ENJOY MILL VALLEY…
ONE-ON-ONE WITH Richard Habib, owner of Alexander’s Artisan Rugs
Interviewed by: Danna Lewis
A conversation about music, Mill Valley, and rugs – all things Richard!
Danna: It’s so nice to get to sit and talk with you. And, since our story centers around life in Marin, how did you end up here?
Richard: A long and twisting Journey, I was born in Brooklyn NY lived in Canarsie for my first 15 years, then North Miami Beach for 5 years, Dana Point Laguna Beach area for 7 years eventually arriving here in Marin where I lived in Ross for 9 years , San Anselmo for 8 years, then to Mill Valley. I used to visit my Dad in Summer Breaks from the East Coast ( I moved to Laguna Beach area actually Dana Point) in 1975 I spent time in Laguna Beach when I was a teenager – I was born in Brooklyn and my mom and dad divorced when I was very young -My Dad offered me a job at his Carpet Mill after High School and that’s how I ended up in SoCal in 1975. I left my Dads business after a few Years and Started my own “Thai Teak & Rug Company.
I had a small showroom at the Red Hill Design Center in the Costa Mesa /Newport Beach area – I was asked to give a Rug lecture at a Design Class being held there and was introduced to a woman I dated. Around Christmas 1981 she invited me to come up to the Bay Area with her to attend a franchisee party for her company. I fell in love with Mill Valley instantly. It was all lit up for the holiday season, I saw an organic grocery store (Living Foods)- I loved that there was natural foods Grocery store being a strict Vegetarian .That trip she was offered a job up here as an executive for Supercuts and she asked me to move up here with her. It was a big move for me I had successful business and lived in a luxury gated community above the cliffs of Niguel Shores with breathtaking views of the Ocean, Coast, and Catalina Island but I said yes.
I drove up from Dana Point right during the Big Storm of January ‘82, me, my cat, and essentials in the car. We were having this huge storm and encountered a landslide across 101 right outside the Tunnel after crossing the GG Bridge that had just happened moments before. So that’s how I came to move up here. Loved it so much!
Danna: It’s such a good feeling to walk through town and see people you know, stop and talk with them, and feel that sense of connection to the bigger community. So how did you decide to open your business here?
Richard: When I moved to Marin I didn’t know anyone in the rug business here but I was incredibly experienced in the floor covering business, my dad was a carpet installer when I was a little kid. I would go to work with him. He started selling wall-to-wall carpets, eventually opening a successful store on Long Island. After moving out West to SoCal, he purchased a carpet mill. I even had uncles and cousins who were in the business around the Country.
Circling back to the beginning, within a year of starting my company, two English brothers (Harts Rugs & Carpets) contacted me because they wanted to expand their business and thought I could help. We had a great, immediate connection and we decided to merge companies. Eventually I met two of the most preeminent rug guys in the business that I did not know at the time (John Illolian & George Gillmore) and within two years of them taking me under their wing(s), I had an enormous foundation and established a reputation for a keen eye and deep understanding of Antique and New Handmade rugs.
We (Harts and myself) catered to a super elite clientele which provided me with the opportunity to design beautiful floors for custom homes and acquire the best rugs for my clients, mostly along the Southern California Coast from Malibu down to San Clemente. When I arrived here, in early 1982 I interviewed with one of the largest rug companies in Northern California, Chroma Industries headquartered at the Design Center.
During the interview process an opportunity arose to prove myself. I was tasked with accompanying the Vice President of the company to a police station in the San Carlos area to identify rugs from a truck full of rugs that was stolen at gunpoint from the company driver and recovered. So, I went to the police station with the VP and I identified every rug (300+ in all) type/origin/etc… except for a few that they had mis-identified. They called me the next day and had me come back a few days later- they didn’t have a place at the Design Center but hired me to help co-manage the rug departments they leased at the Winstocks and Bullocks Department Stores. I would also see clients at the Design Center in the city and eventually I was offered a coveted position there.
