Zinn Rug Gallery sits quietly on Coleman Boulevard in Mount Pleasant. Inside, piles of colorful wool and silk rugs are waiting, stacked and arranged by size. Every one is handwoven or hand-knotted; each is one-of-a-kind and was created in an exotic place such as Turkey, Iran, The Caucasus, India, Pakistan, Nepal or Central Asia. Some were woven more than a 100 years ago as part of a daughter’s dowry. Some came to life in tiny villages where artisans spent months hand-knotting colorful strands of wool and silk into rugs meant to stay in a family for generations. Zinn Rug Gallery sits quietly, but if the walls could talk, you’d never want to stop listening.
Nese Zinn moved to Charleston in 1969 with her husband and was introduced to a very different city than the award-winning paradise we enjoy now. The Civil Rights Act was just gaining traction, the Equal Rights Amendment had yet to be ratified anywhere, King Street was a den of iniquity, and you couldn’t safely walk anywhere after dark.
Act was just gaining traction, the Equal Rights Amendment had yet to be ratified anywhere, King Street was a den of iniquity, and you couldn’t safely walk anywhere after dark.
Zinn was educated in Europe and America and was skilled in management, but it was difficult for her to find a job that met her level of qualifications. She spent 11 years working on the Charleston waterfront, once motoring out to board a quarantined cargo ship when she was seven months pregnant. Those experiences may be the very thing that gave her the mettle to chase her dream—a dream that involved immersing herself in a complex, dangerous world where traditionally women are not accepted or tolerated.
Zinn was born in Turkey and had always lived with a beautiful collection of Turkish rugs. Her friends began asking her if she could bring them rugs from her travels, and she was happy to oblige. In 1981 she began selling the antique rugs she brought home and acquired so much business that by 1983 she left her work on the harbor forever. From her home, she took her business to the Terrace Oaks Antique Mall, then East Bay, then to the old Kress building at King and Wentworth. Finally, she landed in her current spot in Mount Pleasant.
Zinn is a down-to-earth whisper of a woman with a lifetime of amazing stories. Since leaving the shipping industry, she’s spent three decades traveling alone to the Middle East, searching for the most beautiful rugs for her gallery. “I was the first woman rug buyer into Russia when the Soviet Union fell,” Zinn tells me. “I was always the only woman in the hotel. I had to deal with the mafia, and I had to learn to drink vodka because there was no clean water.”
Year after year, she left her home on the peninsula and boarded a plane for far off lands. Once there she donned the requisite headscarf, played round after round of backgammon, drank endless cups of tea or tiny glasses of raki or vodka, and did whatever else was required to gain access to the male-dominated world of rug commerce. She has stories that would make the hair stand up on your arms, including a story about the most beautiful rug she’d ever seen, bargained for and won, that disappeared forever in transit to America.
Zinn no longer travels to buy rugs—she has over 5,000 in her inventory, a figure that is staggering when you consider that most antique rugs in America and Europe have now gone into private collections. Because antique rugs are once again in fashion among Middle Eastern families, they’re not being exported as they once were. In fact, there are fine rug galleries in Europe where the inventory can be counted on the fingers of one hand. Zinn has amassed a literal treasure trove of some of the finest textiles in the world, yet the atmosphere in the gallery is welcoming and anything but pretentious. In fact, Zinn is so widely known and respected for her friendly nature and honesty that a fellow rug dealer once told her she was single-handedly bringing integrity back to the profession.
Zinn is an accomplished photographer, so she is happiest when observing and sharing life’s small joys and beauties. It’s this quality that enables me to admit to her that I know nothing about fine rugs. She sums it up for me quickly: “A fine rug needs only a chair and nothing more. It is a work of art to be appreciated by itself. It will endure for generations. It does not need to be any certain size or color to match a room. It just needs to speak to you.” She tells me about weaving and knotting methods from different cultural traditions, the story the colors and patterns tell and how to tell a quality rug from an inferior rug.
Still, for all of her expertise in antique rugs, Zinn is a modern woman who is not entirely unaware of trends and the possibilities in new rugs. She shows me samples of lovely contemporary patterns in silk and wool, and neutral flat-woven rugs that would be at home in any Lowcountry living room. These come in dozens of colors and sizes and are easily combined with a range of décors and fit a range of budgets.
I ask her what advice she’d give someone who is looking for a fine rug, and she surprises me with her answer: “You should invest in beautiful things that are made with love and intention. This way, no matter what happens in your life you will be supported by your surroundings.” Suddenly I realize the allure of this art, and I see why Zinn would dedicate her life to sharing it.
Robin Howard is a full-time freelance writer in Charleston. See more of her work at robinhowardwrites.com.