Lo, those who believe themselves capable and serious shoppers. Here is a challange! If one wishes to test one’s mettle, try the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul, and return humbled!
It’s a veritable wonder of the world, a labyrinth of stalls and shops, tiny passageways, dimly lit rooms, glistening jewels, and forceful characters. Long, roofed passageways or ‘streets’ are lined in tiny, doored and windowed stalls organized roughly according to the category of the merchandise. The stalls overflow past the named, arabic-arched gates of the structure, like growths clinging to their source of energy. The bazaar is indeed engertic.
It one of the largest – if not the largest- shopping structure on the face of the planet, but beyond that, the structure and layout of this institution require veteran skill or super human mental processing adaptability – or lots of luck – to survive with pride and panache intact.
This is no American mall, where one peruses the familiar brands and choses a store based on brand association. In a true exotic tradition, the exterior of the shops don’t reveal much of their inner character. They are tiny and forbidding. Merchants will invite you to see their wares once they have determined you are not thieves, and will work for the sale, possibly with impatience to force quick, potentially foolish decisions. Some are much better at accessing their customers than others, and realize that aggression would serve only as a repellant. I would imagine, though, that the rough and tough approach would work with teenagers, fearful of incurring adult anger, or inexperienced tourists used to Disneyland and club Med.
Despite the crowded and cramped ‘streets,’ and the closet-like stalls, the place doesn’t smell. This is surprising, considering that much of Istanbul does have a strong scent: diesel exhaust, smelly feet and bodies, cigarette smoke, gritty age, and water. Lots of water, from the Bosphrous and from the fountains. Though it makes sense that the 500+ year old bazaar would smell of something, it was well-ventilated and remarkably devoid of any particular aroma, until one enters a booth. Then you would smell the wares: wool from antique the carpets, ceramics from the pottery, tarnishing silver, supple leather. I was highly impressed by this.
What does one buy there? Try kilim carpets, pillow cases, jewelry, fabric, ceramics. But don’t expect any extreme bargains if you are 1. a woman or 2. speak English. You will get a discount from typical American prices, but I didn’t find any freebies. I suppose though that if the Grand Bazaar were such a tremendous bargain, all of the wares would have been bought up systematically by large outfits ages ago.
None of the items sold have price tags, and the vendor reveals the price of each item on request with some hocus pokus. Jewelers will remove their merhcanise and weigh it. Carpet salesmen will have them amazingly memorized. Sterling ware shops will consult some hidden books. Haggling works well, and one should always use it. But it can invoke anger, frustration and bullying. Don’t be fooled by such techniques. One merchant refused to sell to us ever after we refused an amount, expecting us cave in out of some fear of retribution. Don’t be intimidated. They won’t follow you, and if they resort to such tactics their wares are probably no good.
Some merchants will have more than one booth. Their main, showcase booth with be on a main street. But off these main streets are tiny little alleyways that contain additional booths and more and varied wares. If one expresses an interest in an item, but doesn’t find the item is specifically appealling enough, one may be offered a chance to visit these. I suppose if one had oodles of time, one could visit all the booths and not be so dependant on the good nature of the merchants to show additional items. If the sole purpose of my visit to the fabled and ancient city of Istanbul had been to master the Grand Bazaar, I probably would have approached it more scientifically and systematically. True, there would have been many a furious merchant when I jotted down my notes. But if their wares were good, they wouldn’t have been so intimidated by such tactics. But my time was limited to a few hours, and my interests were not necessarily specific.
There are a few merchants that are easy to deal with. A particular ceramics merchant gave me a free bowl with a purchase for my future children and allowed me to rest for a while in the luxury of air conditioning. Another, though his prices were steep, was fair, and not forceful. Usually those who have good wares will fall into that category, and beware of the others.
We heard stories of a carpet shop owned by a crazy American lady. That is her title. Literally. She was something of a landmark. I imagined that the merchants that we delt with – who were all male – would consider that bringing up her existance would in some way make us feel at home. I was slightly tempted to visit but thought better of it. If I wanted to see a crazy American lady there was no need to travel to Istanbul.