Büyülü Fener: A Magic Lantern to Istanbul’s Past

A middle-aged man passes under a vivid yet rustic sign that reads BÜYÜLÜ FENER, which fits like a puzzle piece among the colors of cafes and apartments that flood this block in Balat. He pushes open a glass door that rests under a row of rainbow stained glass. Once inside he’s greeted with a welcome from the owner, Gediz, as he scans the walls and shelves. This isn’t your typical antique shop, which pop up all over the neighborhood.

A Unique Antique

Not just because Gediz is the only female owner in the area, but because instead of the other shops where you feel like you’re walking into an old Ottoman tea house, here it’s like you’ve entered the Art Director from Turkish Mad Men’s supply warehouse. On the walls are rows of small tube TVs, record players, and typewriters flashing with vibrant colors. One of the record players spins a song from the 1960s that only the Turks seem to recognize.

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A Piece of our Past

The man’s eyes stop on an unassuming collection of retro cigarette packages. “Can I buy just this one?” he asks. Gediz tells him of course, but that it’s not worth much without the rest of the collection. “That’s fine. They used to sell this box in Cyprus when I was a kid there. So, when I saw it it immediately brought me back to my time there as a child.”

And that’s why people come to Büyülü Fener (magic lantern in Turkish), not necessarily to find the next rare find of the antiquing world, but to bring back a fond memory or experience. Gediz told me that what really separates Büyülü Fener from the other antique stores is that hers isn’t one; it’s a nostalgia shop.

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Balat a Microcosm of Praxis

In a city that is rapidly modernizing, the gentrification can be dispiriting. And, when your commute consists of passing block after block of Soviet-style apartment buildings, you want to find the colors, diversity, and romance of the storied Istanbul. That’s what propelled Fener-Balat to become such a hotspot for tourists, expats, and locals alike. Büyülü Fener fits this neighborhood aesthetic perfectly. It’s what drew Gediz here in the first place. Cihangir had become flooded with overpriced housing and Karaköy had been overrun with chain stores, making a small business nearly impossible. But here, every business is personally owned and new people are moving in droves, but they haven’t destroyed the neighborhood’s character. In fact, as long as they adapt to their surrounding culture they can help enhance it. The neighbors across the street are Bulgarian immigrants on the first floor, Syrians on the 2nd, and from eastern Anatolia on the 3rd. Imams walk the street and wave at the employees from the nearby Ecumenical Patriarchate. Women with head scarves will chat with their neighbors in mini-skirts. Gediz says there’s a weird balance where if you don’t judge, no one will judge you. This is why Fener-Balat is where the city on the cusp of two worlds analogy comes alive. When you live in a sterile apartment and work a sterile job, it feels like the old Istanbul is dead, but you can still find it here.

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I always assumed that antique shops were a staple of the neighborhood, but apparently, I was wrong. Büyülü Fener was only the 5th and opened a little over 2 years ago. Now there are 19, with that number changing every day. While the store may be new, Gediz tells me that opening it has been her dream since she was a teenager. After daring the corporate world for many years, while simultaneously filling her apartment to the brim, she decided to pursue her dream to open her own place and live the laid-back lifestyle of Balat.

A Bit of Nostalgia

She began collecting when she was 16. At first, it was anything that interested her, but then it slowly morphed into attaining collections as well. The evidence is on display everywhere. There’s an eclectic record collection with many hailing from Turkey’s rock heyday in the 1970s summed up with a Barış Manço print in the front row.

Turkish and international records. Photo by: Talha Ayar

Apparently records are making a comeback and many people who buy them don’t even own the players. However, she still sells them, and they all work because Gediz and different specialists team up to restore all the gadgets and electronics in the store. She will buy paintings and photos that barely get settled on the wall before they’re sold. Retro gas lamps are probably the highest selling item for locals, but tourists love trinkets because they can fit them in their suitcase. There are collections of old soda bottles, miniature alcohol bottles (still full), postcards, and a slew of things that you didn’t even know would make you feel nostalgic.

Mementos

The nostalgia bug hits me hard when I see an old tin toy car that looks like a larger version of a Hot Wheels toy. Across from the entrance, you’ll notice a giant one, like a Cadillac version of all those Fisher-Price commercials I saw as a kid where you actually can ride in the car. Not one to show bias, a miniature burgundy stroller, perfect for a toddler to play house in, rests opposite the car and in front of the original signage for Balat Hastanesi.

The Cadillac (or Ferrari) of toy cars. Photo by: Colin Craig

I bee-line my way towards the sign and begin sweeping through the box of Swiss and Turkish postcards underneath it, I can’t help but read all the messages people wrote their loved ones that now live on through the curious eyes that pry into them. It seems every item in the store has a story. A special one sits in the corner of the store on a 1950s era stove top. An old cast iron sauce pan lacquered in floral patterned paint looks banal at first. But, Gediz tells me these were exclusively made in Western Europe and discontinued there about 40 years ago with the development of lightweight cooking materials.

The rare saucepan (bottom-left). Photo by: Colin Craig

She lifts up the top to an engraved “Made in Turkey”. “It’s the only one I’ve ever seen in all my years of collecting that was made here,” she says. So, maybe the rare finds are here as well.

