You might say Emmett Eiland’s journey has been a magic carpet ride. What started out as a quirky idea became an unexpected career as the founder and owner of Emmett Eiland’s Oriental Rug Company. Now, after 48 years in business in Berkeley, Eiland reflects back on his career as the day swiftly approaches when he will close the doors of his store for good. The end of an era.
The threads of his personal tapestry began in California. Eiland grew up in Taft, California, an oilfield town in the San Joaquin Valley. He came to Berkeley in 1959 to attend Cal and never left.
“I graduated from UC Berkeley in 1965 with a degree in English and had no idea of how to make a living,” Eiland said.
His older brother, Murray, was collecting antique Oriental rugs at the time and had accumulated a stack of rug fragments.
“It occurred to me to render them into something I could sell, and I hit on the idea of making purses from them. I ran with the idea and enjoyed a mild success selling at craft fairs. I called my enterprise ‘The Berkeley Bag,’ making a modest living from it,” he said. Eiland later sold the business to a friend, Kermit Lynch, who went on to become the renowned Berkeley-based wine merchant.
Following that, Eiland opened a rug store in North Oakland in 1969.
“I was there for nearly six months until, on New Year’s Eve, a drunk driver drove through the plate-glass window and put me out of business,” Eiland said. Around 1970, Eiland moved to Solano Avenue (at Ensenada) and re-established the business as the Oriental Rug Company. Subsequently, in 1992, he moved his store to its current location on Ninth Street in West Berkeley.
Eiland first traveled to Afghanistan, by way of London, in 1971. He was told by a local merchant of antique rugs in London that there was nothing of unique value to be found in Afghanistan, but Eiland discovered quite the opposite.
“To me, every tiny rug shop in Kabul was full of interesting, crazy, gorgeous things — rugs we never saw in stores at home. That was the real start of it all for me,” Eiland said.
Though his store had begun with antique rugs, his real interest was to offer something different.
“I searched for new rugs that could be used on the floor but that had character, without much success. Fortunately, in the early Eighties, a couple of American adventurers traveling in the Middle East began experimenting with traditional natural dyes and they found a few older women in India who still knew how to spin wool yarn by hand. When I saw what they were producing, I rejoiced. I had found my niche in the Oriental rug world,” he said.
The fabric of the store has been richly textured and deftly crafted. Apart from the retail aspect, the space has hosted all types of events, as well. Benefits for the Jefferson School have raised over $200,000 over the years. Recently, the Women’s Cancer Resource Center staged a fundraiser in the showroom and a series of fundraisers for a Berkeley shelter for battered women have been held there, too. “Ubuntu Theater Project staged a performance of Othello here. And we have had lots of entertaining evenings in the showroom with wine tastings and live bands. Several wineries release their new wines here annually. I have always thought of the showroom as a community resource,” Eiland said.
Woven into his entrepreneurial spirit, Eiland has shared his passion in myriad ways with the community, informed by his extensive travels throughout the rug-weaving countries of the world. In 1972, Eiland helped organize a major exhibit of Oriental rugs at UC Berkeley’s Art Museum. He has taught courses through UC Extension and has made a film, The Repair and Restoration of Oriental Rugs. He authored a book, Oriental Rugs Today: A Guide to the Best New Carpets from the East, published in 2000 (and revised in 2003) by Berkeley Hills Books.
After writing the book, he was encouraged to try his hand at writing fiction. Berkeley Hills Books later published The Last Resort in 2004, a novel co-written with his wife, Natasha Eiland, before she passed away. A second novel, When a Dragon Winks, a semi-autobiographical tale based on the adventures of a young rug dealer, was published in 2009.
A new chapter is about to be written, however, as Eiland is ready to retire. The Oriental Rug Company will close its doors at 5:30 p.m. on Friday, Dec. 22. During the first three weeks in December, anyone who buys a rug will have a chance to win one of three rugs, priced at $2,500 each. With that day inching closer, Eiland said, “I will miss my team terribly: Lew Wheeler, Sylvette Orlianges, Richard Pratt, Blaire Reese, Darius Saffarian. They have been with me in the store for an average of at least 25 years. But I will have my own rugs at home, my beloved family and many wonderful memories.”
Emmett Eiland’s Oriental Rug Company, 1326 Ninth St. (near Gilman), Berkeley 94710. Tel: 510-526-1087. Open Tues. through Sat., 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. and Sun., Noon to 5 p.m. Closed Mondays. Connect on Facebook and Twitter.