In search of Orhan Pamuk’s Istanbul

If you cannot find it in Çukurcuma, it probably does not exist.

This could be the unofficial slogan of the quaint suburban neighbourhood, a short walk from Istanbul city centre, renowned worldwide for its lively curio collectors and singular antique shops. These eccentric outposts appear unchanged by passing decades, boasting stock as muddled as the district’s steep, winding cobbled streets, and as varied as the city’s chequered cosmopolitan history.

Ranging from poky, cluttered front-rooms to luxury boutiques commanding five-figure price-tags, Çukurcuma’s squiggly retail trail both bewilders the senses and dazzles the mind. Browsers quickly learn to park surprise at the sight of a marble Ottoman ornament balancing atop a stack of dusty magazines, or centuries-old jewellery scattered amid a tabletop of cheap trinkets.

It is this sense of unadulterated randomness which lends Çukurcuma much of its charm for a casual visitor. But for the serious collector, this hearty whiff of chance and opportunity is akin to a lifeforce. Amid the clutter and chaos, the “find” of a lifetime is never more than a few metres away. This is a place where fortunes are amassed, and dreams made everyday.

It might feel like another world, but it is amazing to discover – typically after a number of exasperated wrong-turns – that Çukurcuma is just a short walk from Istanbul’s commercial centre in Beyoğlu, the modern hub of the city’s “European” side. To reach Çukurcuma from the central İstiklal Avenue, turn southwards down Yeni Çarşı Cd, where the pedestrianised through-fare bends midway at the corner with Galatasaray Lisesi. Walk down the hill for around ten minutes and turn left onto Çukurcuma Cd.

Stroll a few metres further and you will hit this veritable treasure trove of antique shops. It is a competitive field, where a single sale can make or break a business, and it’s not uncommon for sellers to shut up shop, only to reemerge at a new address a few months later. Sitting at number 19A, the first shop to your left is one of a significant number of businesses without so much as a sign above the door. Just a small piece of paper stuck outside identifies the owner, Nervat Abi.

Below the sign sits a small, serious, bald man with an impressive moustache, locked in a heated negotiation with a younger man dressed in a suit. It is tempting to wonder what from Abi’s huge stock of furniture, furnishings, lighting, glassware, decorations – and a particularly impressive collection of antique bird figurines – the pair are negotiating the sale of.

A short way further up the road, at 32A, sits Dogu Antik, a tiny shop space which – perhaps necessarily – specialises in ancient jewellery and ornaments. The softly spoken owner refuses to estimate what his stock is worth, but a wide grin speaks volumes. Of course, nothing is priced, which means any visitor needs to know their stuff before embarking on the elaborate bargaining ritual.

Brazenly hunched over a case of timeworn trinkets is Ecem Arslanay, a 28-year-old interior designer who recently moved into the neighbourhood, and is looking for one-of-a-kind finds to spruce up her new home.

“These shops are the main reason I wanted to move here,” she says enthusiastically, in perfect English, with a slight American twang. “All these things remind me of my childhood. My grandfather never let me play with or collect anything, so now I have a great desire for these kinds of objects.

“It’s not about how old they are, it’s about finding something unique, which is yours only. The things that are important to me are not considered aesthetic by most people.”

Her sentiments appear to neatly mirror those of Orhan Pamuk, the best-selling Turkish writer who helped put Çukurcuma on the map with The Museum of Innocence. In a most meta, 21st century turn, that is the name of both the Nobel Prize-winner’s acclaimed 2008 book, and the real-life museum the novel’s protagonist describes creating, which opened in 2012. Supposedly conceived at the same time as the novel, the museum sits in the fictional former home of the protagonist’s lost love, on the corner of Çukurcuma Cd and Dalgiç Cd.

Winner of the 2014 European Museum of the Year Award, the idiosyncratic exhibit collects more than 1,000 antique and vintage everyday items the novel’s characters “used, wore, heard, saw, collected and dreamt of”, carefully curated into 83 cabinets – one for each chapter of the book. Strolling the building’s five floors, the effect is somewhere between a love letter to the forgotten 1970s Istanbul evoked in the book, a signpost for the multimedia future of literature and a surrealist work of art it in its own right. An optional 90-minute audio tour both relives key passages of the novel, and illuminates the efforts Pamuk went to amassing this collection of curios – by trawling the very same antiques shops of Çukurcuma.

Around the corner sits the confusedly titled retailer The Works, Objects of Desire. Owner Karaca Borar claims “at least 40 percent” of the museum’s artefacts came from his labyrinth retail space, which loud signs promise will cater for “the slightly deranged collector seeking identifiable memories”.

“When Pamuk was making the museum, he came here six or seven times, and left carrying truck loads with him each time,” boasts Borar.

