John Kebabian’s desk is in the corner of the storefront, almost hidden behind a pile of small rugs. It lacks modern technological gadgets, including a computer. Here, John neatly records transactions by hand on spreadsheets collected in a black binder. The whole interior of the store has an old quality about it, reminding customers that Kebabian’s Oriental Rugs has been in John’s family for more than a century. It is clean, with hardwood floors, solid white walls, and a high ceiling adorned with a pattern of white tiles that are elegant in their simplicity. The plainness emphasizes the vibrant colors and chaotic patterns of the rugs.
In the back of the store sits a brand new 21-inch Apple desktop computer, which John’s wife Peggy says they invested in so their “Web site guy” can help them create and edit video blog posts. Every week, Peggy posts a short video called “Rug of the Week” to Kebabian’s Facebook page in which John tells the story of the chosen rug. She herself is also updating the store’s Web site. The new site’s launch date is November 1, and Peggy excitedly tells me it will be totally redesigned, complete with a virtual tour of the store.
The store’s red bricks stand out among the pale pink and gray and white of its neighbors on Elm Street, drawing attention to bold white paint on the side wall that proudly proclaims Kebabian’s, the name of John’s great-great uncle, also called John. The first John Kebabian was an Armenian who had attended Robert College, a school for expatriate children in the former Constantinople. He arrived in New Haven in 1882 as a Yale College student. In those days, Yale did not offer financial aid, so he sold oriental rugs to pay for his tuition.
The current John Kebabian took over the store in 1992, abandoning his molecular biophysics and biochemistry degree at Yale’s Graduate School of Arts and Sciences when his father retired due to illness. He had planned to work as a medical researcher and teacher before taking over the business. Now he purchases high-quality hand-woven rugs from Central Asian countries, including Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Mongolia, and Tibet.
John has continued the store’s tradition of repairing rugs by hand. Although sewing machines make repairing rugs easier and faster, the result is inferior, he says. The methods used at Kebabian’s may seem outdated and time-consuming, but they are thorough.
Marcy Kebabian, John’s sister, is mending a rug. “We don’t use machines here,” Marcy clarifies, her hands busy with invisible stitches. “This rug here? The guy is giving it to his son, but he wants it repaired first. I have to do the invisible stitch because it’s double-sided, so you wouldn’t want to see the stitch on either side.” She bends her head close to the rug, illuminated by a bright lamp, and deftly makes a stitch.
Even when cleaning the rugs, the store uses the method that has been in place for decades. Though machines are available that wash rugs, they aren’t thorough enough, especially when used on the handwoven rugs Kebabian’s sells. John proudly shows me the vacuum cleaners the staff uses instead. “You can’t even find these anywhere anymore!” John says. Indeed, they look like props taken from the set of Mad Men, the television show set in the 1960s: a silver pole connected to the suction piece, with a big red bag hanging from the back to collect the dust. The store’s traditions can mean hard work for the staff. “I can eat whatever I want, because it’s a workout every day here,” says Craig Tyska, who has worked at Kebabian’s for many years.
All the same, Peggy is working to modernize the stubbornly old-fashioned store’s branding and media presence. “We’re trying to bring things up to date. We have such great products, and we want to use all this new social technology to get the word out, bring the caliber of our media resources up to that of our rugs,” she says. If she succeeds, she’ll have demonstrated that new media doesn’t necessarily mean the end of old traditions.