Oriental rug business remains staple among Spokane retailers
A century ago, three Armenian brothers – Megar, Arott and Onnig Kirishian – worked in their father’s cottage industry, weaving rugs for export to Europe and America.
When World War I broke out, the new Ottoman government in Istanbul grew suspicious of Armenians and launched a genocide in 1915.
The young Kirishian brothers fled to America, and in 1920 moved to Spokane, where they began selling Persian, Chinese and Turkish rugs in a shop on the corner of First Avenue and Howard Street.
Onnig’s son, Richard, took over the business four decades ago at age 19 when his father died, and continues the family tradition at Richard Kirishian Imported Rug Co., 220 E. Second Ave.
He discussed the rug trade and offered advice for maintaining Oriental rugs during a recent interview.
S-R: What brought your father and his two brothers to Spokane in 1920?
Kirishian: They wanted to hunt and fish, and get away from the uncles they worked for in Portland.
S-R: How was business?
Kirishian: Really good the first 10 years, because of the area’s mining wealth. They filled a lot of big homes with rugs. Then the Depression hit and the store couldn’t support three families. So Arott, the youngest brother, moved to Seattle and started his own business. In 1950, my dad broke away from the other brother and started O.S. Kirishian Rugs on the corner of Second and Wall.
S-R: What’s your earliest recollection of the family business?
Kirishian: I know my mother brought me down to the store when I was a baby, and I would sleep until it was time to go home on the bus. Later, I remember playing in the rug bins. I must have been about 10 when I started sweeping floors and washing the sidewalk, and eventually cleaning and repairing rugs.
S-R: What lessons did your dad teach you?
Kirishian: One was that when you get a beautiful antique rug, sell it first and fall in love with it later, because once you fall in love with a rug, it’s difficult to part with at any price.
S-R: Did you always assume you’d take over the business some day?
Kirishian: Not at all. I was in college, studying marketing. Running the business didn’t occur to me until my dad died when I was 19. My mother had to hold my hand until I got my footing, and I bought her out when she retired.
S-R: Did you appreciate rugs from the start?
Kirishian: I thought they were intriguing. I remember crawling on our living-room rug as a little boy, using the border lines as roadways for my toy cars. And I would shoot marbles across the rug and try to get them to stop in a certain area. But I didn’t become infatuated with rugs until much later, when I developed an eye for quality.
S-R: How has the business evolved since you took over in 1973?
Kirishian: Production has shifted to different countries. China’s economy, for the most part, has moved on to bigger things. Turkey’s standard of living has risen to the point where its rugs are pricey. India started producing rugs in the ’60s and is still very reliable. Pakistan started making rugs about 25 years after India, and Afghanistan has been making inroads in the past decade. Iran has stuck with it the longest.
S-R: The U.S. has traditionally been a big importer of Iranian rugs (also known as Persian rugs), but current sanctions prohibit their import. What impact, if any, has that had?
Kirishian: Other countries have taken up the slack, so the embargo hasn’t affected the price of Oriental rugs.
S-R: What does the phrase Oriental rug refer to?
Kirishian: Hand-knotted, hand-tied rugs that are 100 percent wool, silk or camel hair. They don’t have to be from the Orient – they can be from the Middle East.
S-R: Can a machine-made rug be considered an Oriental rug?
Kirishian: No, but it can be an Oriental-style rug.
S-R: Do you sell only Oriental rugs?
Kirishian: We sell them all – tufted, machine-made. But our forte is hand-knotted.
S-R: Does an economy have to be somewhat Third World to support the production of hand-knotted rugs?
Kirishian: Definitely. This is why we’ve seen the huge shift out of China and Turkey, and we’ll see it out of India someday. Then the supply will start to cave, because Pakistan and Afghanistan cannot sustain enough production.
S-R: How long does it take someone to produce a 9- by 12-foot hand-knotted rug?
Kirishian: Anywhere from 237 to 508 days, depending on knots per square inch.
S-R: How much would the weaver earn?
Kirishian: Between $2 and $3 a day.
S-R: And how much would that rug sell for here?
Kirishian: Anywhere from $2,700 to $4,000.
S-R: Do you travel to buy rugs?
Kirishian: I go to India, Pakistan and Nepal once a year, and usually bring back 200 to 400 rugs.
S-R: Is Spokane a good rug market?
Kirishian: It’s a fair rug market. We have the old homes that can accommodate rugs, and fortunately there are some Seattle, California and East Coast people moving here who know how to decorate and use rugs well. The best thing for rug sales is when expensive new homes are selling.
S-R: What sales trends have you seen during your career?
Kirishian: The introduction of wall-to-wall carpet in the 1960s really hurt the rug business. The ’90s were unbelievably good, thanks to a real-estate boom. The past 10 years have been fair.
S-R: Have tastes also changed?
Kirishian: Yes, especially during the past six to eight years. The traditional rugs – the reds and blues – used to represent almost 100 percent of Oriental rug sales in this country. Now they’re down to 50 percent, and the other 50 percent are new colors and more modern, linear, Frank Lloyd Wright kinds of designs. Customers over 45 tend to want a piece of art. Younger shoppers buy rugs based on color, not origin or whether they’re hand-made or machine-made. They just want the look.
S-R: How has your competition changed over the years?
Kirishian: The disposable rug industry – tufted rugs – are gaining market share. Tufted rugs last 10 years, give or take, until the glue dries out, and then people replace them.
S-R: Do you sell rugs online?
Kirishian: Not really. Our website isn’t very user-friendly for shoppers, although we do offer service work and free shipping online. We may eventually cultivate more Internet sales, if I don’t retire first.
S-R: When older people downsize, what happens to their rugs?
Kirishian: Either the kids get them or they try to sell them. I occasionally take good rugs on consignment for 25 percent.
S-R: How can consumers distinguish between hand-knotted and machine-made rugs?
Kirishian: If it’s hand-knotted, the rug will be slightly irregular. Machine-made rugs are very straight and even.
S-R: How long will each last?
Kirishian: A well-made machine rug will perform for 50 years, and a hand-knotted rug maybe twice that long.
S-R: How much do you charge to clean rugs, and what’s involved?
Kirishian: We charge $3.75 a square foot, and it’s a weeklong, six-step, water-immersion process.
S-R: What’s hard on rugs?
Kirishian: Sand and grit more than walking on it. South-facing summer sun can also be hard on rugs. And pets – they’re our best friends. About 50 percent of our rug spa work involves removing pet stains.
S-R: How important are mats?
Kirishian: They’re important for safety and comfort, and act as shock absorbers to help the rug last 25 percent longer. The best natural rubber pads run $1.50 to $2.15 a square foot, and last about 10 years.
S-R: What’s the best argument for buying an Oriental rug?
Kirishian: Life is short, and when you live with a beautiful Oriental rug, you never grow tired of it. Every day you see something different.
Spokane freelance writer Michael Guilfoil can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.