One day I was telling a customer about how sellers came to my cafe every week to sell me things. He commented on the high level of service. Actually, I had not thought of it in that way before. I just knew that in the old days this was normal and since I lived and worked in an old part of Istanbul, this was still normal. Certainly when I was a child and even 40 years ago, there was still a milkman that delivered to the house. I also remember a man coming along the streets when I was kid, pushing his knife sharpening wheel on his cart as he called out to the housewives. This was probably fifty years ago. Little did I know that I would experience it again in a far-away place.
Unfortunately, shopping malls in Turkey are growing like mushrooms. In fact, the threat of a new mall in central Istanbul set off months of protests. Meanwhile, many people have learned to go to the mall to shop and socialize. Many small shops have closed because of that and also because of the influx of cheap Chinese goods. Many middle class Turks feel that they are being modern by shopping in the malls and spending their credit there. I think they are missing out on a large and rich part of their heritage.
I loved to shop the old fashioned way. I knew I was getting what I wanted, I was supporting small local businesses, and I was shopping in places and ways that people have been shopping for centuries. Of course I also had some suppliers that I could call to deliver bulk items, but some things I did not need in huge bulk and others I wanted to see or smell before I bought them.
Every three weeks or once a month I would go shopping in Tahtakale. This is the area beside the Misir Carsisi, the Spice Bazaar. The Spice Bazaar is actually not a good place to buy spices, because they are more expensive and aimed at the tourist trade. In fact, much of the bazaar has now been converted to selling tourist products such as pashminas, pillow coverings, porcelain ware, and other things that Turks generally don’t buy. Tahtakale is beside the Spice Bazaar and Turks definitely shop there.
Usually Arun went with me to be my hamal, my carrier. If a tekne, or small boat, was available, we would pay about $1 each to be taken across the Golden Horn. Otherwise we walked across the Galata Bridge. I preferred to take the boat taxi, as it gave some moments of calm before we plunged into the shopping. After a while the various kaptans knew us. They were generally old guys, as the business was fading away.
Once we got to Tahtakale, we would stop in at the pide place to have kasharli pide, cheese pide, and tea. This was breakfast. We could sit outside and watch the people walking by.
Across from the pideci was one of many stores that sold paper goods, mostly paper bags and wrapping paper. I shopped there once in a while for bags for my pancake mix. Around the corner there was a store that sold various kinds of resealable plastic bags (also for my pancake mix) and all sorts of baking accessories– pans, food dye, you name it. One shop had been a shop for 700 years, though not in the same family.
I did a lot of shopping at Sancarlar. They were used to me and generally gave me a good price, since I was a regular customer. There I bought herbal teas, baking soda and baking powder by the kilo, spices, and herbs, among other things. Next door to it was a small shop that sold pots and pans, dishes, and various other things that a kitchen needs. They also knew me and gave me a discount.
Of course we stopped at Mehmet Efendi. It is famous for its Turkish coffee, though some of my Turkish customers were surprised to learn that Mehmet Efendi also sold Colombian filter coffee and espresso. There was always a long but fast-moving line of people wanting to buy paper wrapped packages of Turkish coffee. Since I was a cafe owner, I got to do my business at the wholesale window.
One place I often stopped at near there was the pickle shop. There were hot pickled peppers, pickled jalapenos, small pickled eggplants wrapped around pickled red peppers, pickled cabbage, what we consider ‘real’ pickles, and so forth. I also bought salca (salcha) there, which is a paste of ground red peppers. It came in hot or not, so I would buy a kilo of hot and use just a little bit in various dishes.
Down the street was the place where I bought cheese. What wonderful cheeses! Taze kasar (kashar) is sort of like Monterrey jack cheese and eski kasar is aged hard cheese. They also had a sharp white cheese with pistachios in it, white cheese from Van with leaves and stems in it, braided cheese, soft white cheese of varying tastes and levels of salt (called feta in North America), spicy white cheese, and of course the European cheeses– bleu, gouda, etc. They also sold different kinds of olives and jars of honey, nut butter, Nutella, jams, and boxes of helva and other things.
Once we were done, we would stop for tea on the square. At one time the square was full of sellers, but the zabita (the business police) shooed them away, unfortunately. There was still a man who sold vegetables and I would buy something from him. We also used to go to a place on the more inner square across from the Yeni Cami, the New Mosque (only a few hundred years old), but Arun did not like the waiter, a Roma, who thought that Arun was Roma too. Actually, they could quite possibly be genetically linked, as I heard that the Roma came from part of India, and since Arun was Tamil, his forebears did too. That square also had been transformed, as the various cafes around it had been cleared out and the square had had a makeover.
Of course elsewhere there were people selling on the streets. I talked to this bauble seller on Galipdede Sokak, though I never bought from him. He did help me buy a small tin that turned out to have some paper with Ottoman writing on it and some small metal decorative pieces in it. In Sultanahmet, there are still some sellers, including these Kurdish guys who sold tea or cherry juice in their fake costumes.
Meanwhile, back at the cafe, sellers would stop by. In the winter time, the salepci would come by every day. For more than thirty years he had been coming to Istanbul from his village in Karamanmaras to sell salep, a thick hot drink made from a particular kind of orchid root. I did not sell it in the cafe and it was a great treat for me in the winter to sip the glass of hot salep with cinnamon sprinkled on it.
During the spring and summer the ciceckci (chi chek chi) would come by. Actually, there were a few of them. Two of them sold cut flowers. One of those I knew from before, when he had set up his cart at Odakule on Istiklal Caddesi. However, the zabita had made him leave there, so he did the rounds. The other one was an old guy who would make sure he was giving me a deal, when he wasn’t really. Both of them were Roma. Then there was the young guy who sold potted plants. He was very charming and helpful, as he would carry the bigger plants in and sometimes plant them for me, flirting as he worked. He was Kurdish, from the east of Turkey.
Then there was the yogurt man. He came every week to sell me 2.5 kg of wonderful creamy yogurt for about $5. He also sold me butter ($5 for a kilo) and sometimes white cheese. He also had a cheese sweet that I sometimes bought for me. He was from Canakkale, which is near what we call Gallipoli.
And here comes the egg man. He came once a week with his flats of fresh brown eggs from across the Marmara Sea. There were also fruit and vegetable sellers. One guy came with a truck every morning, so I could just pop out to get what I needed. He was from Siirt, in the Southeast, and would laugh when I told him hello in Kurdish (one of the few bits of Kurdish I knew). Another man who came with a truck sold only potatoes and onions and the odd knick-knacks, such as glasses. Another fruit and vegetable seller came with his basket of more expensive goods, while another one used to come on the street of my old cafes, but eventually he got discouraged by the zabita, after they confiscated a couple of his carts and so he went back to his village in the east.
Occasionally the cleaning supply man would come by. At my first cafe there was an older man, maybe 70, who would come by, but he stopped coming. At my last cafe another man came along, also older but not that old, who also had brooms, mops, brushes, pails, sponges, and other cleaning supplies. If I needed something, the man would have to untie it and then put it all back together again when we had finished our transaction.
Next door to my last cafe was the demirci. He collected old metal junk, took apart what was needed, and hauled it off to be recycled. He and his partner had been in the same location for over 30 years, but had to move down the hill to Karakoy because the building had been sold. Men with carts would bring things to him and he would buy them. Sometimes one man would bring usable things for me to buy, so I got some flower pots and some copper bowls from him, among other things.
I loved it that all this happened on the streets. Shopping in Istanbul in the old nostalgic ways was definitely a level of service that we no longer have in North America.