How Paul and Debbie Michael unexpectedly become proprietors of unique design stores across the deep south.
A Southern Paradise
or the uninitiated who have not driven Highway 65 south on the way to or from New Orleans, Mobile or other points farther south, The Paul Michael store sits inconspicuously across the highway from the Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism’s Visitors Center in Lake Village.
As you make that southbound drive, your attention is piqued a bit by a couple of billboards leading to Lake Village, inviting you to stop by to shop for a spell. If you bite, prepare yourself. You walk into what appears, from the road, to be a small storefront. But once inside you are taken aback as you realize that what you thought was a small curiosity shop actually expands into 30,000 square feet of home furnishings and accessories paradise.
It’s almost sensory overload as you take in the custom furniture and chandeliers; dishware and other dining accessories; ribbons and packaging specialties; the list of available goodies is long. It’s a seemingly sophisticated surprise for such a tiny town. After meeting the creative forces behind The Paul Michael Company, you realize you must immediately and substantially raise your expectations.
Paul Michael works from his office off the quiet Main Street in downtown Lake Village. His office is a large, open space that houses two desks off to one side – one occupied by his daughter, Mary, whose task is to keep track of much of the business operations, which includes her dad’s whereabouts. A beautiful, worn, tufted leather sofa is piled with canvases painted by an artist Paul has recently discovered. The canvases are still rolled in bundles.
A huge kitchen island leads to an enormous brick oven ready for bread, pizza and other goodies to be baked. A large fireplace, with a mounted animal head and various artifacts face a second sofa. Chairs and a coffee table complete the room. An employee workroom is off of the office where employees are quietly moving about.
Covering the office floor are bundles of painted canvases Paul Michael purchased during a recent trip to Arizona. “I think they’re good,” he says.
“I think they’re wonderful,” states Debbie, Paul’s wife and business partner. “Now wait just a second,” he interjects, “last week you wanted to use them as upholstery, now you take them seriously as art?”
Debbie smiles and says, “Well yeah, they look great on the wall, but I still think I have a great idea for them, I just didn’t realize you had that many canvases.”
“Yes, it’s a Picasso,” Paul says about a sketch in an unassuming frame on the wall. “Real Picasso on the left – a friend sketched the one on the right to show he had art skills.” He purchased the Picasso from a junk dealer in Texas. He says he knew it was a Picasso. “Everyone makes fun of me for buying it, and that’s okay. I bet there’s not a real Picasso anywhere on Main Street in McGehee or anywhere else in the county.”
It’s clear that Paul is not the average small town boy. You can sense he is not only inquisitive about the world but also intuitive.
“Every environment that Paul occupies is filled with curiosities, every square foot.” Debbie says as if she is telepathic to my unspoken observations. “This space started out as a big empty shell. Gradually he keeps moving things in, but it’s always a delight to the eye, be it from that Allied Van sign to the tramp art made out of beer cans that is an end table.”
The Road to Success
Paul got his start in flea markets in the early 70s in Nashville, Memphis and Canton, Texas. He says he also initially sold sterling silver jewelry to Dillard’s stores when they only had 65 stores. According to Debbie, they stopped when Dillard’s expanded to 200 stores. “At one time,” Paul stated, “we were in Dillard’s, Nordstrom’s, Macy’s and Marshall Field’s totaling more than 700 different department stores.”
“When I met Debbie, she was a famous storeowner in Nashville, with lots of celebrity clients,” says Paul. “She was one of the first people to sell vintage clothing. Her shop was called Betty Boops. When I tell you celebrities I mean the big ones; many album covers and concert clothing. She had a full design company,” he says proudly.
Debbie softly plays down her impact on Nashville’s celebrities and their show attire. “It’s funny how life kind of happens,” she says. “You know, I was recycling at that time. A beautiful 1920’s beaded vintage dress I’d find at an estate sale, and most of the dress was damaged of course, but it would be the inspiration for sleeves for a blouse for a Grand Ole Opry performance.”
Paul met Debbie when he was in Nashville to make a purchase of items from country music singer Roy Acuff’s museum that were being relocated to Opryland. “Her ex-boyfriend told me about her,” says Paul. “He still wants her back to this day.”
In the late 80’s Paul and Debbie began hitting the road for the Junior League shopping showcases across the country, including Holiday House in Little Rock.
Debbie says doing the shopping showcases was “like being on a rock and roll tour. We did as many as 13 in one year.” At the end of show season in November, they would bring the unsold items home. Creative thinkers and entrepreneurs that they are, they opened a Christmas store on Main Street that was better traveled then than now. Debbie had an idea for a retail store on Highway 65. “The kids were growing up and I didn’t want to be away from home so much.”
Shaking his head Paul says, “And, I kept telling her ‘no,’ and she just kept going on and on, and I kept saying ‘no.’ Finally, I realized it would be cheaper to do that than get a divorce,” he says. “So, I put the store out there and that’s how the Paul Michael Company got started.” That was 20 years ago. The Lake Village store has expanded from 6,000 square feet to 30,000 square feet.
Long story short, neither envisioned being where they are today. “We’re a destination,” states Debbie. “That highway  is the connector to five states, so, we end up being a pit stop.”
