This story is part of the Maine’s Progressive Business 2013 series. To read more historical retrospectives, click here.
Saliba’s stands today as a symbol of a business that has endured thanks to the values of its three-generation family ownership. What started as a rug-cleaning company in 1950 has become a nearly legendary Bangor business that today deals in all types of flooring, from rugs and carpets to ceramic, hardwood, and stone. But to understand how Saliba’s came to be, we have to go back before its founding.
William Christmas first appeared in the Bangor city directory with the occupation “pedler” [sic] in 1910. William worked as such for several years, eventually advertising that he dealt in “imported laces” in 1919. By 1925, he had a store at 85 Main Street.
By 1932, he’d expanded, doing embroidery, hemstitching, and stamping, and was operating out of the Coe Block. That year, Philip Christmas, apparently his son (they lived at the same address), worked for him as a clerk, and the following year they were on Columbia Street as rug dealers.
Business was good, and by 1947 the company had opened a rug-cleaning plant on South Main Street in Brewer to complement its rug-repair and rug-retail business in Bangor. That’s the first year Samuel Saliba appeared in the city directories.
The Flying Carpet Arrives
Samuel, a young man of Lebanese heritage who had been born in Georgia and raised in Florida, first visited Maine in 1939 — a trip that was a graduation gift from his Bangor-area relatives. He visited his cousin, Josephine Christmas, who was married to Philip, and he fell in love with the state. After serving four years in the U.S. Navy, he returned to Maine, taking a job working for the Christmas Rug Company. In 1947, he was listed as the company’s cleaning-plant foreman.
Sam bought the rug-cleaning business from Philip in 1950, on the condition that he wouldn’t go into rug sales while Philip and his brother Dewey were in business together; at that time, the Christmas Rug Company was said to be the largest rug-sales store in Maine. That was fine with Sam, who found great success in the cleaning business, and in 1953 he and his wife Ruth expanded their Birch Street facility, securing bank loans for the building and a new truck by putting their personal property on the line.
Sam hadn’t planned to be in that business. “As a young man, I had no interest in rugs — never in my life did I think I would be in the rug business,” Samuel told the Ellsworth American in 1979.
He may have planned to be in the music business. Samuel was a drummer in two dance bands: one was Sammy Saliba and the Southernaires, and the other was The Sammy Saliba Orchestra.
The Saliba’s “flying carpet” logo, which would become one of the most recognizable logos in Bangor, first appeared in an advertisement in 1957. Two years later, the company advertised as being a member of the National Institute of Rug Cleaners as well as being a Hoover dealer.
In 1960, the Christmas brothers did split up, so Sam and Ruth began purchasing rolls of broadloom and wall-to-wall carpet. From there on, the business changed dramatically.
Floor Paintings and More
Business grew quickly, and Sam even added a Waterville location by 1960 that lasted until 1964, but he did business in that area for some time after. Back in Bangor, he was soon out of room, so in 1962, he purchased the McLaughlin Warehouse on the Bangor Waterfront, which afforded them ample square footage. There, they began selling new and antique oriental rugs, which they had steered clear of for many years to avoid competing with their family at the Christmas Rug Company. But these rugs were the favorite part of Sam’s business.
“I call them floor paintings,” he told the Ellsworth American in 1979. “They’re works of art.”
Sam toured auctions across the Northeast to purchase well-kept antique oriental rugs for his showroom, and even worn rugs to use for repairing others.
Saliba’s always changed with the times, such as when Sam began dealing in quality draperies in the 1970s (which he’d continue until the mid-1980s). One big change came in 1978, when Sam sold the cleaning part of the business — what initially started him off — to Conrad Karam. Conrad was Sam’s employee, and continued to use the well-established Saliba’s name. (Conrad sold the cleaning business, which is still downstairs in the same building, to his son-in-law about 8 years ago. Conrad still comes by occasionally.)
Sam’s son Steve literally grew up in the business. He wouldn’t stay in nursery school, so spent much time at the store. During high school, he worked there as much as 40 hours a week outside of classes. Even before he enrolled at Husson College to pursue a business degree, Steve knew he wanted to be in the rug business. But fresh out of college in 1970, Stephen thought he knew everything.
“One of us had to leave, either my father or me, because I was way too smart,” he recalled with sarcasm. “I guess you know who left.”
Stephen and his new wife Marla relocated to Georgia, where they went into the commercial-carpet business. Despite his youthful naivete, Steve took with him the business principles his father had taught him: provide the best possible service, and always be fair and honest to the customer.
