Shakeh Havan

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Excerpt from 11/1/2005 issue of AGBU Magazine article:
FROM THERE TO HERE: COMING “HOME” TO YEREVAN
by Suren Musayelyan

Four years ago Artbridge bookstore/café opened on Abovian Street in Yerevan and became an immediate magnet for Diaspora tourists, ex-pats and, eventually, a favored hangout for young adult locals.

When it opened, it was unique among Yerevan restaurants. Soon, however, others saw its success and have copied its style in one way or another. None, though, could copy the heart behind Artbridge, 45-year-old Shakeh Havan.

Originally from Tehran, Iran, Shakeh grew up in the United States. She last lived in Waltham, Massachusetts, where she married, and had two children, Zaré (13) and Sariné (9).

In 1999 Shakeh and the children came to Yerevan.

“I came for one year to get the taste of Armenia and that year has not ended yet,” she says, jokingly.

A manufacturing engineer by training, Shakeh decided to combine her love of books and love of business, and Artbridge was the offspring.

The bookstore café is not an original idea, as it is a common practice abroad. But it was a new thing for Yerevan. Shakeh says that books are closer to her, but in order to keep a bookstore she needed some business next to it. And that’s how the idea came to her.

“This format gives me peace of mind, which is very important to me,” says Shakeh.

And it gave the restaurant scene a new dimension, if only by the fact that it features early-morning service.

“When we first started, one could find a coffee in Yerevan before 8:30 a.m. only in hotels,” Shakeh says.

Now people who visit Artbridge to buy books can read while enjoying a cup of coffee with a muffin, or full-course meal.

There are 11 tables in Artbridge, where the average customer spends an hour and a half browsing, then buying books, then sitting to enjoy them.

“In terms of business it brings no money, as there is no quick change of tables. But our service is deliberately aimed at giving peace to our customers,” says Shakeh.

Artbridge was one of the first places in Yerevan to offer tickets for cultural events (previously they were sold only at theater box-offices).

Shakeh was not engaged in business in the United States and therefore cannot compare whether it is more difficult or easier to work in Armenia. But she says that one challenge in Armenia is to learn the new laws which are changing all the time.

“Armenia is a young country, with new laws and I think these laws should first of all be for the people of this country. Laws change everywhere, but ours are simply changing a little too fast,” she says. “I have no right to criticize. I didn’t have particular difficulties here, because I didn’t have expectations and didn’t draw comparisons.

“I wish laws were such as to make people respect the state no matter whether they like these laws or not. And I very much want people here not to be passive and to know their rights.”

Shakeh says she didn’t find the security that Yerevan offers anywhere she lived before. She says her children are safe in this country, which is the most important thing for a parent.

The family lives in a three-bedroom house in central Yerevan. She says she and her family enjoy living in the capital.

“Yerevan is what you make it. The tolerance level here is incredibly high and people from abroad who come here have a lot to learn from the locals,” she says.

Shakeh does not tend to criticize people leaving the country, as many others in Armenia do.

“I appreciate this freedom of movement very much. If I, holding a U.S. passport can come here, why shouldn’t a Hayastantsi be able to go to America?” she says. “I think it’s very natural, especially after the collapse of the USSR when all doors opened before our people.”

Shakeh sees tremendous changes happening in Armenia, but she says she’d rather see a slower but surer growth: “When a tree grows slowly it has deeper roots and is much stronger.” Yet, she adds: “We cannot afford to grow slowly in the modern-day world, because we will then fall behind the global advancement.”