Keshishian family rolls out its carpet, even at the White House

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Keshishian family rolls out its carpet, even at the White House

Jeffrey Staggs The Washington Times;

October 6, 1993, Wednesday, Final Edition

The warp on a rug loom goes up and down. The weft goes side to side. It's easy to remember, says James Keshishian: "It goes weft to right."

times23hjm.jpg (30643 bytes)Bad mnemonic puns aside, this man with the mischievous sense of humor knows his rugs.

Mark Keshishian & Sons has been dealing, appraising and restoring Oriental rugs in Chevy Chase since 1931. Mark Keshishian started the business in Istanbul in 1907, brought it here in 1930 and ran it until his death in 1985. (Wife Margaret died in 1983.) His sons James, 68, and Harold, 64, run the business today with James' son Mark, 31.

Some of their rugs have found their way onto some pretty elite floors.

They list as clients the White House, Blair House and the State Department building at 2201 C St. NW.

It's not official. James says his father was approached for service by Franklin D. Roosevelt's housekeeper, and the family has dealt with every president since.

The family prefers not to talk about it, for fear it might be construed as "bragging."

"We have always quietly served with pleasure," James says. "We've gone out of our way, and we'll go anytime. . . . It's an honor and a privilege. And we never, ever gouge."

While they'll admit there are stories aplenty, discretion prevents telling them. However, James will say that now that Hillary Rodham Clinton has banned smoking in the White House, he hasn't had to fix holes "from you reporters grinding out your cigarettes in the rugs."

"On one occasion, we were supplanted by another firm," James says, without disclosing who or when. The competition couldn't come through when an emergency arose, so the Keshishian's were called to the rescue, thus supplanting the supplanters.

Administrations come and go, but Democrats and Republicans alike have enlisted the services of the Keshishian's. What's the reason?

"Unquestionably dependability," Harold says "Our references are good," James says. "Knowledge of the subject. I don't think any store has more knowledge than our family."

Those who want to compare them to other rug dealers don't have to go far. There are a half-dozen dealers on Wisconsin Avenue NW within two blocks of Mark Keshishian & Sons.

"When we moved here, there wasn't anybody here," Mark says. "It was right about the time of the [Iranian] revolution that all these small rug dealers started popping up . . . I think a lot of people were getting out of Iran.

"It was sort of the bazaar mentality: Rug stores next to each other bring more people. It's thinned out quite a bit. I'm surprised the area's supporting as many [rug dealers] as it is."

times21mk.jpg (109810 bytes)Their reputation certainly helped the Keshishian's survive this invasion. That reputation certainly has something to do with their abilities as salesmen.

"He does like to talk," Mark says of his father with a mischievous grin. "He's a great salesman."

True enough, the engaging, gregarious James could sell rugs to people who live in trees.

"We have a variety of rugs," he says, launching into the sales pitch. "We have collectors' rugs. We have rugs of museum quality. We have rugs from Turkey, Persia or Iran, Romania, Yugoslavia, Albania, North Africa, Egypt, Morocco, China. We have sizes that should solve anybody's needs."

Harold is more reluctant to talk. It hasn't always been that way, he says. Part of the reason for his new-found shyness is that he was appointed by President Bush to the Cultural Property Advisory Committee and doesn't want inadvertently to say anything that might jeopardize that prestigious placement.

He repeatedly directs the conversation Mark's way, and James insists that his son get "equal billing." It's clear Mark is being groomed to take the reins.

"Sometimes they step back, and sometimes they intercede," Mark says. "I don't see them stepping back anytime soon." The reason his father and uncle are staying put, he says and they agree, is that they enjoy it too much.

times22mk.jpg (9949 bytes)"I just started working part time when I was finishing up school," says Mark, who graduated with a degree in finance from American University in 1985. His inclusion into the family business "kind of just happened. You learn a little every day. I learned most of it through osmosis, just by being around."

There is pressure, he says, to keep up the family tradition and maintain the exclusive clientele.

"I'll just try to keep it the way it's been going," he says. "Some people say, 'You should go out and do special sales in malls.' I think that's more for the fly-by-night guys. Maybe I'm more conservative than the other guys."

