in the corner of her home in recent weeks.

"I didn't have to sign a paper or anything like that," she says. "I said, 'What if I die in an accident on the way home?' He said 'No no, that won't happen to you.' "

It's paid off. Karbassi says he hasn't had a single rug returned.

You might think that at age 71, he'd be getting close to retirement. But he's not planning on it anytime soon.

"We always talk about retirement and we always think, 'Well, what's he going to do?' " Michael says about his dad. "He really likes what he does. He likes people. If he wasn't working, I don't think he'd be as happy."

 

The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6431, bclough@fresnobee.com or @BethanyClough on Twitter.

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