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Floors all over Oakland are covered in pieces of Al Keshishian’s legacy.
The late rug seller, who was born in Oakland in 1927 and died in 2018, took over The Levant Rug business on College Avenue from his father decades ago, selling and repairing Persian, Turkish, Afghan, and Chinese pieces out of a large store that once housed a Safeway.
Keshishian’s close friends will tell you he was a “character” like they’d never met before—a father figure who honed colorful hobbies, once offered to gift a friend an entire house, and had an uncanny memory that made him a stellar businessman. When customers mentioned they’d bought something from him a while back, Keshishian would ask for their address and immediately recall the exact rug he’d placed in their home 30 years prior.
Another passionate rug dealer took over the business last year after Keshishian died, and now, the Rockridge shop, which had become a bit sleepy and foreboding toward the end of Keshishian’s life, is expected to become a Red Cross blood donation center. The transition has prompted discussions and reflections about land use, the future of retail in Oakland, Keshishian’s remarkable life, pandemic blood supply, and the Armenian diaspora—and what can happen when a mischievous puppy is let loose on a Persian rug.
Days are numbered for The Levant Rug shop
When Peter Pap walked into The Levant Rug at 5450 College Ave. in 2019, he felt like he’d entered “a time capsule.”
Pap, a well-known rug dealer who’s run galleries on both coasts, had been contacted to potentially take over the business by Keshishian’s estate, which was settled by his niece and nephew because Keshishian didn’t have children. Pap, now 66, entered the rug business at age 20 as a high school dropout with a baby on the way. He began working for another Armenian rug seller in Boston who became his mentor. The rugs Pap found on The Levant’s walls in 2019 were identical to those he’d helped hawk as a young man decades earlier. So Pap felt an immediate kinship with the late Oakland shop owner—and an urge to overhaul the display, so current styles were promoted instead of outdated offerings.
When Pap entered the vault in the back—a former Safeway meat locker—and saw Keshishian’s antique collection, he was sold.
“I agreed to buy 1,300 rugs so I could get the 300 I really wanted,” he said. Pap rented the building from the developers who’d newly purchased it and set about trying to liquidate Keshishian’s collection.
While fixing and cleaning up the shop, Pap stumbled on a treasure trove of black-and-white photographs dating back a century, most likely of Keshishian’s loved ones and mainly taken in Beirut. They’re miraculously labeled with dates, many in the 1920s, so it’s clear they were taken right after the Armenian Genocide, the systemic killing of 1.5 million Armenians by the Ottoman Empire during World War I. Keshishian’s father, who started the rug business on Telegraph Avenue in 1927 and moved it to College in 1960, was a survivor of the genocide, according to people who knew Keshishian. The family moved to Oakland in 1923 and lived in Rockridge.
There were also dozens of identification cards and photos with bios for Armenian children, most born in the 1950s and 1960s, that Keshishian had financially supported through a national charity fund.
Keshishian’s rugs tell stories, too. While walking through the shop this week, Pap pointed out an 1850s northwestern Persian rug that was woven by two women in a rural village. He noted that the stitching reveals which woman was trailing the other. He pulled up an image on his phone of a more finely-woven piece from a neighboring city at the time, suggesting much of the imagery of goats and fire-breathing dragons was directly inspired by the cosmopolitan version.
Pap said he’s successfully persuaded millennials away from mass-produced Pottery Barn décor when he “explains to them that two women basically had a jam session” to create the one-of-a-kind rugs, which range from a few hundred dollars to several thousand. Before the pandemic, he attracted new customers through creative uses of the large space, including comedy nights and “dog romps” he held in the large parking lot, and became acquainted with many of his Rockridge neighbors.
But Pap and his rugs were supposed to have vacated the space by the end of December.
A company called 5450 College LLC bought the property from Keshishian’s estate, seemingly with plans to redevelop the large site into a housing complex or mixed-use building. The site, with its large footprint, big parking lot, and proximity to BART, seems primed for such a proposal.
“We had lots of ideas, but COVID changes a lot,” said Christopher Hudson, a local developer who’s part of the group that bought the building. He declined to elaborate on their initial plans, but said, “With changes in the housing market, we had to be more flexible.”
They rented the space to Pap while figuring out their next steps, and emails show the rug dealer promised to leave in December. By then the owners had decided to rent to a local chapter of the Red Cross, at a higher price than Pap had been paying, and Hudson said they needed to work on building improvements before the blood donation center could move in. Hudson said the agreement with Pap had always and explicitly been short-term, giving Pap time to quickly sell Keshishian’s remaining inventory, and that Pap is already several months behind on rent.
Pap said he needed another month to move, because of challenges posed by December’s stay-at-home order, and promises he’ll be out this week. He has a space in San Francisco where he can relocate the remaining stock, after concluding an ongoing moving sale on Saturday. In recent weeks and months, Pap had also begun approaching local planning and historical preservation groups, raising questions about what type of tenant would be appropriate for the space, and concerns about the future of the art-deco building and its vintage marquee.
Hudson said his group doesn’t plan to alter the building beyond removing signage and improving accessibility indoors. The way he sees it, he offered a tenant a straightforward short-term lease, which the tenant accepted, and now it’s time for everyone to move on. What’s more, Hudson said, the rug store had been fairly dormant for years, hardly an active and vibrant neighborhood hub by the time Keshishian died.
“He’s trying to turn this into something,” Hudson said of Pap. “He’s taken advantage of our good nature and is trying to foment dissent in the neighborhood.”
This week, as The Oaklandside spoke with Pap at the store, Hudson happened to stop by. The two men had a tense interaction.
“Are you still planning to be out by Sunday?” Hudson asked.
“Absolutely,” Pap responded.
