Baltimore City rowhouses are often mysteries, be they homes or museums, burnt libraries or corner shops. Open the door to Jim Dulkerian’s Calvert Street rowhouse, which doubles as Dulkerian’s Persian Rug Co. Inc., and you’ll find the 102-year-old business, in an 1868 house the size of a ship’s galley.
Inside, there are the chandeliers, tin ceilings, and marble fireplaces of old Mt. Vernon. The first floor is layered with a few hundred carpets, laid out in a variety of manners: They’re stacked like furniture or rolled; tied and tagged like presents; and hung like tapestries—both for display and because traditional carpets have always functioned like blankets, to warm a space, a wall, even a person. (Historians believe Persian rugs evolved from actual blankets, as nomadic tribes needed them for themselves, their tents, or their animals.) They’re expensive, decorative, even exquisite, but essentially pragmatic pieces.
Since 1958, this rowhouse has been the home of the Dulkerian family’s third-generation Armenian-American rug business.
“We never left the city,” says Dulkerian, 65, who now runs the shop by himself. “Everyone else did. [The other rug dealers] left in the ’60s, after the first riots, and, you know, they never came back.”
Dulkerian’s shop is as weathered as its owner’s favorite carpets and, like them, it endures. His carpets have distinct names and origins: There are Serapi, Kerman, and Sarouk rugs from various regions of Persia, present-day Iran—freighted by boat or FedExed, or, since the recent embargo on products from Iran, recirculated—and some from India, Pakistan, China, Turkey, and Morocco. Times and tastes may change, but there will always be a market for these works of art, be they modern, aged, or properly antique—100 years or more in the world of rugs. That’s because rugs have always been more than comfortable flooring—they’re investments, heritable wealth, reliable house-warming gifts, practical furniture, in some cases even elaborate table clothing. And even if they’re new, or newish, they come with established patterns of history.
Dulkerian’s grandfather Aram Gasaros arrived in the U.S. in 1917 from Yozgat, Turkey, fleeing the Turkish persecution of Armenians—gatewaying through Ellis Island, and settling first in Philadelphia, then in Baltimore, where in 1921 he started the United Oriental Rug Co. at Charles and 20th streets. In the ’50s, Aram consolidated his operation with another Persian rug company and moved the shop to its present address at 919 N. Calvert Street. Dulkerian’s father, Aram Gasaros Jr., grew up in the business. When Aram Jr. died in 2004 at the age of 78, Baltimore Sun reporter Jacques Kelly wrote of his preteen years: “His father put him in charge of a crew of Bethlehem Steel workers”—the Baltimore steel mill workers were hired for their availability, strength, and work ethic—“who made extra money by hand-washing and lifting the heavy rugs.”
Though the family was not in the rug trade in Turkey, it was part of the culture, says Jim Dulkerian, who in turn grew up in the business, too. When his father died, Jim’s mother—the late Jean Stottlemyer Dulkerian—took over the company. “And then I took over after that.”
Toward the back of the open first-floor showroom sits the work station where Dulkerian repairs rugs—it’s the same wooden desk where his mother, a Baltimore apprentice to an invisible cadre of Old World artisans, first taught herself to mend them. A row of loose wool hangs above the desk in a muted yarn rainbow. There’s another fireplace, with a gas stove nested inside. A few metal lanterns hang from the ceiling between the chandeliers: once gas, now electric.
On the opposite wall from the fireplace—Dulkerian’s own work desk sits in the middle of the rowhouse-narrow first floor—hangs a painting of his late father’s two Irish wolfhounds. Next to the dogs hangs a framed photograph of his parents at the shop’s previous location. His father, a fez on his head, sits astride a horse; his mother stands beside them both, smiling. Dulkerian makes his way through a stack of rugs, explaining what he sees.
“If I find an older rug that has holes in it and I don’t want to repair it, I’ll sell it to a guy in New York. People may think it’s junk,” he says. It is not. He scans the stacks like a librarian, looking for older rugs, some of which were owned by his father, even his grandfather. Because rugs get passed around, traded, bought and sold, rehomed like lost dogs, they can sometimes even find their way back to their original homes.
What moves the rugs? Issues of repair, value, necessity. And who moves them? These days, often just Dulkerian, a tall, stately man with a thick thatch of white hair and nimble, capable grace. He assesses all the rugs, cleaning them, either repairing them himself or sending them out for repair if more work is needed. While he sells modern, older, and genuinely antique rugs, of various provenances and histories, carpets that are either dauntingly expensive or surprisingly affordable (from tens of thousands for a mint-condition antique to $1,500 for a newer Karaja hallway runner; a vintage Sarouk the size of a shepherd-dog bed can go for as little as $75)—it’s the older rugs that make both him and his repeat customers the happiest.
“New rugs are like commodity items; you can’t make money on new rugs, your value is like a car where it goes down, till it gets to a certain age,” he says. “When I say new, they may be 10 years old but not ever used; what I would call a new rug is under 30 years—it may be used but it’s still a new rug to me. An older rug is 80 years. Semi-antique is 50; 100 years is an antique. But when I’m looking for older rugs, I’m looking for classic pieces, 80 years or older.”
Dulkerian moves among the carpets, migrating from economics to history like a museum docent. If it seems like he’s treasure hunting, he is.
“I’d like to have a hundred Serapis here and I’d be okay,” he says, referring to the Persian antiques he most loves. “This is what I call a Baltimore rug,” he says, pointing to a stunning carpet in patterns of muted crimson and cornflower blue, “because it’s geometrical, which does well in this town. As opposed to a very formal piece that you might find in Washington, like a silk rug or Nain, a very fine Tabriz.”
