In the 70 years since Neshan G. Hintlian arrived in Washington, he has built a successful small business in antique carpets, the same trade his ancestors have practiced for centuries in his native Turkey.
The 90-year-old Hintlian was among the first in a generation of Armenian merchant families to arrive in Washington around the turn of the century. And later this month, Hintlian, one of Washington's oldest and most colorful businessmen, will retire.
Hintlian's retirement, unlike those of the other Armenian immigrants who followed his lead to Washington in the 1920s and 1930s, will mean the end of the family business. The others -- George Nazarian and the four Manuokian brothers, now deceased, and Mark Keshishian, 91 -- have turned over control of the family firms to the next generation.
Harold Keshishian, manager of Mark Keshishian and Sons, which was founded by his father in 1931, describes the relationship between the rival businessmen as "friendly competition." Competitors during the day, he said, his father, Hintlian and the elder Nazarian would gamble their winnings in regular evening poker games.
"They were all close friends. They helped each other out," said Elsie Nazarian, who took over Nazarian Bros. when her father died in 1968. Elsie's great uncle Najib Hekimian, one of Washington's original merchants, employed Hintlian when he first arrived. "You grew up in that atmosphere," said Elsie Nazarian, recalling the early years of her father's business. "As a child, you were surrounded by [oriental rugs], and by the process of osmosis it just somehow gets in your blood."
Hintlian is by all accounts one of the carpet trade's most knowledgeable practitioners. According to his competitors, Hintlian has always been a purist -- a connoisseur of the real antiques of the rug trade. His instinct for the business came naturally as a child who grew up in the hills of Turkish Armenia and supported himself weaving rugs. Today, Turkish Armenia is one of the few regions where rugs are still made by hand.
Hintlian came to the United States in 1915 with a wave of Armenian immigrants in the wake of the deportation and alleged massacre of their people by the Turkish government. Soon after arriving in New York, Hintlian got his first big break. He met George Hewett Myers, a wealthy collector, who was quick to recognize the talents of the young immigrant. Myers encouraged Hintlian to come to Washington to start his own business and help him establish the Textile Museum.
In 1917, Hintlian opened his first store in a basement on 17th Street. Unable to afford a large inventory, he relied on the rugs relatives would send him from Turkey and on the income he could earn repairing and restoring damaged rugs. Without benefit of modern transportation, he would lug his merchandise around on street cars.
From those meager beginnings, Hintlian's business soon moved to Dupont Circle and then into prime retailing space in a store across from the Mayflower Hotel on Connecticut Avenue. Hintlian also acquired a separate cleaning and repair plant.
While Myers may have been the first to recognize Hintlian's talents, other Washington VIPs -- presidents, diplomats, museum directors -- have sought Hintlian's expertise as well. Hintlian has selected rugs for the Corcoran Gallery, the National Gallery and the Philadelphia Museum of Art. His daughters remember selling rugs to Eisenhower and buying for Blair House during the Kennedy administration.
In the 1970s, Hintlian became the first rug dealer to be honored by Haje Baba International, a rug society. "Throughout the years, everyone has relied on him," said Alice Peltekian, Hintlian's daughter.
This month, however, the legacy ends. Hintlian's daughter and son-in-law, Alice and Andre Peltekian, who started taking over the business four years ago when Hintlian's health began to deteriorate, said they will not continue it. Overhead costs are too high, Peltekian said, although he declined to say exactly what the costs were or what their sales have been. He added, however, that he may continue the service side of the business -- repairing, cleaning and appraising carpets.
At one time, Alice Peltekian said, Hintlian and the three other Armenian, family-owned businesses were the only rug shops in town. Now, the Armenian monopoly of the market has been diluted by a flood of other shops, including many Iranian-owned businesses. Hintlian conducted a survey four years ago in which he found there were 47 antique rug businesses in the Washington area. And Peltekian says the number has grown since then.