By Wesley Davidson
Retired Military Family
Mike McRee had never laid eyes on an Oriental carpet before he courted his wife May Lynn, then a Marymount College (Tarrytown, NY) English Major, in 1970.
Her family, who lived in Manhasset, NY, had Persian Sarouks that Mike admired. "Little did I know that within two years of graduation from West Point I would be sent by the Army to Izmir, Turkey, for two years," states the founder of the Caravan Connection, Inc.
While living at the Presidio in San Francisco after Mike's West Point graduation, Mike and Mary Lynn had a chance to attend rug auctions. "I was carried away with the beauty and romance of the carpets," confesses Mike.
It wasn't until they lived in Izmir, from June 1973 to July 1975, that they actually gained a thorough knowledge of Oriental carpets. In the Izmir marketplace, which was less intimidating than Istanbul's Covered Bazaar, the McRees learned about craftsmanship from merchants who, for free, offered them advice and lots of cups of tea.
Mary Lynn, then teaching English-as-a-Second-Language in a girl's preparatory school, and Mike would take long lunch breaks in the rug marketplace. "It took us a while to get used to the "Turkish look" in rugs; we had been used to "Persian florals," comments Mike. "At first, we tried to visit every stall, but in the end, we focused our efforts on three or four merchants with whom we were comfortable.
Amazingly enough, after 20 years of experience importing from Turkey, we still work with these same rug merchants, but we do it on a much larger scale now," says Mike.
The McRees did not buy rugs until they "understood" them. They brought thirty rugs back to the States with them, with no intention of selllng them. "Wouldn't it be wonderful to get into the rug business and come back to Turkey?" Michael J. McRee, U.S. Military Academy Class of '71 graduate, asked his wife Mary Lynn in July ''75 as their airplane was lifting off the runway in Turkey en route to the United States after a two year NATO assignment in Izmir.
Once back in the states, the McRees returned to graduate work at the University of Michigan. Mary Lynn received her Masters in English- as- a -Second Language and Mike received a two-year Fellowship from the Army and obtained a Masters in English Literature.
In 1977, Mike was on the campus of West Point again, only this time he was teaching English and Philosophy. He also was fortuitously close to the Manhattan rug markets.
For the next four years, as word got around about the McRee's expertise in Oriental rugs, the McRees found themselves appraising faculty members' rugs and on the base making friends who would later become Caravan representatives. You could say that business started when one person on base handed Mike $1,000 and said, "Go buy me carpets that are good!"
For two years, the McRees sold carpets from their home while on tour at West Point. But they still were not ready to take on their rug business full-time.
Before Mike left West Point and active duty in 1981, he took a Masters in Business Administration at Long Island University. "I knew I wanted to run my own Oriental rug business, but I lacked business experience." Mike then took a job as a Commercial Loan Officer in Manhattan.
Still busy selling those carpets at rug shows and from home, Mike realized that he was making more money selling rugs part-time than he was working full-time at the bank. But he still was not convinced that it was time to go out on his own.
His next stop? A carpet wholesaler in Manhattan. From September 1982 to April 1983, Mike was the General Manager for an Oriental carpet wholesaler who distributed nationwide, and finally learned the business from the inside. Here, he was in charge of sales, inventory, and had the good fortune to go on buying trips.
"Son, if you have the opportunity, work for yourself!" By April 1983, Mike heeded his father (retired from the Armed Forces in 1958) Nevel McRee's advice and finally began selling Oriental carpets full-time. His basement was headquarters. There, he and Mary Lynn stored their inventory, gave rug talks, and did their paperwork.
But word-of-mouth advertising and military connection caused his business to prosper; the Caravan Connection had outgrown the confines of its basement, den, attic, and three telephone lines of its home-based employers. By 1984, business was successful enough for Mrs. McRee to quit her job at Manhattanville College as an English-as-a-Foreign- Language teacher. So in August 1993, they moved their business to its present location.