He rattles off the names—Senneh, Karaja, Isfahan—each as beautiful as the carpets. While the names tell region or tribe, the rugs themselves tell purpose, age, whether hand-knotted, silk, or wool.
“A Serapi is a Heriz from the 1890s; it’s geometric, it has less detail, the scale’s bigger, there’s more open field between the design. It’s in demand with the decorators,” he continues. “The public loves these kinds of rugs. They have patina from age, you can’t get from…” he pauses mid-sentence, considering how much detail to get into, the way a teacher will gauge students’ attention span. “Some of these rugs, they take a blowtorch to them to make them look old. They’ll burn a hole in it.” He moves on, listing as he goes. Some of the rugs aren’t rugs at all: some are saddle- bags, one even has a lock built into it. “This is a Chinese design; it’s actually a Nichols design. That’s a Feraghan. This was one of my father’s rugs, and I know who did this,” he says, motioning to an invisible fix in the intricate pattern, “one of the repair ladies before my mother.”
“THIS IS AN OLD HERIZ OR SERAPI. IT’S EVERYTHING: IT’S ART. THEY’RE WORKS OF ART THAT WE WALK ON.”
As he speaks, Dulkerian opens a door and goes down the narrow staircase that leads to a basement storage room like a root cellar. There’s open wooden shelving and a few rolled rugs; more twine, more tags. Then into the two big rooms that house the cleaning operation, with cement floors and drains in the corners. The high ceilings house Steampunk-style systems of rods and levers for washing and drying the carpets. In the drying room, two huge Sarouk rugs hang, still faintly damp, with deep colors and patterns like the ornate tapestries you might find in an art gallery or monastery. The rugs get washed, rolled like cigarettes, carried. The drying rooms were built in the ‘60s.
“Not many of them left,” he says. Dulkerian narrates as he goes—practiced at the pitch and sell, the history—detouring into a story about rug spies who, he says, for a time watched his operation from the alley behind the drying rooms, trying to sort out how his family ran the kind of business that had survived while so many others had shuttered.
And survived it has, thanks to generations of Dulkerians, their carpets, and those who keep buying them. Jim Dulkerian can list his favorite clients with the same detail as he keeps an inventory of his rugs. There are repeat customers from his grandfather’s and father’s time, Baltimore folks, Eastern Shore families, customers from tony D.C., and then there’s the Boone family, direct descendants of Daniel Boone.
“He had the best collection of Chinese rugs,” Dulkerian says, describing a Boone family member, a man as tall as Wes Unseld Sr., who wore a top hat and a red cape and kept peacocks.
Years ago, during his father’s time, the Dulkerians and their crew would swap out the Boone winter rugs for the family’s summer rugs, cleaning them, and rolling them up for seasonal storage. “He had dragon rugs, antique, 100 years older than this one,” Dulkerian continues, pointing to a rug of his own.
“My favorite is Heriz. I beat out my husband’s taste for florals and went straight for the geometric,” says Brande Neese, who’s been getting rugs from Dulkerian for over 30 years for houses in Bolton Hill and Cambridge. “I think about whole families sitting around for a year making these rugs,” says Neese, a retired designer, “and it’s incredible. It’s an incredible thing to be dealing in, and Jim knows everything.”
Back upstairs, Dulkerian continues his tour. “This is an old Heriz or Serapi. It’s everything: It’s art. They’re works of art that we walk on,” he says. Of another rug with a vast, intricate mosaic of deep colors: “This is a Serapi, 1890s. I put some money into it for repairs, reweaving and such.” Asked how much it’s worth now, he pauses, maybe doing some math in his head, or just cataloging cumulative family inventory. “It’s a matter of opinion. It could be $30,000 or $40,000. Prices have dropped, so this is now a $20,000 rug; I’d like to get more, but that’s what the market says it is.”
He feels the edge, then lifts a corner of a noticeably darker, denser carpet that’s heavy as metal, thick as grass. “This is a Bijar, the so-called Iron Rug. It’s so heavy that you need a couple people to lift it,” he says. “Some of the newer Bijars we’ll put in hotel lobbies, they’ll just take so much traffic.”
Dulkerian’s grandparents lived behind the previous rug store’s location and when the store relocated, so did they.
“And this is where my father would wash the rugs with the Bethlehem Steel Workers,” he says, remembering The Sun obit. “I don’t know the story of how they washed rugs down on 20th Street, but they used to wash rugs, roll them up in these poles. Dragging up them up the back steps. Putting them on the roof to dry. Imagine that.”
He considers the labor issues he and so many other small business owners face now, how difficult it is to find help, how the foot traffic that once filled Calvert Street is mostly gone.
Dulkerian recalls how his father’s wolfhounds would sit like lions inside the enormous picture window filling the front of the shop. Just behind the window, another massive rug hangs like a stage curtain—it’s both an effective advertisement and an actual curtain to keep the bright sunlight from fading the inventory. The shop is at once a stronghold, a memory palace, an artisans’ museum, a carpet- cleaning-and-rug-storage operation—and now, a business with an uncertain future, as Dulkerian’s two children have chosen other careers. But uncertainty is a part of any business.
“When the pandemic hit, the old customers came out and bought rugs,” says Dulkerian. “They get it. They know that they have a civic duty to keep things going, and they did. The families that we deal with every year are the greatest people in Baltimore.”