Portland Monthly Magazine | Feature June 23 2015

The International Stories Behind the Rugs at Portland's Kush

Rug transport, India style, photographed near Mirzapur.

When an earthquake hit Nepal in April, Kush Rugs felt tremors in Portland. Owners Brian Robins and Rebecca Lurie couldn’t reach Nepali suppliers for days. Finally, e-mails arrived: don’t stop ordering rugs. The Himalayan craftspeople vowed to continue production.

While many Portland businesses rely on global trade, the rug business is peculiarly sensitive to events in places like Nepal, India, Pakistan, and Iran. “Consistency is challenging,” Lurie says. “We do business in countries that are always in the news.”

Every year, Kush—usually represented by Lurie, a former anthropology major with a yen for travel—scouts out rural villages to find rare and high-quality work. “Every country is making great rugs, and every country is making cheap rugs,” Robins says. “We want people to walk in and see rugs they can’t see anywhere else.”

Even absent catastrophe or crisis, the logistical challenges are formidable. A single rug can take up to a year to finish then ship—via every combination of bike, truck, air, and bureaucracy. “Where’s that rug?” Robins recounts. “It’s in customs. Has anybody heard of it again? It’s both a blessing and a curse. We can’t just sit back and say, well, we’ve got our lines, and we’re good.”

Kush also must tune in to local nuances. “If you’re dealing with someone who’s Afghan or Indian versus somebody from Turkey—those are different forms of communication,” says Lurie. “Does ‘yes’ mean ‘yes,’ or does it mean, ‘I’m saying yes, but you know I mean no’?”

The store donated 3 percent of its May sales to Nepali relief efforts, and Lurie plans to return in the fall. “Ordering rugs,” she says, “contributes directly to providing jobs, rebuilding the country, and helping Nepal move forward.”