Arshia Fathali is Bellingham's Persian carpet connection

As the owner of Fairhaven Rug Gallery, Arshia Fathali often travels to his home country of Iran to buy handmade...

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Arshia Fathali, owner of the Fairhaven Rug Gallery, has not one, but two favorite parts of his unique occupation. The first is the rush of buying a rug. This takes him to his native country of Iran, to cities like Shiraz, to the rug bazaar of Tehran, or to the countryside, where he visits and lives with nomadic tribesmen.

There he will look through thousands of handmade Persian rugs, some made of glistening silk adorned with mesmerizing geometric patterns, others displaying a simple, symbolic image conveying some aspect of nomadic life and history.

“When I buy the rug, when I’m actually physically standing there, and I get a chance of picking a rug, through a hundred. And I get that sensation that I made the correct decision,” he said, eyes wide and voice rising in excitement as he recalled the feeling. “There are times that I feel like, ‘Oh my God, I overspent! You weren’t even going to buy rugs and you just picked like 20 rugs!’ And that’s something I struggle with, but I actually need and like and appreciate the excitement of it.”

On his seven-week-long buying journeys through Iran, Fathali will experience this excitement quite often, picking out hundreds of rugs from the thousands up for sale.

The second great joy Fathali takes in his occupation is connecting one of his rugs, the sum of his labors overseas and in his gallery, to the right customer. By offering home consultation services, keeping the buying experience in his shop low-key, and by allowing customers to trade in previously purchased rugs for credit on new ones, Fathali does his best to make sure every rug finds the right home.

“It’s very important to me,” he said. “I don’t have an aggressive style of selling. I take my time and I let my client really feel and appreciate what’s in the art of handmade rugs. Based on that, my job is only to kind of push the client toward the right direction where they can pick the best rug they can, for their personality, for their budget and for the room.”

Inside the gallery

When asked about his least favorite part of the job, Fathali mulled the question over for nearly half a minute, pondering what it could possibly be, then exclaimed, “I don’t have one!”

One walk through his shop, located in downtown Fairhaven, makes it easy to see why. Nearly every inch of his 6,000-square-foot gallery is covered in stunning carpets, stretching across the floor between waist-high piles of rugs and hanging on ropes from the high ceiling. Lighting fit for a museum illuminates the brilliant colors and textures of his approximately 3,000 rugs, some over 20 feet long, complemented with art and artifacts from his travels through the Middle East.

Fathali said he is known for having oversized rugs, something that not only draws buyers from Vancouver and Seattle, but often from across the country. He relies mainly on word-of-mouth advertising, counting on satisfied customers to return and bring their friends.

Fathali moved to Vancouver, B.C. from Iran when he was 19. He was studying art and general studies at Capilano University until, just before final exams, his car was broken into and his laptop and school supplies were stolen, he said. Instead of finishing school, Fathali decided to move to Seattle to work in a rug shop, something he knew little about at the time. After working there for a year, Fathali started taking his own clients, making trips back to Iran to buy rugs and visiting trade shows across the U.S. to sell them.

“I’m always thankful for the thief who broke into my car because it really changed my life,” Fathali said.

Eventually Fathali opened his own store in Seattle. Six years ago he was making a trip to Vancouver on business when he stopped in to Boundary Bay Brewery for a meal. A patron there suggested Fathali visit H Z Trading Company, a grocery outlet in Fairhaven, to try their smoked salmon. On his way out of the store, Fathali noticed a “property for sale” sign on the door.

Enamored by the location and size of the store, he called the owner immediately and persuaded him to lease out the property. He then closed down his Seattle shop and moved to Bellingham.

City rugs vs. nomadic rugs

Fathali said the journey of each rug, beginning with wool sheared from sheep in the Iranian countryside and ending in a perfectly matched room of a client, is what interests him so much in the millennia-old Persian art form.

Depending on where the rug is made, it will follow one of two distinct creation processes, leading to two very different types of rugs.

City rugs, he said, feature more ornate, organized patterns, finer fill material such as silk, and more knots per inch, leading to a smoother feel. Nomadic rugs are categorized by having more simple, symbolic and free-flowing designs, and by having fewer knots per inch.

Makers of city rugs use stationary vertical looms, while nomads traditionally use horizontal looms that can be packed and traveled with. However, both types of rugs are handmade, knot by knot, requiring hundreds of hours of labor to complete.

“There’s no easy place to start. You’ve got to be committed. You have to be persistent. You have to basically create the art, one knot at a time,” Fathali said. “Whether you have a good day or a bad day, it’s just about your level of commitment. And that’s what I really appreciate in the arts of handmade rugs.”

Sanctions interrupt supply

Recent events have placed quite a burden on rug shop owners around the country. On July 1, 2010, President Obama signed into law the toughest sanctions ever placed on Iran in an effort to slow their nuclear program. All imports from the country were blocked from America, and 90 days were given to clear all Iranian imports from U.S. Customs.

Fathali was in Fairhaven when he heard the news, and immediately set out on a seven-week buying spree to gather as many large Persian rugs as he could. Considering the last round of U.S. sanctions placed on Iran lasted from 1979 to 2000, he didn’t know if he’d get another chance.

“I bought a little under 1,000 pieces,” he said. “I do like to say the weight because it shows the massiveness of the shipment. There were about 12,000 pounds.”

Due to the fast-approaching deadline to clear his rugs through customs, Fathali had to send his rugs via air freight, instead of by ship, to Seattle. His rugs showed up in U.S. Customs only two days before the deadline. While his friends fretted, Fathali talked to customs agents to expedite his clearance.

“I have a story to tell!” he said with a grin. “I was able to get my rugs Sept. 29, 2010, which was the last day that you could import Iranian rugs to the United States. And I’m glad I did it. It was a bold move, due to the retail market today.”

Unfortunately, the art of making Persian rugs by hand is on the decline. Fewer people are getting into weaving and buyers are turning to cheaper imitations, Fathali said.

“I’m a lot more positive than most people, but you could say it’s a dying art,” Fathali said. “The energy of the world has changed. People don’t have as much patience as they used to.”

Regardless of the future of the ancient art, Fathali hopes his spacious Fairhaven gallery, filled and covered with thousands of authentic specimens, will represent a little piece of Persia for customers from Bellingham and beyond for years to come.


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