New Internationalist

The book dresser of Istanbul

Issue 430

View from Istanbul by Azad Essa

I meet Doğan Ülgenciler in a cloud of cigarette smoke in his broken-down but cosy office below road level in Kadiköy, an old district on the Anatolian side of Istanbul. Greying and bespectacled, he relaxes with his three companions around a table. The afternoon sun filters through the window panes as Ülgenciler and his companions sip tea over humorous banter about where they will bury each other in a city which lacks space for cemeteries.

But when the focus of discussion becomes culture, books and the changing face of Istanbul, there is a shift of guard; Ülgenciler’s tone changes, his words reveal an eloquence.

And it is not difficult to understand why. Ülgenciler has restored books for the past 23 years, earning him the title, in some circles, of ‘the book dresser of Istanbul’.

He proudly shows me a book he was recently asked to restore. ‘This book is the first edition of  Kemal Ataturk’s 1927 speech. It needs minimal restoration,’ he says, admiring the strong leather cover, firm spine and high quality paper. ‘This book is 80 years old. Are books built to last this long today?’ he asks gloomily as he puts the book down on the cluttered table.

Ülgenciler complains that the traditional book binding business, once an integral symbol of Istanbul’s cultural power, is now an anonymous and inconsequential craft.

‘We live in a consumer age, where everything including books are just commodities; there to be instantly consumed and replaced. The days of collectors’ items are a thing of the past,’ he explains.

Photo by Argenberg under a CC Licence
Photo by Argenberg under a CC Licence

He says that the urban renewal projects initiated by the Istanbul municipality, which have seen the removal of fishers selling freshly fried seafood on the Anatolian docks, as well as the replacement of the Bosphorous ferry system with faster speed boats, have forever changed the face of Istanbul.

‘Istanbul is still beautiful, but it is nothing like the Istanbul that once was,’ he sighs.

When Ülgenciler first arrived in Istanbul in 1968, the city had a population of just one million. By the late 1970s the figure had doubled. Presently it stands at more than 15 million.

We live in a consumer age, where everything including books are just commodities; there to be instantly consumed and replaced

He nostalgically recalls how, for the past 20 years, he left his flat, bought a simit (a pretzel-shaped bread) and a newspaper, and passed by other second-hand bookshops, stationers and binders. ‘It was our community in the city,’ he says. ‘Now I must pass a mobile phone service provider, a bar and then Burger King!’

At first, Ülgenciler taught history at a school for five years, after which he worked for the publishers of an encyclopaedia. He then got hold of a book-binding machine and started up his business. He boldly claims that ‘all of Istanbul’ once passed through his doors, and ‘there is nothing about Istanbul’ he needs to be educated about.

‘When you came to Istanbul, the city’s codes, cultural norms and ambience shaped you. People came to Istanbul and there was a higher Turkish language here, a sophistication to be awed by. But now it’s the other way around,’ he complains, saying that the city is unrecognizable even to him, with the current economic crisis fast-tracking the cultural deterioration.

‘This area over here, this part of Kadiköy, was known for its second-hand book stores. But it has now become a haven for a new bar culture and entrepreneurs want me to leave this place so they can turn it into a trendy bar,’ he says, ruefully gesturing to his left, where, ironically, also lie the heavily packed book shelves, loose sheets of paper, newspaper cuttings, gigantic binding machines, uncapped glue bottles and a mountain of sprawling dust.

Lighting another cigarette rolled by one of his companions – all of whom have remained melancholically silent throughout our discussion – Ülgenciler says he has been offered an exorbitant sum of money to discontinue his lease of this property.

But he defiantly refuses to part with the store, even if the economic crisis has knocked the air out of his business, with just a select few clients remaining.

‘Where I am going to go?’ he asks. ‘History has walked through these doors,’ he says, exhaling another puff of smoke as he drops the cigarette to the floor and extinguishes the little flame.

Azad Essa is a freelance journalist and lecturer based in South Africa. He won the ‘Best political blog’ in the South African Blog Awards 2009.

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