The Business of Antiquing

I finally ask her how she knows what to buy and that it will sell? She says it’s impossible to predict what items people will buy, so she gave up trying. Instead, she buys things that she’d want to decorate her home with and that sometimes that’s beyond just an eye for commerce. “It’s hard for me to sell some of this stuff because I like it and I become sort of attached to it,” Gediz tells me. She then shows me her favorite item, a toy robot resembling R2D2 and when you open its head there’s a cassette player inside. I ask her how much she would charge for something like that. “It’s not for sale. This is still part of my personal collection.”

Robot cassette player. Photo by: Sveta Nekrasova

If you think you can pry it from her, come to Büyülü Fener in Balat from 10-7 any day but Monday and try.

This article was originally printed here on yabangee.com. All photos are the property of the photographers.

April Fools Day Come Early in Turkey

Sorry if you think writing about a current events situation two weeks after the fact is too much of a delay, but I was on vacation (thanks, Mom!) and am now just getting back into my daily routine. With that said, I've had some interesting days here in Turkey. With one sticking out as one of the strangest that I've had in Istanbul so far. A nationwide blackout occurred on March 31st from 10 am - 4 pm. And by nationwide I mean pretty much every major city lost power. If you were lucky enough to work in a larger facility your day continued as usual (I wasn't). Otherwise, the country and especially Istanbul was chaotic. Many businesses lack a backup generator which halted production and caused up to millions of dollars in losses according to some estimates. Some people were also stuck in elevators for hours. Outside, the city dealt with its own issues as stop lights and subway lines went out of service for as much as five hours. And in a city spilling over capacity at about 20 million people traffic is already an issue on a normal day. Without work to do and nowhere to go the conspiracy theories began to fly. A conclusive reason has yet to be discovered but there have been numerous ideas ranging from the realistic to the absurd and some preliminary investigations leaking details of a cause, but nothing concrete as of yet. I'll give you a brief overview of the most prominent conjectures and let you make your own decision.

Taksim station on the afternoon of the 31st.

Cyber Attack - The most conspiracy theoryish idea, so of course a lot of people believe it. The idea is that Iran somehow took out Turkey's electrical grid. I have no idea whether this is even possible but one of the reasons I've heard as to why people think it was an attack from Iran, besides geopolitical reasons, is because the city of Van had no outages and they receive their electricity from Iran. Besides the fact that this detail would make this the most conspicuous covert operation I've ever heard of; it defies simple logic. Of course Van would go unaffected if it's not on the national power grid, but I digress.

Employee Error - Probably the easiest to swallow (and most likely) for most people. Someone in Ankara probably fell asleep at the wheel, so to speak, or plugged the wrong what's-it into the incorrect thingy and the next thing you know an entire nation is contemplating the End of Days.

Mismanagement - Another idea partially attributed by the Minister of Energy, Taner Yildiz. A single company, TEİAŞ, is responsible for almost all electrical production and distribution in Turkey. Yildiz blamed people for being careless and taking risks without his knowledge. This is an incredibly vague description. The company's head, Kemal Yildir, took responsibility and resigned saying it was a technical issue and he should've been ahead of it.

Technical Issues - Yildiz also said that simultaneous work at two different plants on the same grid caused a surge which resulted in the events of the 31st. He stated it was an operational fault and not a supply one, however. The stability of the system and its ability to bounce back after a possible future similar event was supported by Yildiz. Even though TEİAŞ was unable to restore power for almost six hours just a week ago. I'm not an electrical engineer, but appears that Yildiz is doing some political posturing instead of giving an objective assessment on the status of the grid.

Potential for Nuclear Energy - The other talked about theory I've heard from a lot of locals is that this is a power move being structured by the government to garner support for nuclear reactors. Just days ago, banners went up all around the capital of Ankara advertising the building of nuclear facilities. A lot people view the power outage as a crafty maneuver to sway those who fear environmental repercussions from nuclear energy to look past their hesitancies because of the fear of instability and perhaps their biggest fear, the loss of revenue. 

On a more serious note, the largest courthouse in Europe, located in Istanbul, less than a mile from my home encountered a hostage situation simultaneously to the blackout. Two gunmen who claimed to be affiliated with the DHKP-C, a banned Marxist political group that is considered a Terrorist organization by Turkey, the EU, and the US, took the prosecutor of the police officer who shot Berkin Elvan hostage with demands of: a public confession from the officer who fired on Elvan, the public naming of four other officers who were allegedly involved, and the gunmen wanting to ensure their own safe exit. After almost a full day of negotiations shots were fired from inside the office. The two gunmen were killed and the prosecutor was shot and died from his injuries at the hospital.

The courthouse where the hostage situation took place in Istnabul

The whole situation, while being sad, raised a more puzzling question. How were these men able to bring guns into such a heavily fortified building? There's the chance that with the blackouts and general chaos of the day the men were able to circumvent security, but this has pushed others to speculate the two events are connected. I'm not going to make that assumption, personally, because I have no way to verify it, but I can say it was one of the crazier days I've experienced in Turkey.