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Rugs As Art: “There’s nothing like us in the U.S.”

John Murse in his 20,000-square-foot showroom; his son, Jesse, is on the phone behind the counter at left. Photo: David Warner
Luxury Living Tampa Bay

A Sarasota store with international cred and a rug for every pocketbook.

John Murse has always regarded the design and production of rugs as an art form. But the name of his Sarasota store, Rugs As Art, can be problematic.

“That has screwed up so many people,” he says. Some potential customers automatically assume because of the name that the prices will be too high. “They think it’s the Robb & Stucky of area rugs.”

On the other hand, if you’ve read online that the store has more than 4,000 rugs in stock in a 20,000-square-foot showroom, you might assume it’s a giant, featureless discount rug warehouse.

Neither preconception is accurate. The elegant facade of the emporium on S. Tamiami Trail reinforces the high-end aura, but go inside and you’ll find modestly priced rugs as well as showpieces like the 9×12 $4,999 stunner mounted on the wall behind the big semi-circular front counter. And while the facility is plenty large, it doesn’t feel overwhelming.

Murse explains a design-in-progress at his computer.
Photo: Larry Biddle

But here’s the thing — the reason Rugs As Art makes perfect sense as a name for this business is that Murse, 68, is in his own way an artist. Though he says “my personal favorite rug is the one that sells,” his excitement about the inventory is infectious. He’s still in awe at the endless possibilities of color and pattern that a rug artisan can produce, and he even takes part in creating rugs himself. Sitting behind his office computer, he’s like a kid with a video game as he shows off the software that allows him to make the fine adjustments in a design that will eventually become the production template for factories in India or China. And because his is an international business, he’s as full of good yarns (no pun intended) as any world traveler; ask him about the Turkish tea set in his office, or the convoluted supply line that brings so-called “dowry rugs” from the Middle East into Florida. 

His enthusiasm is impressive for a man who’s been in the same business for 33 years. That positive energy may be why he’s lasted so long, and why the store has won so many awards, voted Best Rug Store In America during the International Rug Market in Atlanta, one of America’s top 50 retailers by Home Accents Today (the only rug store on the list) and 2018 Retailer of the Year by the Sarasota Chamber of Commerce, among many other accolades. 

An engineer by training, Murse discovered his flair for retail during a break from his studies at Penn State when he took a job with a carpet company and cut his teeth selling in Lancaster County. When he decided to strike out on his own, relatives who knew the area suggested he try Sarasota. Beginning with an 800-square-foot store in the Gulf Gate shopping district in1986, he grew the business enough to move to a larger facility three years later and then to his present address in 2001. At first, he thought 20,000 square feet would be too big; now, selling up to 500 rugs a week, he wishes sometimes he had more space.

Murse and son Jesse.
Photo: Larry Biddle

The key to the store’s success, says Murse, is what he calls the “the three S’s: selection, savings and service.” With thousands of handmade, machine-made and custom rugs, prices 35 percent lower than most, and 30 employees, many of them longtimers who know the inventory intimately, the S’s do seem to be covered. For instance, because color is such an important factor in a rug purchase, Rugs As Art lets customers take them home for a bit before making the final purchase, just to see how they fit with the decor. “Just don’t take them home for a party,” adds Murse’s son Jesse, one of two Murse siblings who work at the store.

And thanks to Jesse and his mother, Lucy, Rugs As Art sells more than rugs. Together they’ve curated a smart collection of home goods and furnishings for the front of the store.  “My taste is very eclectic,” says Jesse. “I don’t want to see what everyone else is selling.” [dRTB readers may remember the Rugs As Art oak and stainless steel table that was featured in our 2018 Holiday Gift Guide; intriguing on the page, it’s even more impressive in person.]

A trim, handsome 40-year-old, Jesse is a good touchstone for the clientele, the core of whom are professional women between 35 and 50, as well as retirees and down-sizers. (With “two kids and two dogs,” he says his own purchasing power is more in line with the store’s “lower-income side.”) Customers come from as far away as Jacksonville, and snowbirds make purchases that are shipped all over the country.

“There’s nothing like us in the U.S.,” says John Murse.

And if, even with 4,000 rugs to choose from, you don’t see exactly what you want, Rugs As Art can custom-design one just for you. Ask to see the “color poms” —  a box lined with little knobs of yarn in a Crayola-worthy range of colors that’s like a painter’s palette, ready for you and the store’s resident designer to create a rug that’s uniquely yours.

See? Rugs As Art! 

Rugs As Art, 6650 South Tamiami Trail (U.S. 41), Sarasota, 941-921-1900 / 1-800-733-7847, rugsasart.com.

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