New Haven

Magic carpets

The Kebabian family has sold rugs—and attended Yale—for 131 years.

Mark Ostow

Mark Ostow

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John Kebabian, owner of Kebabian’s Oriental Rugs, on Elm Street, has an office. But when he sat down for an interview, he settled onto a pile of rugs in the middle of the showroom. Yes, the rugs are plush hand-knotted creations from Persia (now Iran), Pakistan, Nepal, Tibet, and other great centers of rug making, but more to the point, Kebabian loves his rugs.

A serapi rug hanging on the showroom wall was made in the 1880s; a prayer mat hanging on an adjacent wall dates to the early 1800s. To say Kebabian’s—said to be the oldest oriental rug importer and dealership in America—is steeped in history is an understatement, and it’s not just the antique rugs. The business was founded in 1882 by Kebabian’s great-great-uncle and namesake; his family had sent him from Turkey to the United States so he could attend Yale College, but when he got there, he needed money. John’s younger brother, Sarkis, arrived later and worked in the store while John went to school (and sold rugs out of his dorm room). When John graduated, in 1888, Sarkis went to Yale while John ran the store. (Sarkis graduated in 1894; John’s son, Paul, was next to attend.) Meanwhile, the eldest brother, Hampartzoom, stayed in Turkey, buying rugs and shipping them to New Haven. Choosing the right rugs is “really the most important part of the business,” says Kebabian, the fourth-generation owner. “The rugs talk to the customers.”

Kebabian’s was originally located on Orange Street, but moved to its present location in 1915. A few decades later, says Kebabian, “my grandfather”—Hampartzoom’s son—“put down a $500 deposit to buy it. Everyone said, “It’s the Depression; there’s no future there,’ but my grandfather was an immigrant. He saw it differently; he saw opportunity.”

Today, the building holds a breathtaking array of rugs. They are stacked in the showroom, piled on shelves, hanging on walls, and standing in rolls around the perimeter of the room. Most are the hard work of weavers from northern Pakistan and Afghanistan. “They love us,” Kebabian says. “We’re taking care of them and they’re taking care of us. It’s almost like a big family. I go over there as often as I can.” He’s planning to go back to Afghanistan after the new year.

Through the decades, Yale has been a loyal Kebabian’s customer. Kebabian says his family’s rugs, many of them custom-made, have graced the Law School, the president’s residence and office, the residential college common rooms, and the masters’ offices. “We’re not just merchants,” he adds. “We’re creating works of art for the floor.”

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