Backstory: 'Don't break my heart!'
The bazaar sales pitch - it's the chattering art at the crossroads of serious shopping in Istanbul.
ISTANBUL, TURKEY — The streets around Istanbul's central Grand Bazaar seethe with a heady, colorful mixture of Turks, tourists, and touts. Huge reinforced brassieres flap sternly from the awnings of lingerie shops; cheeses, dried fruit, and writhing fish plucked fresh from the Bosphorus share space on crowded grocery stalls; hawkers selling cheap plastic children's toys, spinning tops, and pendants to ward off the "Evil Eye" vie for the public's attention, while an army of corncob broilers, chestnut roasters, and cucumber peelers, call to the hungry shopper.
Women in full black chadors - only their painted toenails peeping from glitzy sandals beneath - brush up against British backpackers in skimpy shorts; men in shabby traditional dress sell aftershave to up-and-coming Istanbul gents in cheap three-piece suits.
This is one of the greatest shopping cities in the world, the gateway between Europe and Asia, where you can buy a fur hat from a former Soviet soldier, an emerald direct from the mines of Afghanistan, or unearth a dainty antique armoire in a backstreet junk shop. There are no less than a dozen markets to entice shoppers of all kinds, from Byzantine scholars looking for rare books to stout headscarved housewives in search of a new plastic fly-swatter. In the center of the maelstrom, the highlight on every tourist's itinerary, is the Grand Bazaar, billed as a labyrinthine warren of 4,000 individual establishments, a place where you can pick up exotic bargains to help tip your luggage over your airline allowance. At least, that's what the tour guides tell you.
Entering the Grand Bazaar is a peculiar experience, a Las Vegas version of the "Thousand and One Nights." The Kapali Carsi is one of the largest covered markets in the world. Parts of its lofty domed structure date to the 15th century, though much was rebuilt after an earthquake shook its foundations in 1894. Divided into distinct districts that specialize in pottery, jewelry, lamps, leatherwear, and carpets, the market's main corridors are the singular domain of tourist hoards seeking an "authentic" shopping experience in their baseball caps and shepherded by harried, umbrella-wielding guides.
Its smart shop fronts and shiny marble floors feel like a sanitized version of what it once must have been. It now serves up mass-produced souvenirs to anyone willing to be beaten down by relentless sales patter.
So, what's there to do after you've seen your 20th kilim carpet and your 50th belly dancing outfit, if you're not in the market for a fake Versace T-shirt or Gucci bag, or if you don't have a sudden urge to collect Ottoman ceramic tiles and teapots? Well, there's one thing any visitor to the Grand Bazaar can collect, without spending a single Turkish lira: sales pitches.
Grand Bazaar workers are consummate salesmen, employing myriad tactics to implore shoppers to buy, in an attempt to distinguish themselves from the shop selling exactly the same stuff next door. Here, perhaps more than anywhere, the art of enticing the shopper has evolved into an art form, with an array of techniques as distinct as the shopping districts themselves. Using only pencil and paper (rather than paper and plastic), the casual browser at Kapali Carsi can easily compile a list of pitches pages long during a leisurely afternoon.
The first category of pitches are, of course, the most direct. Those courteous first attempts that succeed, or fail, across-the-board, no matter the gender, age, or nationality of the potential shopper: "Come in, my dear friend, and see my carpets/ceramics/leather suitcases." "Be my guest, my old friend, only looking - no buying." "No obligation, sir, but cheap price guaranteed." "Genuine Turkish hospitality: no need to purchase." "Come, Madam: drink a Turkish apple tea with me ... while you look at my carpets."
Moving one step upward, are those salesmen - and they're always salesmen - whose basic tactic involves stopping the shopper in his tracks, even for a split-second, with a question: "Hello, excuse me, where are you from?" "You like Turkey, sir?" "Do you have time, madam, to peruse my humble collection of goods within?" "Can I ask you a question?"
Further again up - or down - the evolutionary sales ladder, is a distinct breed: Young, confident, with slicked-back hair and tight jeans, these are the type that concentrate on the females in the crowd, with tactics based on flattery. "Please don't walk by," cries one, clasping his chest, "You break my heart!" "A beautiful necklace for a beautiful lady?" purrs a second. "I wish I were a fish," says a particularly suave seller, "so I could swim in your deep blue eyes." Of course, there will always be those who take this technique a step too far: "Would you dance with me?" woos one young man, reaching for a female wrist, only to be batted off with a stuffed toy camel. "What are you doing tonight?" asks his friend, "Coming to disco with me?" "I'm a great lover," boasts another, "All tourist ladies agree. Bargain of the century - don't miss out!" "I know what you need," says a fourth, "You need me ... No charge."
After this is the territory of the tailored pitch, seduction through a distinctly personal approach. If, for instance, you're eight months pregnant while tramping around the market, you may hear these choice attempts: "The baby looks cold: come inside and buy him a pashmina!" "The baby looks hungry: Come inside and buy him a kebab!" "It's a boy, Madam, I'm sure: Buy him a T-shirt!"
At the end of the day and the periphery of the market, however, is a final category. These young salesmen, tired, worn-down or desperate, have dropped the banter for a more self-deprecating approach. Their shops sell the same wares as their more brazen comrades, but they simply don't have the wherewithal to compete on their level. Deep in the heart of the market, the bold, brash salesmen are already heaving mountains of carpets back inside their stores and shuttering up shop. But here, on the outskirts, stalls are still open for business.
"Need a way to get rid of your hard-earned cash?" smiles a tired-looking young man sitting outside a store piled high with woven cushions. "Step inside, and take a look at my rubbish," grins his friend, waving toward his inlaid backgammon sets and bright red fezes. "Do you want to buy some things you don't need today?" questions another near an exit arch framing swallows flitting in the approaching dusk. "We're still open!" another calls to tourists, laden with shopping bags, hurrying to their air-conditioned bus.
But it's here, on the fringes, that it's best to make a purchase. Sellers seem beyond desperation, and won't bother browsers; most are happy simply to have someone inside their shop.
"I've got everything," remarks a smiling spice merchant. "All I'm missing is some customers." And for that - be it brutal honesty or the most cunning sales pitch of all - he's rewarded with a sale. Half a pound of pistachio Turkish delight, apple tea, a bunch of cinnamon sticks, and a package of bright red seasoning for kofta kebabs all disappear fragrantly into a paper bag, and his cash register rings up perhaps his only, perhaps his final sale of the day, while the strains of Istanbul's many muezzins echo the evening call to prayer through Kapali Carsi's emptying halls.