Turkey Rolls Out the Red Carpet
"Rather than sell a carpet, the most important thing is friendship," carpet salesman Mehmet Vorndan tells me. "Friendship lasts forever."
Presumably, longer than a carpet. But since I left his Yurdan Carpet & Jewelry shop without buying a carpet, I will have to check back at a later time to see if my friendship with Vorndan is still intact.
Any visitor to Istanbul soon learns that evading carpet sellers takes similar skills to Team USA guard Derrick Rose driving to the basket. They invite you into their shops and serve you apple tea and say how you cannot leave the city without a fine Turkish carpet. Ask somebody for directions in town and the conversation invariably ends with, "Would you like to buy a carpet?"
But even though I have yet to buy one on my visit here for the FIBA World Championship, which gets underway Saturday, there was still optimism from Vordnan when I left the shop about this tough year for carpets perhaps getting a boost.
"We have had the economy, we had the Icelandic volcano (last spring), which shut down flights for three weeks, and we had the World Cup in South Africa (in June and July) and many tourists went there (instead of Istanbul)," Vorndan said. "But maybe basketball will bring the customers in."
Maybe even NBA players.
Vordnan said his most expensive carpet costs $100,000, which is less than one NBA regular-season game check for some of the players on Team USA.
As for players actually going out and buying carpets, one salesman, though, is not optimistic.
"They will be sitting by the pool," said Yasar Aksoy, owner of Gallerie Metin, of players during their off time.
Not that Aksoy or other carpet salesmen would recognize a player if he walked in. Aksoy said "people who sell carpets follow soccer."
Nevertheless, all are welcome at Aksoy's shop. If you have trouble finding it, just look for the beaten 1998 Renault with more than 200,000 miles on it parked on the street in front of the shop. The other day, it had three carpets draped on it valued at a combined $4,000, a heck of a lot more than the car is worth.
Aksoy (pictured) said the car is used to place the carpets for drying after he cleans them. But, he admits, it also serves a purpose for advertising.
"Most carpet shops just have them in the window," he said. "But if you place a carpet in some place different it does get somebody's attention, and maybe they come in."
It worked for me since I came in. Alas, I again didn't buy.
Often, though, customers must be lured into the shop. After I toured the Blue Mosque, a man named Selo Vorndan walked up and started asking me questions. When he found out I was an American journalist covering the World Championship, he talked about how he had watched the Team USA-Greece exhibition game on television earlier in the week.
Since carpet salesmen are soccer fans, that must eliminate him from that profession, right? Well, not exactly. The next thing I knew, the 31-year-old, who is the cousin of Mehmet Vorndan, was walking me to the family shop and I was then handed a cup of apple tea.
It was insisted to me no drugs had been put into the tea to make me want to buy a carpet, and that turned out to be accurate. I also would learn later from a carpet salesman that apple tea is pretty much just for tourists.
"They seem to like the apple tea," said Ziya Demir, owner of Ottomania Oriental Rugs Gallery. "If you are from Turkey, we serve them mostly black tea."
Demir said he can go through as much as 100 cups a day of serving tea to customers, which costs him about $7. But that is a small price to pay when it comes possibly selling a carpet for big dollars.
Carpets are silk, wool and cotton, with silk being the most expensive. One can get a still-nice, good-sized wool carpet for $500, or one can really splurge and spend tens of thousands of dollars for a silk one from the Western Turkey town of Hereke, known for making some of the finest carpets.
Many stores have beautiful carpets, but the art of the deal is getting the customers inside, which is why many of the shops hire guys to walk around the tourist areas of Istanbul to lure potential buyers.
"Well, if you don't call the customers, they won't come," said Faysal Attici, sales manager of the Onur store, unashamed about the hustling reputation of carpet salesmen.
And while you're there, Attici won't just try to sell you a carpet.
"We also have a travel agency here and a hotel," said Ogguz Koca, who manages the travel agency. "And we sell spices, although we sometimes give those away to our customers."
I assume that anybody who buys enough carpets to get some exotic spices thrown in really is a friend.
Chris Tomasson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter@christomasson