A mere love for books would not make one a bookseller in Heybeliada, an island of around 5,000 people off the coast of Istanbul in the Sea of Marmara, where foot traffic increases only during the summer months.
“It demands an act of courage,” said Nazim Hikmat Erkan, a bearded middle-aged antiquarian, sitting in an armchair outside his shop, which sells old books.
(All photos by Riyaz ul Khaliq for Anadolu)
Half a decade ago, Erkan — impressed with the life, people, and architecture of Istanbul’s second largest island — finally moved to Heybeliada and then decided to open a shop here, as his fellow islanders insisted that they needed a bookshop.
Erkan said that with the shop, he also aims to “bridge people with their history.”
Heybeliada is officially part of the Princes’ Islands archipelago. It has been home to several local minorities and has emerged as one of the hotspot tourist destinations for Turkish as well as international tourists.
A 40-minute ferry trip from the shores of the Bosporus Strait, Heybeliada boasts sea beaches, a forest, cycling, and walking routes, and parks and neighborhoods embellished with numerous kinds of flowers.
Heybeli Sahaf, a ‘dream place’
Erkan studied management at Samsun 19 Mayis University before moving to Istanbul in the early 2000s.
With roots in Türkiye’s Black Sea region, he took a job in the textiles industry before shifting to documentary filmmaking, where he assisted the director of photography.
“As the famous saying goes, ‘the rocks and soil of Istanbul are made of gold,’ so I came looking for opportunities…People from Anatolia have been coming here for centuries for this reason,” said Erkan as he was interrupted by a passerby.
“This is a great spot! How nice! The best place on the island together with music, books, the wind, and the shade,” said the lady, sounding like she knew Erkan, who nodded in the affirmative.
Heybeli Sahaf (Heybeli Antiquarian’s Shop), with its motto “Zaman Satan Dükkan,” meaning “the shop that sells time,” is situated across a vital juncture of tracks on the island.
Most of the visitors to the island come across the bookshop, and many have “interesting questions” after coming across old photos being sold outside the premises of Istanbul and other famous places and personalities.
“Sometimes youngsters are surprised to see photographs and they ask what this thing is and how the photos were produced,” Erkan told Anadolu Agency, acknowledging how internet penetration had changed the way people viewed life.
“Now, instead of taking and printing photographs, people click pictures with smartphones and save them in memory cards for times to come.”
Old cassettes, typewriters, and decades-old newspapers and magazines adorn the tables around the shop.
“Researchers sometimes contact me, and many times they are successful in finding the material they need for their work,” Erkan said, emphasizing that preserving history and historic pieces was important, despite life having changed fast.
After he moved to Heybeliada in 2014, Erkan noticed the place where he now runs his shop.
“It struck my mind that I had found my dream place, and one day when I learned that the tenant was vacating the shop, I decided to rent it, and thus began the bookshop journey on this beautiful island,” he recalled.
Before moving to the island, Erkan was running an old bookshop in Istanbul’s historic Taksim district.
After he opened Heybeli Sahaf in mid-2016, he closed his shop in Taksim a year later to focus on the shop on the island.
Inspiring Taksim antiquarian
Erkan recalled the day he was assisting his director while they were filming an old antiquarian named Oktay, who had an antiquary bookshop in Taksim, which usually remains full of international visitors to Istanbul.
Antiquarians deal with antiques or rare books.
“He had a special life story, and his life and work influenced me, and we thereafter became friends,” he said.
During his university days back in Türkiye’s Black Sea region, Erkan said he was very interested in books and used to sell books after class hours.
“I left filmmaking and joined an antiquary shop that belonged to Oktay’s partner and worked there for three years as his apprentice,” he said
Three years were enough for him to learn the job of an antiquarian, and Oktay saw it.
“He encouraged me to start my antiquarian bookshop and thus began the journey of my Taksim shop,” he said.
Books in many languages
As visitors passed by and some peeped into the shop to search for books, Erkan shared that the bookshop has books in more than a dozen languages.
Visitors from mainland Istanbul, other provinces from Türkiye, and other countries are regular customers at the shop.
“Everybody called me crazy when I opened this bookshop on this island, (but) it proved to be an act of courage,” said Erkan.
Heybeli Sahaf is nowadays updating its portal for online orders.
His social media account has garnered him a huge following and customers.
“This bookshop has helped show that this island is also valuable for its history, culture, and architecture,” he added.
Mostly, Heybeli Sahaf buys old books, he said.
“I buy old books from people who move to other places or other countries, or those who pass away, leaving their books and libraries to their relatives,” he said.
In a cursory look inside the shop, you see lots of books in Turkish, Greek, French, English, German and Italian and some in other languages as well as Ottoman books.
There is a photo gallery on the life and times of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of the Republic of Türkiye and a set of books on the history of the island and booklets on Islamic economics occupy the shelves.
It also has dictionaries of languages, including Urdu, Mongolian and Turkic dialects such as Chagatai.
“Mostly, people are looking for novels and history or philosophy books,” Erkan said.
He added that many people contact Heybeli Sahaf to get first edition copies of books or those signed by their authors.
“Heybeli Sahaf has become part of someone’s life…It has become something very personal. We just don’t buy and sell books,” he said, citing an incident where an old man who was selling all his books to him since he was moving to another city later became an important figure in “a relationship like that of a father and son.”
“I was buying the books of a person from another district in Istanbul.
“When I went to bring books from his house, first he couldn’t even open the door, and then I found him in a very bad situation… Apparently, he had a health issue.
“I called my friends who had gotten me in touch with him for purchasing the books. We arranged to bring him to the island and together followed his medical condition. He underwent surgery and is now recuperating. He has become our neighbor on the island,” Erkan said.
It happened around nine months ago.
He was selling his library “to start a fresh life.”
“My friends and I became a reason for him to start a fresh life and our relationship has matured like into a father and a son,” he said.
Bridging time and turning nostalgic
Erkan said Heybeli Sahaf has turned into a place “bridging time.”
“We have become a reason for many to connect them to history,” he said, citing many examples where people thanked him for providing the material they had come looking for.
The old newspapers and magazines “give a feeling and yearning for nostalgia,” he said.
Heybeli Sahaf also has “a strong, serious collection on philosophy and cinema.”
“We are building a strong online database to be able to serve customers through our website. We used to run the business online in the past and are now updating the portal in the next few months,” Erkan said.
He was inspired by the book written by Fistik Ahmet Tanriverdi, an author who runs a restaurant on Buyukada, one of the neighboring islands.
Handing a hard copy of the book by Tanriverdi, “Zaman Satan Dükkan,” Erkan said: “The kind of work we are doing at Heybeli Sahaf is an archeological one; our true business is to delve into what is not available in the market.”
“We dig into things that people are looking for and connect people with their needs…It is like a bridge between something old that is hardly sold, thought to be lost, and the person who is seeking that thing.
“We just get a commission for being that bridge,” Erkan said. “I believe antiquarians and their books have very important places for the culture of each country.”