NEW YORK — Vasken Ohanyan sits at his work table in the middle of Continental Cleaners in the Inwood section of Manhattan. Piled around him are measuring tapes, fabrics and thread. The walls are lined with racks of cleaned garments. By the storefront picture window, there’s a fitting room and a rack of abandoned garments for sale.
He tailors bits and pieces all day, stopping to buzz customers in, and often, to chat with them. Some are new to the neighborhood; some, he’s known for 33 years, ever since he purchased the store. They know him as “George”—a name he picked because it’s the translation of his middle name, Yourgi, which means “peasant” in Greek.
They talk about everything from personal issues to the state of the economy. “I have one customer now who is an avid reader,” Ohanyan says. “He wants to learn about anything and everything. He says he learns from talking to me.”
There’s a lot to learn from Ohanyan. Before buying Continental, he earned two master’s degrees and served as a bishop in the Armenian Church of New York until 1970.
He left the church after a bishop’s conference rejected his policy recommendations. “I was assigned to make a study of celibacy, and I was in favor of changing the laws,” Ohanyan says. “The Armenian church is a 5th-century church. The prayers are from that time; the thinking is from that time. There is no modern thinking.”
After leaving the priesthood, Ohanyan planned to pursue a career in education. He had taught in the seminary in Jerusalem, and at an elementary school in Amman, Jordan, where he later served as principal.
He earned an M.A. in French at Catholic University in Washington, D.C., and an M.A. in linguistics at Georgetown. After few stints of substitute teaching, however, he again re-examined his plans. “I found the students spoiled,” he says. “I knew I wouldn’t be able to help them.”
Ohanyan bought Continental Cleaners on Valentine’s Day, 1977; 33 years later, it is still his life’s work. “I became a drycleaner by chance,” he says. “My brother-in-law was friendly with the man who wanted to sell the business and move to Italy. I’d done tailoring for my clothes before, but [watched] what he was doing and thought, ‘This, I can do.’”
Continental supported Ohanyan, his wife and a son, but it wasn’t easy. Weekday hours are 7:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m.; Saturdays, the store is open 7:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. He usually works alone and takes lunch in the store, sometimes assisted by a high-school student. Kristian Diaz, from nearby Washington Irving High School, is the most recent.
Early on, Ohanyan had a few mishaps. When he started doing deliveries, for example, he forgot to close the trunk. He had to pay $600 in claims for clothing that wound up strewn along 207th St. and Broadway.
Then there was a busy Saturday in May 1997 when “two young people came in with a gun and tried to rob me,” he says. “I was sitting there, [and] as soon as he came in, he pulled a gun. I shouted at him to get out, I advanced towards him, he hit me with the gun, and they ran out. I called the police, but they couldn’t find them.”
Ohanyan suffered a broken nose in the attack, but regards the robbery as an aberration. He installed the door buzzer as a deterrent to future robberies.
Since Continental is a dry store, plant operators come to solicit Ohanyan’s business. Observing no difference in quality, he bases his decisions on price. “When it is too high, I have to charge high,” he explains.
While business is good, it has been better. “From 1980 to 1984, my business was double what it is now,” Ohanyan says. He attributes this to the economic downturn.
Still, he doesn’t have to advertise. “Before, I advertised in different regional papers—the Jewish Post, the telephone directory, of course—but because it was an established business, I didn’t have to do too much.” At age 79, his next ad may appear in the “Business for Sale” section.
While he has many friends as customers, Ohanyan describes a few as “headachy.” One migraine was a teacher who bounced more than $800 in checks and abandoned $1,000 worth of cleaned clothes. “She should be ashamed of herself,” he says.
Another is a woman who couldn’t pay for her clothes because her husband had taken a major salary cut. She is gradually picking them up, and asked Ohanyan to hold the rest. Ohanyan donates abandoned clothing that doesn’t sell to the Salvation Army.
Ohanyan is philosophical about such problems. “I have dealt with people always—as a priest, as a teacher,” he says. “I’m a people-oriented person.”
This may be the secret of his success.