Home on Highway 65
Business was good in the beginning and many store items were exported from overseas. Eventually, the logistics of moving items across the ocean changed. As fuel prices went up and costs increased; the dollar dropped and the business was adversely impacted. “We were having to charge more for less and I just didn’t see a future in it,” says Paul.
“We would go into showrooms and notice the quality of items just kept diminishing,” says Debbie. “It was no longer solid wood furniture, it was just horrible.” Paul told Debbie that he would rather go out of business than let their customers buy that furniture.
“How do you face somebody you’ve charged $1,000 for furniture and it’s a piece of junk? I just can’t do it and I’m not going to do it,” says Paul.
Paul developed a fast friendship with local carpenter Terry Barley. The two began discussing making wood furniture for the store. “He was a first-class carpenter,” Paul says of Barley who recently passed away. The two worked with woodshop manager Salvador Dominguez on the project. “From the beginning nobody was the designer, the boss or the authority. We just all did it together.” That’s the legacy in the shop today. Everybody contributes to the creative process “It takes all of us to make things work,” he says.
Normal manufacturer and distributor markup is not an issue for Paul and Debbie because they own their store and make their own items for their stores. “That gives us an advantage and provides us with a cushion that is tolerant of our inefficiencies. We are far from being a professional furniture factory. We do lots of things in an inefficient manner, which may be where some of our appeal might be,” Paul says sincerely. “But, we put a lot of quality into our work – a lot of hand sanding and hand finishing you can’t do with a machine.”
“One of our hashtags is #retailwarriors that our daughter Mary came up with,” says Debbie. “We use it because we are constantly at war against giving our customer a bad product,” adds Paul.
Being fair and upfront with customers is crucial to Paul. “We see ourselves as their champion. Even if they don’t think about it, we want to provide them with the best that money can buy,” he says.
Expanding the Oasis
Paul and Debbie have expanded the successful business model across the south. After the Lake Village store came stores in Monroe, and then a building inside the flea market in Canton, Texas. From there another location opened in Monroe, La., which is on the way to Canton. Then one in Lafayette, La. After that they added on to the Canton store. It’s 90,000 square feet now.
“Round Top [Texas] is the latest project and where I’ll be heading soon,” says Paul. “You may have seen Round Top on national antique shows. It’s one of the top antique shows that happens twice a year.” The duo travel there to buy things for the other stores including raw materials for the wood shop.
“You know, we were buying at Round Top and seeing all of these wealthy, sophisticated buyers spending huge sums of money from all over the world, yet they’re still using porta-potties and buying corny dogs and the heat is at least 100 degrees and the best protection you can get is the dirt,” says Paul. “And, I just thought, better facilities would bring even better retail because you already have the customer here.”
To solve this mismatch of clientele and lack of proper customer comfort, The Michaels purchased 22 acres of land in Round Top and built a 120,000 square-foot building. The Paul Michael Company has 11,000 square feet in the center of the building. “Paul designed it as well as these rolling doors that are like high tech pocket doors,” Debbie states. The other 109,000 square-feet space goes to select antique vendors.
“Any kind of business has to have a philosophy,” says Paul. “You have to have a philosophical reason why it will work. That’s an elementary statement for a real businessman, which I don’t think I am one.” he says sincerely.
Contemplative, Paul refers to a Crosby, Stills and Nash song Teach Your Children. “The opening line is ‘You, you along the road must have a code that you can live by.’ And, I think that is a profound thought. Knowing the right people to listen to and having a code to go by – this is what I’m about. This is what I stand for. No, I’m not doing that. That will serve you through any kind of career turn. It’s always the same story though in the end.”
Debbie attributes life changes to some of their business moves. “I think some of our career changes were because something dramatic happened in our lives. Maybe a key player decided to move on to another position, or one aspect of the business turned to something else because of what the public wanted. What can I say? I’m not in charge of anything.”
“She’s in charge of everything!” Paul yells to an outburst of laughter from staff. “It’s not like one day you say, ‘well I’ve been running an automobile dealership and today I think I’ll build apartments.’ It’s not like that. It’s like one thing just morphs into another. Opportunities present themselves and you kind of wade into it a little bit and get a feel of it.”
Debbie nods pointing to the pile of painted canvases, “It’s the way he thinks. Who else in their right mind would buy a thousand pieces of art?”
“Anybody would buy this art. Anybody,” he quickly answers.
“No, no, no. They may buy a couple of pieces. They wouldn’t ask ‘how much will you charge to buy all of it?”
He asserts he could have walked away, but not without those paintings. He speaks of his discovery as an almost spiritual experience. “For me, something credible that you can put on your wall is rare. And, so when I say ‘who wouldn’t have bought them,’ that’s where I’m coming from. Here I am, trying to have something decent and affordable, and affordable is relative, but most folks aren’t going out to spend $100,000 or $200,000 on art for their wall. They typically don’t have the art knowledge, the money or a lot of things it takes to be able to do that and I’m one of them. But, to have something attractive and real on that brick wall (pointing to the canvas on his wall) it’s ok. Now, get the right interior decorator, the right fabrics and wall color, and it will cause people who see the art and ask, “Where did you get that?”
Paul is philosophical about his role as a finder of art in all of its forms. “So, my place in life is to find things and put them together and offer it.”
By Brigette Williams :: Photography by Jamison Mosley