A Family Affair: The Persian Carpet’s Enduring Legacy of Handmade Rugs

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Doug Lay and Nelda Lay reflect on a 50-year journey of entrepreneurship, passion and handmade rugs as they prepare to close the showroom of this iconic landmark

Nelda Lay and Doug Lay started The Persian Carpet with 15 imported rugs and rented out a corner at the Country Squire Antiques Center in Chapel Hill. Photo by Gary Ushino.

As told to Jessica Stringer

The Persian Carpet is closing its doors to the public after nearly 50 years. This iconic landmark, with a camel in each bay window, straddles the Durham County-Orange County line, standing sentinel over travelers on the corner of I-40 and Hwy. 15-501. What started as a small dream for owners Doug Lay and Nelda Lay grew into a diverse and thriving business renowned locally and internationally for its dedication to the art of fine rug weaving.

Doug, “a country boy” from Mississippi, and Nelda, “a Southern belle” from Baton Rouge, Louisiana, met at Louisiana State University in 1958 when he passed through a class registration line where she was working. Doug was instantly smitten and got right back in line, patiently waiting for a chance to ask her out. Nelda’s datebook was already full for every football game that semester, but she found an opening for him. On one of their first dates together, she agreed to ride through a bayou in a flat-bottomed boat, clutching a burlap sack that she was instructed to open each time Doug grabbed a bullfrog from the banks with his bare hands and thrust it in the bag – a decidedly more interesting outing than a football game.

Doug and Nelda married in 1961. They moved to Chicago, where he pursued a doctorate in anatomy at the University of Chicago. In 1962, Doug was selected by the Field Museum to participate in a mammal collecting expedition to Iran, which proved to be a pivitol moment in the trajectory of their lives.

Over the next 20 years, Doug made 18 trips to Iran to further his zoological research. In the process, he visited every region of the country, learned about rug-weaving traditions and began to collect rugs himself. Friends soon offered to pay him to bring rugs back for them. Nelda started joining him on these trips, and after the couple moved to Chapel Hill in 1973 when Doug accepted a professorship at UNC, they decided to import a few more rugs, rent a corner at the Country Squire Antiques Center and see where things went. They opened in October 1976 with a stack of 15 rugs imported from Iran; Nelda says she sold one rug during the first month and so was able to pay next month’s rent. From there, they expanded into the large back room, then into an addition on the northside of the building and finally took over the entire space when Whitehall Antiques moved to Franklin Street.

The Persian Carpet was named for the primary type of rug available in 1976: the one-of-a-kind, hand-knotted rug from the region of ancient Persia. “In the early days when we started, it was mainly one-of-a-kind pieces,” Doug says. “That’s all that was available at that time. It has evolved and is dictated by the designer industry now.” As customer demand for decorative handmade carpets grew in the ’80s and ’90s, and Iranian goods were embargoed from entering the U.S., the handmade rug market changed completely: Rugs began being made in programmed designs that could be replicated and produced in various sizes for the wider market, so customers could order rugs in the right size for their homes, an option that would have been impossible in earlier days because each rug was unique. Styles also began to vary. You could walk into The Persian Carpet and go home with a minimalist, tone-on-tone contemporary-style rug. The product was still a high-quality handmade rug, but it was vastly different from the purely traditional designs to date. Business grew.

Over the years, Doug and Nelda traveled together to all the major rug-producing countries of the world – China, India, Pakistan, Nepal and Turkey. They built long-lasting relationships with experts in the looming industry; learned how and where different types of carpets were woven; discovered rug artisans who made quality products that their North Carolina clientele would appreciate; hand-selected every item for their store; and also spent nights in the desert, rode on camels and elephants and the auto rickshaws known as tuk-tuks and ate foods they had never encountered back at home in Louisiana. It was these firsthand experiences that deepened their adoration for each other and for the craft they’ve since grown to love and share with thousands.

The business influenced the setting for their family life as well. Their daughters, Christin Lay Hemmens and Cynthia Lay McLaren, grew up in the store, jumping on rug stacks and working on weekends and summer breaks. “When we used to have sales, we did mailers,” Cynthia recalls. “My friends and I would sit at the kitchen table and hand-address the envelopes, put the stamps on, and mail them out.”

The store was open seven days a week, so family life was built around store hours; vacations around buying trips and trade shows. “We were open every day for years, maybe 18 years,” Nelda says. “Oh, my God. We finally woke up and said, ‘This is crazy.’ And we started closing on Sundays, and it’s only been in the last year that we’ve closed Saturdays.” Nelda was primarily in charge of running the store for the first 17 years, until Doug retired from his professorship in human anatomy at UNC in 1993 and joined her.

