A Turkish bookshop's new chapter on a remote island

Nazım Hikmet Erkan moved his established secondhand bookshop from the city of Istanbul to a quiet island off the coast, with a mission to preserve both books and the history of the local area.
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In May 2016, Nazım Hikmet Erkan transported himself and his secondhand bookstore from Istanbul's bustling Beyoğlu district to Heybeliada, one of nine Princes' Islands off the coast of the city. His peers and customers thought he'd lost his mind. There seemed no viable answer as to why any sensible shopkeeper would relocate his perfectly established business to a remote location that hosts 4,325 residents and is an hour's ferry ride away from the mainland. 

‘It's the journey for me,’ says Nazım, owner of Heybeli Sahaf. A romantic at heart, Nazim is obsessed with the idea of people venturing out to a destination to find rare items. He quotes Che Guevara (‘Be realistic, demand the impossible!’) as the inspiration behind his decision to do the unfeasible. It's this passion and appetite for risk that has molded Heybeli Sahaf into a unique brand.

Becoming a bibliophile

Nazım was both lucky and unlucky to be the son of a school teacher. His formative years were spent moving from one village to another in the Black Sea area. There was no electricity at some of the far-flung locations his father was appointed to, but their house always had a stacked library. Like father, like son – he became an avid reader early on. 

Although Nazım's been selling secondhand books since university, he never dreamed of becoming a full-time bibliophile. Arriving in Istanbul in 2004, he landed a job as part of a camera crew shooting a documentary called Recycling Life: I Found Dostoyevsky in the Garbage. It chronicled the life of bibliophile Oktay Çetinkaya. ‘It sparked something in me. That guy was living my dream. I always wanted to be surrounded by books. I'd worked at bookstores – I knew what a bookseller was, but never had I heard of a bibliophile.’ 

You need to be well-versed in the art of discovery to run a secondhand bookstore, which, in Heybeli Sahaf's case, sells everything from antique books and rare editions to cassettes, records and posters, as well as archival photography. Nazım's drawn to this profession because he likes giving new life to disregarded and tossed-out items – after all, the job is mainly uncovering treasures from someone else's trash, so it's more about the instinct of buying, rather than selling. 

When he launched his own shop in 2011, he'd visit abandoned paper depots, rummage through antique markets and chase under-the-radar auctions – but, today, customers look for him. He's built a reputation. ‘People want to know that their belongings, in spite of having discarded them, are safe with you. It's a bond of unspoken trust.’

A storybook setting

Almost all of the businesses on the Princes' Islands cater to tourists. Nazım's rationale was simple: he wanted to break the mold. ‘You need spirit to do what I do. You're touching people's lives. You're giving new life to things that have been used. It's not for the faint-hearted, who are locked in traditional modes of living and thinking. I asked myself what Istanbul was actually providing me with. I preferred a much smaller, intimate and calmer life. I don't need much and that's sort of the mentality one needs to have to be here.’

His only criteria was that his shop would be nestled in a space representative of the island's historical past. Once he secured the lease for a wooden edifice dating back to 1906, he set sail to Heybeliada.

To Nazım's surprise, more than 1,000 people step foot into the small store on weekends. ‘At first, I was taken aback. In Beyoğlu, I had maybe six customers a day.’ 

Through the allure of the building, Nazım's curated selection and the power of social media, Heybeli Sahaf has become a shop that people travel to visit. The moderately inaccessible nature of the island might seem like a business risk at first glance, but it's given the brand an edge. Daily cargo ships to and from the island make sending out online purchases and receiving book orders easier than you'd think. ‘I have individuals sending all of the content of their libraries, from places such as Bodrum,’ he adds.

The shop that sells time

Much of Nazım's intention with Heybeli Sahaf is to help preserve the history of Heybeliada. For him, a bookstore is a natural vessel that holds the identity of its surroundings. ‘I've collected photographs, documents, books – just anything I can find about Heybeliada, because I believe in the continuity of memory.’ One notable example was Nazım's recent uncovering of a photography album belonging to Mehmet Ali Kağıtçı, a former Heybeliada resident and founder of Turkey's first paper factory.

Nazım is passionate to extend the reach of Heybeli Sahaf by publishing books on the island's culture and some of its personalities, under the soon-to-be-launched Halki Publications, titled after the island's former Greek name.

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