Shops are seldom seen as national institutions or expressions of identity in the same way that museums, galleries and monuments are. But perhaps they should be? It’s a thought that struck me this week as I was strolling down what used to be one of Istanbul’s most prestigious retail streets, Istiklal Caddesi in Beyoglu.
Here, some of the late Ottoman Empire’s most elegant buildings sit next to old trading caravanserai, grand 19th-century churches, embassies and lisei [schools]. But for all these notable structures it’s the shops that have made this avenue what it is.
Istiklal Caddesi or “Independence Avenue” was once known as "Grande Rue de Péra" and the mix of French-owned pharmacies, Greek-Turkish haberdasheries and Jewish tailors on the street were a living testament to the diversity of the city. Some of this remains, there are delicatessens in Istiklal’s backstreets that are the same as they ever were– selling goods such as caviar sold in exquisite tins and, in some, pork is offered in hushed tones. There is the long-standing Jewish-owned underwear shop – a purveyor of Turkish-made woollen long-johns and nude-cotton corsets – whose owner stands outside his establishment every day welcoming loyal customers inside. And then there is the Rebul pharmacy, one of the city’s oldest, known for its Lavanda cologne.
But many of these incredible shops are disappearing here as rents rise and urban “regeneration projects” force out old tenants. The aim is to turn the area over to tourism, but of what ilk?
With the apparent blessing of the municipality, the character of Istiklal is swiftly changing. The street, now pedestrianised, is fast becoming an unpleasant throng of people and cheap chain stores. For instance: the Lale cinema, founded in 1939, is now home to an electronics chain. Taksim cinema, founded in 1919, was demolished in 2012 to make way for a mall. There was the famous Markiz patisserie – where locals say patrons would don a jacket and tie to visit for tea in its heyday. Today its inside is incredible – lavish Art Noveau tiles are a reminder of the Markiz’s grand old days. But outside, two huge digital screens now hang in the window – designed to entice new clientele with pictures of fried food.
Recently one of Monocle’s favourite spots in the city was been forced to close. Robinson Crusoe 389 bookshop – a treasure trove of good English and Turkish reads– has had to shut its doors. The rent was too high and as the culture of the street shifted towards middlebrow consumption, Robinson Crusoe was increasingly marooned. The outfit has already found a small refuge in the cool confines of the archives and library of nearby SALT Galata but its big, cosy, much-loved space is no more. And Istanbul is all the poorer for it.
Many of Istiklal’s most historic retailers have weathered political strife, the xenophobic looting of the 1950s and the challenges of the modern market. It is a shame that the contemporary climate – a profound misunderstanding of regeneration – conspires against them more than all of the above.
Monocle’s new bureau is on a street not far away that sells almost exclusively light fittings – buying a bulb here is a delight. The specificity of the retail heritage is astonishing. All this is important, living, breathing retail and should be preserved like any museum. If only the municipalities in charge of urban reform would see this before it’s too late.
Sophie Grove is senior editor for Monocle.