Paul Michael Has Found His Place on Earth

by Jan Cottingham  on Monday, Mar. 5, 2018 12:00 am   8 min read

LAKE VILLAGE — A grandfather who started out as a peddler helped pave Paul Michael’s path toward home, and an aunt with a gift for retail set him on his way.

Now the Lake Village native and founder of the Paul Michael Co. has five stores in Arkansas, Louisiana and Texas with annual sales of about $15 million, an artisan-centered manufactory in Dermott and 130 employees.

His wife, Debbie, his “full partner” in business and in life, and his three children work with him every day to help bring to being his vision of home decor, a vision that attracts thousands to the Lake Village store, opened 25 years ago on U.S. Route 65. At 35,000 SF, it’s a “destination store” — as are all the stores — a huge, fun and fascinating place to stop during the long trek to New Orleans or Florida. It doesn’t hurt that an Arkansas Welcome Center is right across the highway.

Michael’s story is an immigrant story and a Delta story and a story about unpredictability, the collisions between people that cause them to head down one road rather than another. But mostly it’s a story about finding your place on the planet.

“I didn’t think that I would ever amount to anything — not that I have,” said Michael, laughing self-deprecatingly during a recent interview at his office on Main Street. “When I first knew that I could command my presence as a businessman, it was the most cherished — I was just overwhelmed with happiness that I had a place on Earth.”

Coming to America
Michael’s journey from flea-market trader to designer, entrepreneur and, now, manufacturer is a long, winding one, but in the United States, it began with his grandfather.

Saleem Ameen Mansour left Lebanon toward the turn of the 19th century, arriving in Vicksburg, Mississippi, around 1898. He traveled to Monroe, Louisiana, where a man from his hometown in Lebanon had a store. The levee system along the Mississippi was under construction, and Mansour was given a pack and sent on his way from work camp to work camp selling goods like pots and pans.

Mansour opened his first brick-and-mortar store near Crossett, moving from there to the Delta and opening a store in Lake Village in 1903, Mansour’s. He served farm laborers, and his store originally didn’t have much prestige, Michael said. “The people that owned the farms shopped elsewhere.”

But Michael’s Aunt Saleema Mansour Black, daughter of Mansour, attended college and then went to work in a mercantile company in Monroe, where she learned the retailing business. She eventually returned to her father’s store in Lake Village.

“She had an incredibly natural and keen ability as a merchant, tremendous insight,” Michael said. “I credit my beginnings to her, no question.”

“She transformed Mansour’s from being a country store-type thing to, in the end, it was a very fashionable place to shop, 90 percent due to her ability as a merchant,” he said. “I grew up in that business.”

He conceded that “I wasn’t an ideal child as far as work goes, but I was exposed to it. We literally breathed it and slept with it every night. It was part of my existence. ... I learned to do arithmetic, taught by my grandfather, in that store.”

Although Mansour’s closed long ago, after more than 80 years in business, part of the Paul Michael Co. operations are run out of the old store.

‘On the Flea Market Circuit’
Youthful misbehavior landed Michael in boarding school at Subiaco Academy, where he “straightened up.” He went on to college but dropped out and “went out on the flea market circuit” in the early 1970s, buying and selling and trading. He traveled between Memphis and Nashville and Canton, Texas, home of First Monday Trade Days and what has been described as the biggest flea market in the country.

(An aside for the uninitiated: First Monday Trade Days is a way of life for some people. Its history dates back to the 1850s and the town square in Canton, in east Texas, but it now occupies hundreds of acres and is held once a month from Thursday through Sunday before the first Monday of the month. Vendors number in the thousands and the event can draw crowds of more than 100,000.)

In terms of career, Michael said, he remembered his teachers “expressing the importance of us becoming professionals. I don’t ever remember one of them telling me that I should be an entrepreneur.”

“When I finally started going to flea markets regularly, it seemed really easy to me. And it seemed like there wasn’t very much competition.” Michael had found his calling.

He started selling American Indian jewelry and gold at Canton and in 1975 he met Debbie. He calls her his “best find.” She also had a background in retail and owned an antique clothing store, Betty Boop’s in Nashville, Tennessee.

Together the couple went on the road, going to antique fairs, searching for treasures and buying and selling those treasures and visiting Canton once a month for years. Along the way they also developed and marketed jewelry that they sold to big department stores like Dillard’s, Marshall Field and Nordstrom.

Paul and Debbie’s complementary interests and skills — and their adaptability to the retail world’s constant change — allowed them and their business to evolve and flourish. He loves to collect; she loves to sell. “What I really love is having a store full of beautiful stuff,” Michael said. “I don’t collect it for me. I collect it to sell.”

“We’ve made such good partners,” Debbie said, “because he likes to do that part of it and I love to sell it.”

