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27 March 2015

Last night I found myself short of an onion. So, employing a much-used Istanbul technique, I called down to the local bakkal (corner shop) below my flat and then lowered a small wicker basket for the proprietor to place the bulb inside. Then, naturally, I hauled the basket up four flights of stairs, pulled it through the living-room window and got cooking.

This city revolves around small “holes in the wall” known as bakkals. Step inside my nearest and you’ll see why: the owner sells local flower honey, freshly squeezed pomegranate juice and crusty bread. After school his teenage shop assistant Ali will bring up heavy bottles of spring water and place them in your fridge with a smile.

Bakkals are integral to the ecosystem of every mahalle (neighbourhood): their owners constantly negotiate traffic disputes, assist key-tardy residents and intervene in the occasional street ruckus. It’s easy to see why bakkals still represent roughly half of Turkey’s $70bn food retail sector. Even though chains such as Migros are making in-roads here, the resilience of the small shopkeeper is something of a David and Goliath story in Turkey.

At first glance, Istanbul’s retail culture appears rather haphazard – the lilliputian stores, the wooden carts, the mobile knife sharpeners and the brass shoe-shine stalls. But in fact it’s a dynamic infrastructure that prizes the convenience of the consumer.

The more mobile the better: if you want to buy a pot plant, why not get one from the wooden trolley that rolls around the neighbourhood laden with succulents and ferns rather than driving to a garden centre?

These are the wheels that keep the city ticking. I can’t imagine how Istanbul would function without its scrap-metal carts, rag-and-bone barrows and the canvas-recycling curricles – all manned by men who tour the streets picking up and circulating the fragments of urban life.

In a city known for its bad traffic, this nexus of wooden carts add a delightful agility to its commerce. They even bring an element of the surreal; yesterday I saw a pile of brass taps for sale in my local neighbourhood, then some antique enamel, and, this morning, inexplicably, a man touting two marble lions. Like the basket-out-of-the-window method, the cart and the bakkal are Ottoman traditions that have survived the 21st-century impulse to mechanise and modernise.

They may be old-fashioned, wooden and lo-fi but they are nimble, clever solutions to contemporary problems that today’s city leaders and businessfolk should replicate and champion. Because, despite the onset of complex technology, we all run out of milk every now and then.

Now, where did I put that basket?

Sophie Grove is Monocle’s senior editor.


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