ICS Magazine

Family's rug cleaning company has stayed put for generations

March 20, 2009
Inside a two-story brick building, you'll find Ellen Amirkhan, her parents and a dozen employees cleaning and repairing rugs – pretty much as her grandfather did when he rolled out the business 98 years ago.

DALLAS – March 17, 2009 (Dallas Morning News) -- New townhomes speak to renewal along Ross Avenue. Cleared land, empty buildings and fenced-off lots nearby suggest a transition in waiting.

City zoning rules are forcing out automotive businesses and channeling development toward a pedestrian-friendly stretch of housing and retail east of downtown – ideally creating, as some would have it, a respectable gateway to the city's Arts District.

But at 3907 Ross, in the middle of it all, change won't be part of the program.

There, inside a two-story brick building, you'll find Ellen Amirkhan, her parents and a dozen employees cleaning and repairing rugs – pretty much as her grandfather did when he rolled out the business 98 years ago.

"That was his. It's been in use since Day One," she says of a four-wheeled, rug-toting cart awaiting another load. "That's the original wood."

H. Mirza Amirkhan, a Turkish-born Armenian, fled his homeland after the slaying of his parents and learned the rug-cleaning trade from a cousin in Cincinnati. Looking for a city with enough people and no competition, he came to Dallas in 1911, setting up shop at 2105 S. Ervay St.

Eight years later, Amirkhan had moved to the plant he built at 3907 Ross. He added an adjoining building in 1926 – upstarts in a neighborhood thick with homes and a scattering of businesses.

Gone are the Gills and Myers, the Careys and Brookses, the Texas Co. gasoline station No. 3, Clanton's Drug Store, La France Bakery Co., Lang Floral.

All but the Amirkhan family's Oriental Rug Cleaning Co.

"This is the room that time forgot," says Mirza Amirkhan Jr., entering the office, his workplace for more than half a century.

His father's roll-top desk stands along a wall. The mounted tarpon he landed off Port Isabel, Texas, in 1936 dominates another one, above the manual Royal typewriter used to tap out invoices. His wife, Inez, double-checks those billings and helps answer the phone. Mirza Jr., a lawyer by training, took over the company in 1954, a year before his father's death. He passed it to daughter Ellen in the mid-1980s. Her typewriter is a laptop computer.

Planning to teach, perhaps coach track, she helped at the shop after her father's heart attack 29 years ago and never left. She has become a national authority on rug care and cleaning, publishing a guidebook, leading seminars, providing certified appraisals.

And she's the hands-on boss lady of a seriously hands-on operation.

Customers include multiple generations of the same family and other rug-cleaning companies that farm out orders. Action central is a cavernous room with concrete floor, posts and ceiling, barred windows and brick walls painted white – a place built to last.

The workers and machinery have changed over the years. But the process remains basic and timeless: Dirty rugs are dusted, washed, rinsed, groomed and dried.

"These are the bad boys right here. Dog urine. Cat urine," says Dock Johnson, pointing at two challenges soaking in deodorizer.

They next will be laid on the floor for soaping, brushing and power-wash rinsing. The rugs then will be fed through a compression rinser-ringer, built for the company in 1959, before brushing and drying, inside or out, depending on the weather.

"You Hoover them, roll 'em up and put them in the bin for the moolah," says a winking, cackling Johnson, carrying his latest finish in 13 years of rugs, his voice competing with whirring fans and pressure sprays.

He or Omer Delic or Donnie Ray (37 years on the job) will handle the washing and feed the ringer, with its squeezing cylinders. As needed, the boss will step in.

"I can knock out 40 to 50 in a day," Ellen says. "That's pedal to the metal."

She or plant manager Armen Dohanian, a fourth-generation rug specialist from Boston, also tackles the delicate or troublesome pieces.

Not only can stains run deep, but mass-produced rugs – sometimes with glue instead of sewing and materials other than wool, cotton or silk – can be less durable and more difficult to clean.

And when a rug needs repair, it's hand-stitched by a crew working at tables near the front door – near the August 1934 calendar featuring President Franklin D. Roosevelt and the picture from the 1929 national rug-cleaning convention and the 1948 radio-record player and the Texas Longhorn footballs and all the other mementos.

If hand work won't do, Ellen can fire up the serging machine. It's near the stairs up to the room where her grandfather lived for a while, a space (called the Casbah) now used for training classes and storage.

She helped lead the opposition last year to the proposed renaming of Ross Avenue, just as her grandfather petitioned for its widening in the 1930s.

She may ask the city to designate her family's building a historic landmark and says she welcomes a renaissance along Ross.

Revival hasn't marked the Oriental rug-cleaning industry. It declined as Armenian families moved away from a traditional trade and wall-to-wall carpeting became popular, Ellen says. And the space requirements and cost of equipment can discourage start-ups. "There's not enough payback," she says.

But those aren't concerns at 3907 Ross, where business has been down yet steady in this economic unraveling.

There the strategy remains pure and simple: Stick with tradition.

"It's not easy work. It's not glamorous," Ellen says. "But it's been good to us and a lot of others."