And though Michael said that he doesn’t collect just for himself, somehow he has amassed collections — of antique toys and signs, of old wood and minerals, of what Debbie conservatively puts at 50,000 SF of “stuff, scattered around. And we just have discussed starting to liquidate part of the collection.”

The First Store
In this almost two-hour visit with the Michaels, including their daughter Elizabeth Michael (best known in Little Rock these days for Bark Bar, an indoor-outdoor play area for dogs and a bar for their owners), the couple’s banter and the narrative of their partnership flitted back and forth in time and back and forth from business to business. Piecing together a chronology proves a bit daunting because Michael just doesn’t think chronologically.

But in 1993, the couple opened their first store, in Lake Village. The children were young and the Michaels were traveling so much that they wanted “to try to create some sort of business that we could maintain and sustain,” Debbie said.

Opening a store wasn’t a decision Paul Michael embraced. “Debbie kept pushing me to open that store. And I did not want to do it. I thought it was the dumbest thing we could possibly do. But in the end I realized it would be cheaper than getting a divorce.”

At first, they sold mostly jewelry, the jewelry they’d been selling to Dillard’s, with a little home decor on the side. “When we started selling to them, they had 36 stores and by the time we got through, they had around 300,” Michael said. “We learned a tremendous amount about business dealing with them and had some great dealings with them.”

According to his website, the jewelry business led Michael overseas, “where he first saw potential in the home decorative accessories market.”

Since that first store, the Michaels have opened home decor stores in Canton, Monroe and Lafayette, Louisiana. And in 2017, they launched their latest venture, Market Hill in Round Top, Texas, a 120,000-SF space open twice a year during the Round Top Antiques Fair. In addition, the Paul Michael Co. opens a temporary store before Christmas at the Houston Ballet Nutcracker Market, a fundraising shopping event.

In our conversation, Michael said that in the beginning, most of his home decor items came from China. At that time, the Chinese government was subsidizing the industry, he said. “If a Chinese manufacturer shipped $1 million worth of product in our industry, the Chinese government would rebate him for 10 percent, and so the value of product coming out of China was being subsidized by the Chinese government.”

But as the price of farm commodities rose and the government faced the prospect of higher food costs, it focused on domestic agricultural development, removing the subsidy on home decor manufacturing to subsidize agriculture instead.

At the same time, the cost of transportation was skyrocketing and the value of the dollar fell. “We were being charged more, we were being delivered less, it took longer to get it, it cost more to transport it here and the quality of it was diminished. And then the creativity left it so that nothing new was coming along,” Michael said.

And that, he said, is when he began to think about making home decor items to sell. In addition, Michael found that his creativity was surging as he worked to repurpose vintage finds. For example, Debbie said, he might discover an old airplane component and decide it would make a great table base.

Michael opened what the family calls the “woodshop” about eight years ago in Dermott. It employs 15 workers who translate Michael’s designs into products like sculptures made of minerals, side tables, dining tables and cabinets.

It was a steep learning curve, the couple said, and they have invested millions of dollars in the shop.

“Most people equate creativity with artistic ability,” Michael said. “In my opinion, the art of it is only part of it and in most cases a lesser part. Creativity is part art and part science. It’s not sufficient to understand what it is you’re going to make and what color you might make it and what proportions it will have. That would be the artistic side of it.

“But you also have to know what machine am I going to use, what materials do I use, how are they going to be engineered so that they don’t fall apart, what moisture level do they need to get to? Oh, moisture level? You mean you have to dry it out? Oh, you need a kiln to do that,” he said, adding, “It’s a big commitment if you’re going to do it for quality.”

Quality matters to Michael. “I don’t want to make anything that’s not going to stand the test of time.”

The wood shop is a collaborative effort and workers are expected to employ their own creativity, Michael said. “The beauty is not coming only from me. It’s coming from all of us.”

The Paul Michael Co. itself is a collaborative, family effort. Daughter Elizabeth, 33, helps with marketing and advertising, though she’s not an employee of the family business; she has her own ventures. Daughter Mary Michele, 32, operates the online store and also helps with public relations and advertising. And son Jake, 29, helps run the factory business and is the manager of Market Hill.

Elizabeth said her father had had opportunities to move the business out of Lake Village, but that the decision to stay is a testament to his love of the town and the Delta.

Back some time ago, she said, some reality TV show producers out of Los Angeles came to Lake Village to make a pilot about her father. “Like every interesting human he got a reality TV show pilot, and in that pilot he said he knows he could make it anywhere. What was your quote?” Elizabeth turned to her father.

“What New York City and the Delta have in common: If you can make it there, you can make it anywhere.”

But he doesn’t take himself too seriously, Michael said. “I don’t see myself as somebody that important, but I do hope my mother would be proud of me. That’s important.”



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