The Tehrani brothers, Reuben, Youda, and Benjamin, pass time at their Bryn Mawr rug store waiting for customers and sipping sugared tea, concerned about the drift of American feelings against Iranians but more fearful of the disastrous trends facing the family’s high-end rug business.
Last year, during the tensions with Iran, they changed the store’s name to Bryn Mawr Rugs from Tehrani Brothers to make it less Iranian-sounding, after Reuben heard “go home” from passing drivers. But the brothers called the police in December when someone vandalized the store facade’s Persian tiles.
A responding officer said that they should install a surveillance camera and that the department would boost patrols.
But added police protection and a new store name haven’t solved the Tehranis’ biggest problem: how to rejuvenate a rug business devastated by automation, millennials opting for modern designs, Amazon, and a rug glut with downsizing baby boomers unloading decorative Oriental rugs.
"Also, the Main Line changed,” Reuben Tehrani said with resignation. “The newer generation, they don’t have the feeling, you know, for fine Persian rugs.”
Not only on the Main Line, but everywhere.
Einstein Moomjy, the iconic New Jersey-based retailer with six stores there and in Manhattan, filed for bankruptcy protection in late 2011. Brothers Ted and Ernst Einstein and Walter and Albert Moomjy launched the business in 1955 in Bloomfield, N.J. When the firm liquidated its final inventory in April 2012, its website called it "the largest bankruptcy liquidation in the history of Oriental rugs.” Oriental refers broadly to decorative, hand-knotted rugs, while Persian describes those hand-knotted rugs from Iran. They could be modern or antique.
A 2016 New York Times article datelined from the cradle of the Persian rug business -- Shiraz, Iran -- talked about the effects of Iranian sanctions on rug exports and the growth of machine-made, or robo-tufted, rugs in China and India. The headline: “The Persian Rug May Not be Long for This World.” A New York Times article two years later didn’t do the industry any favors either: “The Rich Have Abandoned Rich-People Rugs.”
Roy Maloumian, a big Philadelphia-area dealer, shuttered his 15 stores in Pennsylvania, Texas, Florida, and Arizona over the last two years and has been liquidating inventory for many months in his Mount Airy warehouse. “I have closed those down and now I’m working my way out,” he said. The rug market “hasn’t been that bad," Maloumian said. "I’m closing. I’ll be 77 in March. It’s time to enjoy the sweet part of life.”
Maloumian agrees that millennials consume differently from boomers, but he believes the Oriental rug business could stabilize and "go back to a carriage trade” focusing on high-end buyers “instead of a mass market.”
Two-thirds of the 15 to 18 Oriental rug stores in the Philadelphia area have closed since the good times, Reuben Tehrani estimated.
Rug Insider editor Michael Christie dates the origin of the Oriental rug crisis facing the Tehrani brothers -- Orthodox Jews whose family lost almost everything when they fled Iran in the late 1970s -- to the last recession.
“All the crash of ’08 did was reveal that the hand-knotted rug market was buoyed by aspirational buyers who didn’t have the real financial means to buy the product," Christie said. "The hand-knotted market was lucky for the last 25 to 30 years to be riding on the housing bubble. And we were not prepared for that bubble to go away.”
Bankruptcies and closings pared the number of Oriental rug stores to hundreds in the United States from thousands, Christie said.
“In 2020, it’s who has the right size and the right time at the right price all over the world,” Christie said. "It’s all of these market forces conspiring against a business model that has not kept up with the times. We’re not a fast fashion product. We have a very old-world craft product that has not found its way in the modern world.”
Still, there are glimmers of hope. “I have a friend in Alabama who moves rugs like it’s still the 1980s," Christie said. “I don’t know how she does it.”
Paige Albright, proprietor of Paige Albright Orientals near Birmingham, Ala., said by email that she markets her business as “Why Knot?” -- a play on the words for hand-knotted Persian and Oriental rugs as compared with robo-tufted, machine-made rugs taking over the market. She says she isn’t afraid of new approaches such as selling “washed Persians” for customers seeking a new look.
She and her clients “have inherited our grandmothers’ pieces and they are sentimental, so we incorporate those and mix with new pieces. I am also selling contemporary rugs along with the antique pieces."
"It is about color, texture, pattern,” she added. “We might put a linear Tibetan with soft blue/grays next to a navy Heriz. ... It really is all about the mix. We will also put modern art and contemporary furniture on top of an antique Heriz.”
Reuben, Youda, and Benjamin Tehrani opened their first store in Rosemont in 1980 as the family rebuilt their lives in the United States after the Iranian revolution. Moshe, their father, sold his store and inventory in Iran. But the devalued Iranian currency meant that he came here with very little, Reuben said.
Seeking to connect with mansion-owning Main Liners, the brothers opened a concession inside Eadeh Rug in Wayne, which had opened in 1939. As the business grew, the brothers bought a building near the Wayne Hotel, in 1990. These were the Oriental rug go-go years. Wayne supported several stores.
In the late 1990s, the Tehrani brothers opened the second location in Bryn Mawr, hiring the architect who designed the former Shiraz restaurant in Devon. It looks today like a slice of Arabian Nights across from a Rite Aid.
Everybody was making money until the bottom fell out, along with the global financial system.
“In 2008 suddenly our business dropped very dramatically, like 65 to 70%, you know, our gross sales," Reuben said. “After 2008 we tried to hold on to the business of the two locations, but in 2011, we closed our main Wayne location, but we kept our Bryn Mawr location.”
The U.S. economy recovered from the financial shock. But the rug business limped along and the Tehrani brothers did what they could to survive financially, sometimes selling rugs at auction for revenue.
“As a rug enthusiast, I like more of the antique Persian traditional designs rather than these modern [designs]. But if the customer wants modern, we have modern,” Reuben said. “The kind of rug you find here is not the kind of rug you find on the Internet. ... We are a boutique-type of operation but we have outlet prices.”
After about an hour of interview with Youda and Reuben, no customer has entered the store. Reuben gets up and walks around, proudly showing off his stock. Antique rugs hang on the wall.
He climbs the stairs to the second floor, to a room filled with string-tied antique Persian rugs -- all discounted. Reuben points to a large rug that he could have sold for $100,000 a decade ago but has been marked down to $40,000. He admits he would consider $25,000, given the market.
For rugs that would have sold for $6,000, he would now consider $2,500. He also sells smaller rugs between $500 to $600. “They are the lowest prices ever in the history of the antique Persian rug market,” Reuben said.
Youda says he’s saddened by the rug decline. He has two children. Benjamin has four children, while Reuben has raised five children.
Reuben said that the brothers close their store on Saturdays to observe the Sabbath and for holidays such as Rosh Hashanah.
“If we were not very religious, we would close the place," he said. "But we also love the business. I don’t know anything else to do. People tell me things have changed. But I say: 'Listen, if God wants to help me, he will help me. He has helped me so far.’ ”