Address: 250 Dorcas St, South Melbourne VIC 3205
From an interview with Joe that has been edited
Persian Carpet Warehouse was started by a gentleman called Mr. Conrad Van Emden.
When he came here the church had been closed for a little while. Prior to that, it was used by the Emerald Hill Theatre. It was run by thespians – we’ve had a few of them in here – who told us that they conducted plays here. And, before that, it was a meeting hall.
It stopped functioning as a church because there was a surplus of them. South Melbourne was a working class area so, naturally, faith was very important. You’d probably see more than 10 churches within a 3-4 kilometre radius.
In this street alone I think there’s four or five churches.
My brother and I took over this business about 30 years ago.
We started as the Far East Rug Company in Brighton. Before that I was the national buyer for David Jones and – prior to that – I was a buyer for Buckley & Nunn. I’ve been doing this job for 44 years, so I go back a fair bit.
I knew the previous owner when I was at Buckley & Nunn. He would come in occasionally and we would talk. When he wanted to name this place he asked me what I thought of Persian Carpet Warehouse or Eastern Rug Distributors.
I said they were good so he registered both names, which we still retain today. He wanted to retire, so my brother and I took over the business. And these buildings are quite unique. We had another store in Ballarat, which operated in an old building like this one.
But we recently closed it.
We import rugs.
I’ve been travelling for this job since 1979, but things have changed. I can’t go to Pakistan now, but I have good agents who help me out. And on my first trip I went up the Grand Trunk Road. It was 40º Celsius and I lost nearly two stone.
We didn’t have an agent in those days, so we did it by ourselves. We went to these towns and villages and were curious about how things worked.
It was a buzz.
I was born here, so going to places like India and Nepal at the time was mind boggling. I’ve sat and watched weavers weave, and there’s something about it. It put me in a trance. When you come back the enthusiasm stay, and people pick up on that.
And for a guy that was very Australian in a lot of ways it was a real culture shock. Today we have an abundance of food and culture but – in the old days – Australians were very limited.
If you didn’t have fish and chips on Friday and a roast lamb on Sunday, there was something wrong with you.
A lot of people say that weavers aren’t educated.
But show me one person that can go behind a loom and tie knots and look at a design sheet and produce a rug. It doesn’t matter if it’s from India, China, Romania, Bulgaria, wherever. These people are artisans, and that’s how they should be considered.
And – if you buy something you like – you are halfway home. You don’t need people like me to tell you if it’s right or wrong. The only thing I can do is show you what I have, try to point you in the right direction and explain the difference between one carpet and another.
Knotted rugs are sustainable things, and they are something that somebody has put a lot of effort into.
Even a cheap carpet.
They’re not something you have to have, but it’s something you want to have.
You have three types of rug bases.
The tribal or village rugs – like a Khal Mohammadi – are on a wool base, the more classical rugs are on a cotton base, and you can get silk rugs which are on a silk base. The silk rugs are very expensive, so we mainly have wool and cotton based rugs.
Every rug has to be strung up, each individual knot has to be tied, then different people will clip it, bind the edge and braid the fringe. It goes through a lot of processes, but it’s very laborious. That’s why the next generation aren’t following their parents.
They can earn quite a bit of money, but they are finding that they would prefer an easier job.
They make rugs the same way as they did 30 years ago.
The yarn and the dye stuffs may have changed in some respects but the actual labour content isn’t different.
And there’s no such thing as an Indian knot or a Pakistani knot or an Afghan knot. This is what’s confusing to some people. What makes a Persian rug isn’t so much the location of where it’s made, but the way that it’s made.
There are two knots in an oriental rug. One is called a Senneh knot (Persian knot) and the other is called a Ghiordes knot (Turkish knot). It’s just a different way of tying a knot.
Then there’s single weft and double weft. Single means that it is much more pliable, whereas with a double-weft they use two weft-threads to tie the knot, so you can keep the pile a lot higher. We cheat in our trade and say ‘single knot or double knot’ to make it simpler
We’re also seeing a lot of rugs which are hand-tufted– they push the wool through a calico sheet and latex the back – and this can lead to some really nice Persian designs.
We are one of the only rug stores that doesn’t put a sale flag out every five minutes.
We haven’t put one out for seven years.
We classify ourselves as a tortoise in this business. We just grind along slowly whereas a lot of our contemporaries tend to move quickly and run very fast.
But we eventually get across the finish line. It takes us a bit longer, but we like to think we dot our I’s and cross our T’s. And I must admit, when I left David Jones it was very difficult. But no business is built without a lot of pain.
So I think if you’re going to do something you have to throw yourself in it whole-heartedly.
You can’t sit on the fence.
We deal with a lot of different customers.
The person off the street, insurance companies, interior decorators and commercial people in some cases. But if a person is spending $20 or $10,000 it doesn’t make any difference. And if we get to an end of a range we might have to cut the price to get rid of it.
We don’t always do that at the right time but – eventually – we have to make a decision. That’s what makes you a merchant; knowing what is good and what is not so good. If you feel it’s not so good, you should discount it out and give it to the customer at the point of sale, and tell them why.
Rather than having a 90% sale.
Anyone can mark something up and mark it back down. You don’t have to be smart to do that.
But giving people value for money is very important.
South Melbourne is very central, so things are going to change.
I’m sorry to say that – one day – this building might be converted. They can’t pull the structure down, but they could alter what’s inside it.
When I was growing up, you could’ve bought a house across the road for $12,000 but, today, you’d probably pay $1.5m or $1.6m. I don’t understand it, but it seems to be the way things are going.
But when I first came here, I was blown away.
I thought, “wow.”
“What a place.”
To have oriental rugs depicted in an old setting, I think it’s fitting to a certain degree.
I still believe people like sustainable things.
This is what rugs are.
They are made by hand, and they are genuinely diminishing because of the Global Financial Crisis. If you look at Iran for instance, they have perhaps 10 per cent of the weavers they had ten years ago.
In Turkey they’re down to about 15 per cent of their weavers and India is down to 40 or 45 per cent of what they had ten years ago.
So it’s changing.
There will always hand-knotted rugs, but there won’t be as many in the future.
We are fortunate because we have loyal customers.
I’ve dealt with people who had small children, and now I’m dealing with them as grown ups.
Some of them have even had children.
People come in and tell me that they jumped on my stacks as a kid, and now they are here to look at a rug.
That makes me feel good.
I could earn a lot more money not being in this business, but I like what I do.
Written by Aron Lewin and all photos by Stephanie Chen