Today, Mike and his wife not only import carpets from Turkey, but any country that produces quality hand-knotted carpets. Their Oriental rug business, The Caravan Connection, Inc. has grown so since its startup days in 1984 that they now have a two-storey office/showroom at 14 Main Street, Bedford Hills, New York 10507, Telephone (914) 666-0227. The McRees now work with approximately 200 wholesale rug dealers, and have an inventory of well over 2,000 rugs. The smallest rug in Caravan headquarters measures one foot sqaure and can be used under a telephone stand or on a coffee table. They carry new, antique (over 100 years old) and semi-antique (40 to 100 years) hand-knotted or hand-stitched Oriental rugs, and accessories such as Nepalese Thankas(framed paintings), Kilim handbags, Turkish door coverings, Persian rug pillows, and of course, rug pads.
The majority of their inventory consists of "8," "9," or "10" quality on their unique rating system based on a scale of 1 to 10. Says Mike, "we don't carry any rug below a "5." Although flatweave Dhurries and Kilims are less expensive, most of their 8' x 10' rugs range from $800-$4,000 with antique rugs costing considerably more. Mary Lynn states that "a good Oriental rug should last 40 to 80 years," Mike contends that you should not buy an Oriental rug as an investment. "The dollar value of the rug should remain constant if it is of good quality. If you are lucky it may appreciate, but let your children worry about whether you made a wise choice. Remember, you are buying a piece of art so buy with a good eye," advises Mike.
What to look for when you're selecting an Oriental:
Besides traffic pattern (where the rug lies), room size, budget, consider the following:
- Knot count. Conventional wisdom says the higher the knot count, the better the rug. But cautions McRee, "a Pakistani rug with 200 knots/square inch is not necessarily better than an Indian rug with a knot count of 150 per square inch. Knot count is only important to create design. If you like geometric design, knot count is NOT important."
- Density. Instructs Mary Lynn McRee, " a good Oriental rug's handle should feel like a good piece of beef steak."
- Wool quality. Good wool feels spongy, while wool taken from a livesheep feels spongy, and wool taken from dead sheep feels brittle and breaks when stroked.
Says Mike," you want lanolin in the wool. It makes the wool elastic. You usually get good wool from sheep raised at high altitudes." Excessive fluffing when you run your hand over the wool is another indicator of poor-quality wool.
- Clarity of Design. "Symmetrical design is really only important in more formal rugs," states Mike. You can check this by folding the rug in half lengthwise and matching the two layers for length. Do the same horizontally. "Most tribal rugs are NOT symmetrical," comments Mike, "and consequently have a great deal of spontaneity."
The more color and detail in the carpet, the more likely it was made by an experienced weaver. If you rub your hand against the pile, the colors should appear darker, richer, and the design should have more distinction. Be wary of artificial or "antique" washes which can take years of life off a rug. Colors are naturally faded on antique rugs of more than 100 years.
The Caravan Connection is a contractual supplier, not a franchise. This means that Mike and Mary Lynn have nationwise representatives who sell their inventories in-home. According to Mike's qualifications, a representative should be self-disciplined, be a "people person", have an interest in the fine arts, and have a good "eye" for color and design. Approximately 60% of their reps. are from the military, either active duty or retirees, and most work for Caravan part-time.
"It's a wonderful job for a Mother," says Mary Lynn McRee, herself the mother of three boys, Sean, 18, Ryan, 15, and Colin, 12. "it gives your schedule flexibility and helps supplement your income."
"Military communities are perfect for Oriental rug sales," say the McRees as they are practical for the nomadic military family.
Michael John McRee's military hobby turned into his profession. He retired as a Major in the Army in August 1993 after being in the Army Reserves as a Public Affairs Officer and Military Academy Liaison officer. His military career taught him decision-making, persistence, problem-solving, and ultimately gave him the self-confidence to start his own business. This move gave him autonomy and a more balanced lifestyle which allows time for activities as coaching Little League Baseball. Most importantly, Michael's second career has given him "the joy" that his father claiims, comes with owning your own business.