I was asked to see about turning these rug departments around- I increased sales over 400% within a few months. Then I trained the furniture salespeople and sales went up over 1000%. I also took part in liquidation activities ,auctions, and special pop-up promotional events around the Bay Area. After Bullocks stores closed, I continued to work at the Design Center.
My employer, a charismatic legendary individual Ralph Bogoshian, was super well connected to celebrities, politicians, sports personalities, Bay Area’s most influential families and involved in charity work which I also really enjoyed being part of. I was always focused on customer service, that’s how my dad raised me, to help clients. He once said to me “that’s why you’re getting up every day and going to work”. It’s all about customer service.” While working at the Design Center Showroom, a young woman walked in and didn’t look like a rich client that other salespeople would talk to but I talked to her. She was upset and crying, saying no one seems willing to help her and I found out that her employer has a movie theater and needs wall-to-wall carpet right away.
We talked and I educated her about what was required (by law) and what would work well for the space. It priced out at $60k, for the project a lot of money back then – she thought it was a fair price and I was given authority to choose the final selection and move forward. When she responded to the invoice, I found out she was George Lucas’s personal designer for ILM studios. When I left to start my own company in 1991, She (Kathy) sent a letter to my home that said that George said, “wherever Richard is going, we are going.”
I continued to work with Mr. Lucas for the next 25 years and his personal assistant. I worked at all of his properties including Skywalker Ranch and became the conservationist for his entire rug collection. I designed and produced rugs for him as well as many celebrities over the course of my career.
I opened Alexander’s at the Design Center in the city – 2 Henry Adams Street, 3rd floor July 20, 1991. It was a runaway success – first year revenues were $1million.
I opened my first retail store in Mill Valley November 1996 on Miller Avenue across from the 2am Club. It was also an immediate success. I operated it until April 2006 due to the domino effect of 9/11 and the early ripple effects of an impending recession. Many changes took place at the Design Center, and in June 2016 I had the opportunity to open my small, charming location in downtown Mill Valley at the El Paseo Building after closing the Design Center Showroom. I reopened on July 20, 2016, an auspicious day and according to lore that is the birthdate of Alexander the Great.
Danna: What do you feel is unique about your business?
Richard: I do not sell rugs, I educate & guide so clients make the best informed decision. I became a Certified Appraiser and Licensed CA Auctioneer in 1989. Because I was already known as a rug expert, in the Rug industry. I was involved and very well connected and respected. I could have anything I wanted on consignment . Then I began a monthly lecture series and I brought in experts from museums, Universities, Auction Houses , Rug Book authors etc… to do educational talks. My focus has always been on customer service , customer education and positive experience.I’ve been a guest docent at the MH De Young museum and have clients who have wings on parts of the Legion of Honor, I’ve lectured to thousands of individuals, designers, appraisal societies, and rug societies.
As a result I’ve been interviewed for many articles in newspapers, magazines, TV, and radio. I see my former and current clients on TV, Film, newspapers, and hear them on the radio, on the Forbes 400 list of Billionaires or gracing the cover.
I’ve placed thousands of rugs in homes, commercial establishments, executive offices, hotels and restaurants, theaters, concert halls around the country, and even some in other countries. To date I have received more awards and acknowledgements than almost any Rug Firm in the Bay area, making my business among the most awarded and recognized in Bay Area History and definitely in Marin County history bar none. My passion for knowledge and my understanding of rugs, structure, history, interior design and architecture, and the ability to articulate it and connect the dots to people in a way they can understand and embrace the Woven Art form so it is well appreciated makes my business very unique.
I’ve been involved in the academia of rugs since the late 70’s, going to every rug show, reading every book I could, subscribing to every trade periodical, attending rug exhibitions at Museums, conferences, and being a member of the San Francisco Bay Area Rug Society and affiliate ASID Partner to continually educate. I am one of the very few Rug historians. I want to know and cover the history of rugs from 500 BC when the oldest known rug was discovered in 1948 by Professor Sergie Rundenko in the Altai mountains of Siberia until present times. An extraordinary history that parallels that of human kind for nearly 2,500 years.