Hudson looked around the room, where numerous high-end rugs were still piled high and hanging from the walls. “How many days will you need to move out?” he asked.
“I’ll be gone by Sunday,” said Pap.
Albert Keshishian: rug expert, horse racer, Oaklander, dear friend
That will be challenging, considering the 8,000 square foot building is stuffed not only with rugs, antique artifacts, and photos, but also everyday items that reflect decades of Keshishian’s life and society in the latter part of the 20th century. A bathroom in the back room, where Keshishian worked on rug repairs, has a medicine cabinet filled with foot cream, lotion, and pills that look like they haven’t been touched in decades. Huge glass jars are filled with fringe that Keshishian salvaged from fraying rugs. A repurposed food container is labeled “old red wool.” There’s an eccentric old stove that Pap deep-cleaned.
Keshishian also used that back room for weekly Friday lunches with his inner circle.
Jim Cadwell lucked into that exclusive group 10 years ago. How? It all started with the fact that “puppies like to chew on things,” he explained.
Cadwell had been living in the nearby hills for a few years and had often felt curious about, and intimidated by, The Levant Rug. “It didn’t make sense to me—this big store, and I didn’t see anybody in it,” he recalled. “In my imagination, just for fun, I thought, is this a money-laundering place?” (Yelp reviews indicate he wasn’t the only one to find the shop or its owner daunting.)
When Cadwell’s wife’s labrador gnawed up her Persian rug, he had an excuse to check out the mysterious store. He walked into The Levant and met Keshishian, who’d overseen the shop in its heyday in the 1970s and 1980s. Now in his eighties, he’d wound the business down. It took Cadwell some time to earn the trust of Keshishian, who “didn’t suffer fools,” but “he allowed me to be in his universe.” They became close friends.
Cadwell got to know this extraordinary man who sang opera, wrote poems, boxed, and used to fly multiple times a week to Southern California for horse races. Keshishian owned real estate, including at one point, according to friends, the property that’s now Market Hall. And, of course, “he knew rugs inside and out—he was one of the best rug brains,” Cadwell said.
For Fritz Stoop, another long-time close friend, Keshishian was “the father I never had,” a deeply kind man who always offered a non-judgemental ear and helped him through hard times.
He was also “quite a character—I’ve never known someone quite like him, and I’ve known a lot of peculiar people,” said Stoop, who owns 20-some Keshishian rugs. “Who would believe that this barely-5-foot-tall guy who runs a rug store would own thoroughbred horses? He had this dual life.” He was also a wealthy yet modest man whose generosity was often taken advantage of, Stoop said.
According to Stoop, Keshishian was a member of the Rockridge Masonic Temple across the street and had wanted the Levant building to be given to local masons.
Keshishian had an elderly sister in Arizona, and other relatives who handled his estate. Pap said he’ll give them some of the family photos he uncovered, donating the rest to an Armenian history museum. He’s started googling Armenian children seen in the photos—the ones Keshishian supported through the charity organization—to see if he can track them down.
Keshishian was “a proud Armenian,” said Cadwell, and an Oaklander through and through. He graduated from Oakland Technical High School in 1945 and wrote a reflection for its centennial celebration in 2015.
“Had there been children in my life, I would not have hesitated sending them to Oakland Tech,” he wrote. “I still remember the Bulldog Fight Song we used to sing at school rallies. ‘Ku, Man, ti. Ku, Man, ti. Growl wa.’ I still don’t know what it means!”
He also mentions he was involved in a campaign to preserve a historical Tech building. Little did he know that similar questions would be raised about his own shop after his death.
What should replace a place like Levant?
While property owner Hudson is anxious to get in the building and bring it up to code, his next tenant, the Red Cross, still needs permission from the city to move in. The city of Oakland said the Red Cross applied for permission to do some work on the building interior, but will need to obtain a use permit as well.
The Red Cross left its Broadway site last year, squeezing the humanitarian services office in with the Claremont Avenue blood donation center. The new building will be dedicated to blood donations, and a spokesperson for the Red Cross said the organization is eager for the increased space and ample parking.
Blood supply has suffered during the pandemic with the cancellation of many blood drives the Red Cross relied on, said Jenny Hansen, communications manager for the Northern California region.
“The need for blood is constant,” and particularly convalescent plasma for coronavirus patients, Hansen said. “If someone is healthy and able, by all means, we need you to come in and give blood.”
But the Red Cross can’t move in without a permit, since the College Avenue site is zoned for commercial use.
For some Rockridge boosters, it’s critical to support and promote the shops and restaurants that make the neighborhood a desirable destination. The rise of online retail, climbing rents, and now shelter-in-place orders have pushed out plenty of beloved businesses and dissuaded others from opening.
Stuart Flashman, a member of the Rockridge Community Planning Council board—a nonprofit group that advocates for or against neighborhood issues—said he was hesitant to welcome the Red Cross into the Levant site, knowing there needs to be a “critical mass of retail” for a commercial district to thrive. But after hearing a Red Cross presentation, he voted with a majority of the board to accept the proposal.
The board was “feeling like retail is not doing very well, and consequently we can’t expect to allow more parcels to remain vacant,” Flashman said. “Small retail stores just don’t make enough money.”
At a meeting of the planning council’s Land Use Committee last week, member Ken Rich said he was less pessimistic about the economic future of Rockridge.
“If there’s a single neighborhood district that’s going to survive in Oakland, that’s College Ave.,” he said. “Because it’s all about the wealth of the people who live there.”
Even if he’s right, it’s unlikely the new nail salons and clothing boutiques will come with collections of hundred-year-old photographs, ancient hand cream, or a quirky owner who can recall what he sold to that one North Oakland hills household back in the 1980s.