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Paul Ramsey, founder and co-owner of Shaver-Ramsey Fine Rugs, has crisscrossed the globe for 40 years to bring the world’s best rugs to Denver from exotic locales such as Turkey, Nepal, and Iran. We sat down with Ramsey and co-owner Elizabeth Vehko, who joined the business in 1998, to reminisce.
5280 Home: How did you get into the import biz?
Paul Ramsey: In the mid-1970s, my then partner and wife, Carolyn Shaver, already had a business importing goods from Latin America, and I started traveling with her. When I was in graduate school for the second time, in Boulder, Carolyn said, “I want to go to Afghanistan.” Afghanistan in those days was so…ideal. I said, “Well, if I give up school this time, that’s probably it.” So we dropped it. Then, shortly after we saw a movie called Murder on the Orient Express, we were sitting around in the evening drinking something innocent—you know, herbal tea—and we just said, “Let’s go.” We bought a few rugs on that trip and had some success selling them. So the next year we went back, and instead of 10 or 12 rugs, we bought 50 or 60.
Were you thinking of it as a career, or were you just trying to fund your globe-trotting?
Ramsey: We had decided it was fun to have a business that dealt with buying and selling wonderful things and allowed us the freedom to travel. And in the meantime, I got addicted to rugs.
Elizabeth Vehko: A lot of the things we have here aren’t even for sale—they’re things Paul has collected that will likely go to a museum someday.
Good thing you’ve been able to expand over the years—from 600 square feet in 1976 to more than 5,000 today.
Vehko: It’s a rug store, but we also look at this as a community space. We let a lot of organizations host events: We’ve had 100 people in here to watch Cherry Creek Theatre productions and done a fund-raising dinner for 80.
Don’t you worry about people spilling, say, wine on the rugs?
Vehko: You can really spill anything on a good rug and we can clean it. We used to loan out rugs to the Tattered Cover when it was in Cherry Creek.
Ramsey: They would get trashed. And then you give them a good bath…
Vehko: …and the wool kind of opens up and they actually look better than ever.
How much can people expect to pay for that quality?
Vehko: A nice handmade rug prices out between $75 and $150 a square foot. Good kilims can come down to $30 per square foot.
Ramsey: Each of the little pixels of color is an individually hand-tied knot, so it has a certain value to it.
Where do you find the rugs?
Ramsey: Mostly markets. In Tehran, they have a huge grand bazaar; if you incorporated all of Cherry Creek North and the shopping center, plus auxiliary places around, that’s kind of the size. There are a thousand rug businesses there.
Paul, I hear you recently made a trip to Iran.
Ramsey: Yes; the embargo prohibiting the import of Iranian rugs ended in February, after 6 years.
Vehko: The best Persian rugs use the best wool and natural plant dyes. We had so many customers coming in and asking for them.
Ramsey: There’s a mystique about Persian rugs, and they are among the best in the world; very distinctive and famous. And it was maybe the best trip of my life. The beauty of the land…and the people are amazingly warm and hospitable.
All this because you dropped out of school and ran off to Afghanistan.
Ramsey: If I’d been a physician like my original intent was, life wouldn’t have been quite so rich.