Danna: Bringing it to present day time, What has surprised you (so far) about the rug business?
Richard: My biggest surprise is how, in the past ten years, there has been this movement towards lifeless, soulless, colorless new rugs chemically stripped and sanded down and the rugs that look like splattered paint with material that is mostly inexpensive machine spun yarns with garish colors. Ghastly! As my old English Partners would say. When possible though it’s very smart to recycle and repurpose rugs. The people I work with are artisans, craftsmen, and experts. I have stayed true to the art and history of rugs and curate a collection for my clients when asked. As my Dad shared with me in my early 20’s “A pro makes a hard thing look easy and an amateur makes an easy thing look hard.” The value of having my own business is maintaining my integrity with quality and beauty. I can be a truth teller with no consequences. I got fired once from a company the day before Christmas Eve because of my truth telling, referring a client to a competitor at the design center in 1986 for a product we did not offer.
Danna: What delights you about your customers?
Richard: They are so interesting! I’m blown away by the people I meet and the things they do, contributions they have made and the lives that they’ve lived.
Danna: What does community and small town business mean to you?
Richard: Whole life. There’s no separation to me. Gratitude and good fortune. My wife, daughter, and I moved to Mill Valley in the summer of 2001 and lived in Scott Valley for many years. We eventually sold that home and now live not far away in the Shelter Bay area. After many years of commuting to South of Market I was so grateful to find the perfect location in Downtown Mill Valley in one of Mill Valley’s most iconic and charming buildings.
The global rug business eventually went into a slow melt down after 9/11 and then into a depression. I closed my retail location in 2006 and consolidated into the Design Center Showroom. The Great recession was top down and I downsized from 14 to three people and slowly rebuilt….eventually had no employees and became a solo practitioner /consultant in 2011. I’ve never been happier- I’m a one-person show, love what I do , love my community and its people, and am grateful everyday.
Danna: What are three things about your personal life that bring you joy and or inspire you that customers/the community may not know?
- Music. Music. Music. Grew up in the pinnacle part of rock-n-roll and fusion jazz. I’ve played various instruments since I was 9 but am not talented in that area. I’ve been a sort of DJ since my twenties and professionally for the past 13 years. I’ve DJ’ed for rockstars, celebrities, Fashion Shows, Film & Festival events, private high profile individuals, and performed at many of San Francisco’s DJ Clubs and Lounges.
- Running and Working Out. I have worked out for two hours everyday for decades and I’ve been a runner since my twenties. I’m a Dipsea and Double Dipsea veteran, former Tamalpais Runners Club member, and before that I was a cyclist.
- Philanthropy. I’ve been a licensed auctioneer (Fine Arts) for 30 years specializing in Charity and nonprofits auctions, I am a graduate from the top auction school. I apprenticed under the Best Auctioneers for nearly a decade at many of the Bay Area’s top auction houses before receiving my license. I’ve raised millions of dollars for charities around the world.
Danna: Is there a business within Mill Valley that you’d like to give a shout out to for a great experience you’ve had?
Richard: If I said you, that wouldn’t be correct since you’re doing the interview. The one business that makes Mill Valley the special place it is, is ‘Famous 4’ aka Larry the Hat. Larry has shoes so big I don’t know who will ever fill them. He’s such an extraordinary person, Community supporter, organizer, promoter, business owner of several decades. He can ruffle some feathers but he has zero tolerance for BS, he has a huge heart and I have enormous respect for him.
Danna: Is there anything else you would like to add?
Richard: I’ve been married for decades. I have a wonderful wife & daughter. I love where I live, love my Gallery, I live about a mile away. This is my 32nd year in business in this incarnation as Alexanders but I’ve been in the business since 1978. My intention is to deliver the best customer experience to look out for my community and to be compassionate and kind to all..
Danna: I wish I still had my podcast or we had a Mill Valley podcast because there are so many ‘Richard stories’ that were told during this interview that the world should hear. Pure gold and magic.