Rugs touched every aspect of the family’s life. Their home was filled with colorful and beautiful weavings. They hosted friends emigrating from Iran after the revolution and learned the art of Persian cooking. They hired multitudes of Durham and Chapel Hill high school students to turn stacks and haul carpets, forging friendships with families across the community.

As the years passed and the business evolved, Doug became certified in appraising Asian-sourced rugs and a respected expert on handwoven rugs who lectures nationwide on the subject. Nelda became an accounting whiz and the mastermind behind the financial side of the business. Christin and Cynthia moved away, came home and moved away again. Somewhere along the way, Doug found his inner artist and applied his keen eye for color and knowledge of rugs to designing his own collections of carpets. He started with a collection of antique reproductions that were based on his personal assemblage of rugs. The collection was a success in the international rug market, but not a financial success for the company because it was virtually impossible to enforce trademarks over the designs.

Informed by this experience, Doug and Nelda decided to focus on specialty, niche collections where they could be a big fish in a small pond and copyright their designs. In 1996, they released the Arts and Crafts collection, designs drawn from British Arts and Crafts, Celtic revival and American prairie-style genres. They have released more than 60 designs in this collection over the years; today, they are known as the premier producer of handmade Arts and Crafts-style rugs. “We get to do so much fun stuff with the designing and then go into India to work with our producers,” Cynthia says. “We’ve built this network of accounts and people we know all over the country who buy from us and know them all personally. I find that very satisfying.”

They launched a new branch of the company in 2008 called Southwest Looms, which is the official licensee for Pendleton Woolen Mills and translates Pendleton’s iconic trade blankets into three collections of rugs that are popular in the Southwestern, luxury lodge and rustic home decor industry.

In 2016, Doug and Nelda were approached by the U.S. Agency for International Development to support economic enterprise in Afghanistan. They attended a conference in Dubai where they were introduced to rug producers from northern Afghanistan and formed a rug-weaving partnership with a producer that helps support 200 families in several villages near Mazar-i-Sharif. The new collection, called “Classic Revival,” harkens back to the couple’s original love of Persian, Turkish and Caucasian designs.

Today, Doug and Nelda’s daughter Cynthia continues to grow the company’s wholesale business with her parents’ guidance. She moved back to Chapel Hill permanently in 2002 and has overseen the design, production, importation, marketing and distribution of the specialty collections ever since. “My mom and I sat in that office until this October,”Cynthia says, gesturing across the showroom, “with the backs of our chairs touching. I don’t know how we did that. But we put a lot of stuff to rest.” Both mom and daughter laugh. According to her family, Cynthia inherited her father’s artistic, visual projection and her mother’s business acumen. Her sister, Christin, moved home in 2009 to help with the launch of Southwest Looms. She lives and works in Texas and flies in regularly to support her family and the business.

“We basically have three businesses here: our retail, our wholesale and our cleaning,” Cynthia says. “And we run all of those with a staff of eight people, with two of those being my parents …” Doug chimes in, finishing her sentence, “… who are old and tired and worn out,” he laughs.

With that in mind, The Persian Carpet will close its doors to the public on Sept. 1. “We’ll lock the door, put a sign on the front and close up the windows, and we’ll spend the next 10 days preparing for a store closing sale,” Cynthia says. But the business isn’t closing for good, instead transforming into The Persian Carpet Curated. “We’re going to reopen our front room,” Cynthia says. “It’s going to be a to-the-trade interior designer showroom because that business is much more efficient and easier to manage, and you don’t have to carry such a massive amount of stock since you can order off of samples.” She’ll continue to spearhead the Arts and Crafts, Afghan and Southwest Looms collections. Doug will continue to design rugs, and Nelda will run the office. And they’ll still offer rug-cleaning services. But the retail store will close, a transformation the family says is bittersweet. “These two unlikely people with no business background made this thing, and it’s still going,” Cynthia says.

Between them, Doug and Nelda have traveled the entire length of the Great Silk Route, flown more than 1 million miles on rug-buying trips, and imported more than 70,000 rugs from India, China, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Turkey and Nepal, all while maintaining their sense of humor. “It’s exciting because the new part of the business where we design the rugs is really growing and really booming,” Cynthia says, “and there’s so much potential there. We’ll be able to just give our undivided attention to that.”

Doug and Nelda echo the sentiment. “We’ve had wonderful contacts all over the Middle East and Asia who have been wonderful to work with,” Doug says.

“We’ve had a good product,” Nelda adds. “We’ve enjoyed it, and we’ve not let it become stagnant. And we’ve had wonderful customers … and a good, loyal staff.”

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