With Heavy Heart, Business Set to Close After 25 Years
"I don't have a stomach for what to do next."
Mahmaud Houshiarnejad said his head was spinning.
He stood near the center of his upscale, Persian rug store, Houshiarnejad's Collection, on Kings Highway East on a recent weekday and admitted he didn't have a clue what he would do next, when his doors closed for the last time and the creditors came to collect what was left.
"My whole, entire life is this business," he said, quietly, as opera played softly in the background. "I worked to grow this business. I don't have a stomach for what to do next. I need to put my brain at rest."
Houshiarnejad, 58, an Iranian who is now a U.S. citizen, said he doesn't blame anyone for his business closing. The economy has not been kind to him recently—a plight for which he is not alone in Haddonfield.
He pointed across the street to the former home of Yampell Jewelers, a business that closed its doors in January after 83 years here. He said local bankers now wear grim faces and shake their heads when asked how soon the economy will turn around.
He doesn't blame anyone, but said some folks in local business and government could have done more.
Help with a landlord
"Perhaps they could have put pressure on my landlord," he said. "I tried to bring expenses down in order to survive. I owed a lot of money to the bank. I took out a second mortgage on my home. But he wouldn't negotiate."
Houshiarnejad said he pays $6,000 a month for his 3,500-square-foot showroom at 119 Kings Highway East. He was paying $15,000 a month a few years ago for a space twice as large. His landlord, Jerry Levin, separated the property into two storefronts in 2010 after Houshiarnejad pleaded with him to do so to reduce his rent.
Summit Sampler, a furniture store, now occupies the space next door.
Levin declined to comment over the weekend. He said he will have time to speak later this week.
Houshiarnejad said Levin told him his rent was "not negotiable" because Haddonfield taxes were too high and he owed money to the bank for the property.
Meanwhile, the clock continues to tick on Houshiarnejad's final days in business. He has slashed prices by up to 70 percent on the hundreds of hand-woven carpets still stacked in piles on the floor around his shop. He said the prices now range from $400 to $50,000. The store will close before the end of the month, Houshiarnejad said.
Haddonfield Mayor Tish Colombi said she stopped into Houshiarnejad's shop recently to tell him how sorry she was he was closing.
"They were absolutely awesome and so gracious," said Colombi, who said she and her husband have bought five rugs from Houshiarnejad over the years. "I'll never forget what they did for my daughter's wedding."
Colombi said she had one of the their rugs cleaned before the wedding. When it returned, it had a chemical smell. She said Houshiarnejad and his brother, Hamid, who has since passed away, rushed to her home before the wedding reception, gave her a carpet to use and returned her rug afterward, free of smell.
Colombi said she wishes there was more the town could do to help businesses like Houshiarnejad's to survive, especially in a tough economy.
"It's crushing that some businesses like his can't make a living here any more," she said. "One of the things I've always done is to tell people if they need a rug, to buy it there. Shopping in our town may cost a little more but it supports our town."
The market will decide
The borough has a tax-funded business improvement district, the Partnership for Haddonfield (PfH), to entice businesses to town and retain them. Houshiarnejad's neighbor, Summit Sampler, received several thousand dollars for rent abatement and to help pay for the cost of interior construction.
"Next door, they got credit as a incentive to pay for advertisement, rent," Houshiarnejad said. "For me, they didn't offer nothing."
The PfH offers one-time grants to businesses who are establishing or expanding local shops. Officials said some business owners may not always have a clear view of what the borough can and can not do to help them.
"We try to help merchants," said Commissioner Jeff Kasko, a PfH board member. "We collect their trash without them having a commercial hauler and we haven't raised the PfH tax since the (business improvement district) was started seven years ago."
Kasko said the retail recruiter, a part-time position of the PfH, can and does approach landlords to try to help negotiate rent. Lisa Hurd, the former retail coordinator and recruiter, did intervene on Houshiarnejad's behalf without success, Houshiarnejad said.
Kasko said businesses like the rug shop and jewelers are especially susceptible to economic downturns and there is little the borough can do about it.
"At the end of the day," Kasko said, "the market is going to decide."