The building at 4505 Stanford St. in Chevy Chase is unassuming, like any other Oriental rug store. Piles of the things, arranged according to size, cover the floor, while others stand rolled and tied against the wall.

"We have rugs that are 150 years old and usable, to brand-new," James says. The price range is $50 per square foot and up for Persian (Iranian) rugs and $50 and down for others.

One reason for the price difference, he says, is an executive order from Ronald Reagan prohibiting the importing of Iranian oil, pistachios and rugs. So there are no new ones on the legitimate market. That hasn't stopped smugglers from trying to bring in illegal rugs. James and Harold have been asked to inspect rug shipments for contraband.

"There are glaring stories about those who make end runs around the government," James says.

The repair shop is located on the second floor, where five full-time restorers work.

"We do a lot of restoration," Harold says, estimating they do "thousands" of jobs a year. There are dozens of rugs piled up waiting for repair.

He rolls open a recently repaired rug. It looks pretty good for being 200 years old. Then there's a tapestry that "for some reason" was cut into two pieces, waiting to be made whole again. It's about 350 years old, he says.

On the office walls and in scrap books are photos and correspondence from presidents and other dignitaries. Bookshelves hold copies of magazine articles about the Keshishian's, some written by them. Both James and Harold have published articles and give lectures on the rug business.

"We're all internationally known appraisers and connoisseurs," James says. "We have people come to us from the four corners of the globe."

He calls hello to a customer browsing at the far end of the shop. "She'd been looking for a rug for three weeks," he says. "We found it for her in two days."

Their business also benefits, they say, from being located in a cosmopolitan city like Washington.

"People become informed and sophisticated in collecting rugs," James says. "They've visited places where rugs are made. And we're fortunate to have the Textile Museum in Washington."

The Keshishian's can look at a rug, any Oriental rug, and tell you where it was made - including the village. It seems astonishing to an untrained observer, especially when they explain that designs and techniques are traded and copied.

"Designs would get passed up and down the Silk Road, which was like the Route 66 of the ancient world," James says. "Designs from one area would show up in another because enterprising traders would seek new sources. Copy, copy, copy. Everybody copies each other."

But they play down their ability to determine rug origins.

"I could teach you," Harold says. "In four months I could make you dangerous," he jokes.

Their knowledge is based on decades of experience and good old book learning. All three are college-educated, so they can tell you how the water pH of a rug-making village will affect the quality of the finished product and other minute details of rug making.

"Herodotus and Marco Polo remarked about a certain dye called kermes," James says, by way of example. "This is a dye extracted from the skeletal remains of a beetle found at the base of Mount Ararat. They grind it up, and it makes a powerful red dye."

Founder Mark Keshishian was Armenian, born in the Turkish town of Hadjin in 1894, in an area known as Armenia Minor. His sons are active in the Armenian-American community.

"One characteristic of Armenians is that they are very loyal to the country that adopts them," says James, referring to the emigrations that took place during Armenia's domination by the Ottoman Empire and the Soviet Union. "They never had a place to go back to. . . . For the first time in recent history, we have a home."

Accordingly, James was born in Belgium, Harold in London and their brother John on the Greek island of Corfu.

They are American patriots to the bone. James says he had two operations at age 17 so that he could serve in the U.S. Army. Harold served in the U.S. Navy. John, 70, also served in the Navy and is a former president of the medical and dental staff at Washington Hospital Center.

"I will never, ever buy anything but an American car," James says. He and his wife, Elsa, have been married 32 years and have three children, including Mark.

"Ain't she a good-looking woman?" James asks rhetorically. "I don't know how I landed her, but she's not going to get off the hook, I can tell you that."

Harold and his wife, Melissa Megee, have four children. Mark is single.

They have a hobby that helps them hold on to their Armenian heritage: collecting Oriental rugs (there's a surprise) with Armenian inscriptions on them.

"We collect rugs that come from traditional areas that the Azeri's claim as theirs," James says, referring to the ongoing war between Armenia and Azerbaijan for the predominantly Armenian enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh.

"I have a rug which has the floor plan of an Armenian cathedral built in 670. We were there first. We feel like the American Indians from time to time."

That's not to say the Keshishian's dwell on the past.

"We're like mailmen," James says. "We're always leaning forward, trying to get there. With a smile.

"Hey, I like that! I just made that up.