And, like Steve had in Bangor, his sons Robert and David grew up in the family carpet store. But they wouldn’t stay in Georgia.
A Wiser Son Returns
In 1985, Sam called his son, who by then had learned a lot in 15 years, to announce his retirement. Did Steve and Marla want to buy the business? They did indeed, and returned to Maine the following year.
It was a good mix. Where Sam had focused on sales and cleaning, Steve’s skills with commercial installation brought a new angle to the business: While the oriental rugs were the “fun part” of the business, as Steve told the BDN in 2000, commercial carpet paid the bills.
Today, nearly two-thirds of Saliba’s work is commercial, a big change from the beginning when very little was commercial. In the early days, there were several quality flooring companies in the area, including Sears & Roebuck, which had skilled people who knew their stuff. Today, Saliba’s faces little competition in the way of quality merchandise; aside from Carpet One, most carpet dealers don’t deal in the medium- to high-end rugs and carpeting Saliba’s carries. Steve says Saliba’s stays away from cheap flooring.
“We don’t delve into that,” Steve said. “We haven’t got the $5-a-yard carpet. You’re going to pay me more than that for labor, and that carpet isn’t going to last, and you’re not going to be very happy.”
Instead, the company continues to focus, as it always has, on quality merchandise that will last a long time — every kind of carpet from polypropylenes and nylons to high-end wools, every fiber and texture from berbers to plushes, and lots of commercial carpet. Carpet tile is big in the commercial world, as it makes renovations and repairs much easier and far less expensive.
And, of course, oriental rugs are still the store’s specialty. Saliba’s still deals in handmade oriental rugs, but the increase in quality of machine-woven orientals over the years have made the style more affordable.
A Strong Partnership
Salibas’s is also an example of a strong business partnership that has endured challenges. About 15 years ago, Steve and Marla divorced, but as they’d both invested heavily in the company, they continued as business partners. They’re good friends today, and have continued to keep Saliba’s successful through constant change. While Robert now lives in Georgia and is not in the carpet business, their son David is.
As a teenager, David worked many jobs away from Saliba’s: he pumped gas, made sandwiches at Bangor’s first Subway, and at age 15 was the first harbormaster when Bangor put the docks in. He separated himself from the family business to find his own identity, but at age 19 joined his parents there. That was 20 years ago.
Like his father before him, David has learned all aspects of the business, from selling to installing. And he’s learned the importance of only carrying quality merchandise, and says he’d rather give up a potential job than to do it poorly.
“We’d rather walk away, because we know it’s going to come back and haunt us a year or two down the road,” David said. “It can be the perfect installation, but if the material is garbage, you get what you pay for. We prefer not to go that route.”
On trips back to Maine when he was very young, David often went on deliveries with his grandfather, but Sam passed away before David could really see the master in action.
“Unfortunately, Sam left too soon,” said Marla. “But I think he’d be very proud of David.”
Saliba’s carries with it a reputation that has been built on three generations of quality and care. It’s the epitome of the kind of man Sam Saliba was.
“David’s a lot like his grandfather, Sam,” said his mother, Marla. “He has a big heart, he knows the business, he knows the rugs… he’ll take care of this business way into the future.”
Addendum: The Saliba’s Building
Saliba’s is located in a 138-year-old building that has quote a history of its own.
The building, long known as the McLaughlin Warehouse, was built in 1875 by Henry McLaughlin, who was in the business of “storage and commission,” according to the city directory from 1877-78. Henry had been an agent for the Lisbon Paper Mill in 1867-68.
The massive warehouse, surrounded by May, Front, and Pleasant Streets, was truly built like a tank, with hand-hewn timbers and 18-inch walls. But in the 1970s, when it was about a century old, the building was becoming unwieldy to heat. Its brick walls were very cold, and the many, many windows made it exceptionally drafty. It costs the Salibas $8,000 to heat the building during the winter of 1979 – when heating oil was about a buck a gallon. (That $8,000 would equate to more than $25,000 in 2012, adjusted for inflation.)
In 1980, Sam hired an engineer from the University of Maine and a local builder to renovate the building. The project framed in and boarded over 30 windows, sprayed a two-inch coat of urethane insulation on the entire outside of the building, and added a stucco finish to the walls. All this resulted in cutting Sam’s heating cost in half the following winter.
The building was long part of a deteriorating waterfront full of dilapidated structures, but in the past 25 years, ongoing renovations have transformed the area. Saliba’s is now located in a burgeoning section of Bangor, the waterfront that has found new life — a fitting legacy for the historic warehouse and for Saliba’s.