“This is the stuff that he dreamt about,” he adds, stretching his arms over the assorted array of pirate’s booty. Statuettes, sports trophies, bottles, jars, old radios, mannequins, picture frames, vinyl records, signs, postcards, paintings, toys, ashtrays, musical instruments and much more merge into a sensory haze, mirrored by the swirl of psychedelic rock blaring overhead.

“There’s an order within this disorder,” laughs Borar. “But without an eye, you wouldn’t notice.”

Something of a prankster, the 59-year-old shop owner takes pleasure in confounding his visitors. Centuries old artefacts will be deliberately mixed amongst “junk” (his words), demanding that only the relentless enthusiast can detect the good stuff. “This shop is like my private mansion,” he adds. “I buy and sell what I like. I don’t care if it’s ancient – but it has to amaze me, affect me, or reconnect me with something I haven’t felt in a long time.

“I sell memories.”

For the serious collector, more ancient – and expensive – memories can be found back on Çukurcuma Cd at Yasam Antik, a long, thin space which, from a storefront vantage, appears to extend indefinitely into the distance. Venture deep enough, and perched behind a chiselled workshop table sits owner Mahmut Gezmez, sipping tea and smoking, locked in goodhearted conversation with a regular client. Turkish show tunes blare from antique speakers. Every piece of floor or wall-space has been utilised to stack or hang an extensive collection of candlesticks, glassware, porcelain, silver, brass, ornaments and jewellery boxes.

“I’m the most expensive thing in the shop,” laughs the 64-year-old, when I ask for his most prized stock. Reluctantly he shows me an old, scarred wooden cabinet, which to an untrained eye looks worthless, but for which he is expecting at least $15,000. Next he opens a chest of what appear to be precious stone beads. “Copies,” he grunts. These, meanwhile, will set me back just $3. This disparity seems a fitting metaphor for Çukurcuma’s winners and losers, all-or-nothing mentality.

This lively, vibrant, scattershot scene has been allowed to prosper for decades precisely because it sits away from the main tourist area of Sultanahmet, on the opposite side of the Golden Horn. Historically a poorer neighbourhood which was home to Greek and Armenian expat communities, in recent decades Çukurcuma has offered the pairing of large 19th century buildings and cheaper rents, creating an ideal environment for the antiques trade to evolve.

“People have made a lot of money here over the years,” says William Tardieu, an antiques collector and senior lecturer at Kuwait University, who has divided his time between Istanbul and the Gulf for more than two decades.

The 64-year-old academic who keeps a penthouse home nearby, was first attracted to the city in the mid-1990s by an influx of treasures from the former Soviet countries, which began to flow through Istanbul following the collapse of the USSR. After two decades keenly traipsing these narrow streets, his knowledge of every dealer’s stock and speciality is instinctive, while special nicknames have developed for each of the traders. “That’s Black Sea Omar – good for ancient busts,” he nods at a passerby.

“This is a city of characters, and Çukurcuma is its centre,” he continues. “Sultanahmet and Taksim are too expensive, so if you want to open an art gallery or an antique shop, where do you go?

“You go to Çukurcuma.”

 

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Originally published in Jumeirah Magazine, late 2017, under the pseudonym Ryan Young

Where to start your collection

A La Turca

For high-end, antique kilim rugs, this airy, sophisticated four-storey townhouse is a treasure trove, well stocked with colourful hand-sewn relics. Also check out the pottery collection in the basement.

4 Faikpaşa Caddesi, Çukurcuma, alaturcahouse.com.

 

Aslı Günşiray

Best known as an interior designer to the monied classes, since 1988 Aslı Günşiray has hosted a distinguished boutique in Çukurcuma, offering a curated collection of Ottoman architectural features, Anatolian art, Turkish ceramics and more.

58-60 Çukurcuma Cd, asligunsiray.com.

 

The Works, Objects of Desire

A proud supplier of The Museum of Innocence, this eccentric retailer aimed at the “slightly deranged collector” is an ideal place to start.

6/1 Faikpaþa Cad, Çukurcuma, www.fleaworks.com.

 

Yasam Antik

For the serious collector who knows his or her stuff, owner Mahmut Gezmez’s collection of wooden furniture, brass, silverware and ceramics is hard to rival. But he is known for bargaining hard.

31 Çukurcuma Cd (no site).

 

Uslu Yöney

A boutique belonging to the celebrated Turkish designer of the same name, who is renowned for holistically integrating industrial off-casts into practical pieces of home-ware. Spotlights make ideal desk lights. Discarded pipes are snaked into candle holders. And cheese graters, apparently, make fine ceiling decorations.

5 Çukurcuma Cd, Çukurcuma, www.usluyoney.com.

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