Columbus, Ohio USA
Return to Homepage www.shortnorth.com
Karavan Treasures From Turkey
Magical contemporary craftsmanship with ancient design
By Ann Starr
March/April 2014 Issue
Return to Homepage
Return to Features Index
Photos © Erica Woodrum
Step out of the Short North’s hubbub of clogged traffic, sidewalk clatter, and boutiques so crowded that clients have to shimmy between shelves not to derange the wares. Karavan Treasures from Turkey invites the visitor to a Middle Eastern courtyard of brilliant color and ancient patterns in a restful atmosphere. Duck in for ten minutes to shop among the unusual merchandise, or stay to chat and have Turkish coffee with owner Bulent Bekcioglu. It’s a turbulence-free trip to Turkey with a virtual cultural attaché graciously at your disposal.
This year marks the tenth anniversary of Karavan’s opening at the address it’s continuously occupied, 771-B North High. Its inventory is magical to the Western eye: hanging oriental lanterns fashioned in several traditions, made of colored glass or metal filigrees; with glass beads or dependent finials. There are elaborate rugs hand-woven from naturally dyed wools; enameled ceramic plates and bowls decorated in the lilting geometric, calligraphic, or floral designs of Islamic art; and tiered, silver-plated necklaces cast in ancient Ottoman patterns for richly draping a woman’s bosom. It’s a place where contemporary craftsmanship and ancient design are so intertwined that any object on the wall, shelf, or dangling from the ceiling is timeless. Objects date both from the days of individual completion and from the artisans’ long traditions and histories of practice. The shop emanates a vivid sense of far-away place and living traditions.
Still, Karavan doesn’t feel like a museum. And it is certainly not a dentist’s office, which was what Bekcioglu (silent ‘g’) most effectively abandoned when he moved to Columbus – for the second time – in 2004. In Turkey, he had been a dentist. He took a leave from his practice in the ‘90s, though, so that his wife could attend dental school at Ohio State University. While she earned her degree, he pursued a master’s in Near Eastern Languages and Cultures. Their degrees complete, they returned to Istanbul.
But life there grew hectic and stressful. They had a son; Bekcioglu’s wife found herself more and more inclined toward research over dental practice. They knew Columbus, and they knew that they could both be fulfilled here. Now he teaches elementary and intermediate Turkish part-time at OSU and pursues his passion for Turkey’s material culture through running his business.
Bekcioglu reports that OSU is well-known in Turkey, and that this is reflected by the high number of students and the 45 full-time professors from Turkey on campus. He puts the native Turkish population of Franklin County at 1500 to 2000.
This local Turkish community constitutes one segment of Bekcioglu’s clientele. They like Karavan, he’s pleased to say, because they can find so many different artisanal items under one roof, something it’s impossible to do in Turkey. “At home,” he explains, “if you want silver, you go to the town where silver is traditionally made; you go to another for ceramics, and to another for rugs.”
Bekcioglu stocks Karavan on annual trips when he spends a month or two touring Turkey’s regions and their artisanal markets, driving village to village. He personally chooses every item in the store, acquiring most directly from the people who made them. It’s evident that these buying trips are a tremendous personal joy. The topic lights him up and brings out his stories. He remembers with animation the drive up a long, steep mountain road, achieving the top and making a snap decision to veer off to a lurching halt when he saw a man working copper close by.
Bekcioglu was on top of the world (in every sense) and he lingered, delighted to make a new friend, find a new source, and explore his craft. (His wife, he laughs, was not so thrilled.)
Bekcioglu visits his home village to shop for silver from the local ladies he knows well. In village markets he usually does business with artisans he’s been acquainted with for years. While haggling for price is an established way to do business in Turkey, he says he rarely indulges in the practice anymore, since it undercuts the prized relationships he’s established with his contacts, artists and shopkeepers. “What if I save a few cents with another man but he turns out to be dishonest,” he points out.
Still, he tells me, going to the market – shopping for anything – in Turkey is a pleasure. It’s an opportunity to experience Turkish hospitality, something he extends in his own store. “Doing business over there is very different,” he says with a smile.
In the marketplace, shopkeepers aren’t aggressive, harassing customers into their businesses. They are welcoming, friendly, and do not put pressure on shoppers. Visitors are invited to have coffee or a cup of tea, or even to stay and dine with the proprietor. Conversation is valued. The attitude of hospitality is never cynical or calculating, Bekcioglu insists – though he laughs that, “Of course, you might feel bad if you don’t buy something.”
His point is well made though. Throughout our conversation, I’ve sat on a handsome wingback chair upholstered in a heavy Turkish fabric with a colorful woven design. I’ve sipped deep, black Turkish coffee from the tiny cup and saucer he’s placed on a silver tray before me, and I’ve nibbled on a crunchy, sweet rusk. I don’t have time for the lunch I’ve been offered, and I greatly regret it. My “interview subject” has become my host, whose satisfying conversation it would be a delight to continue.
I take one final tour of the store before I wrap up, admiring again the gaudy rings and heavy bracelets, the Turkish slippers, tall embroidered felt boots, the “harem” pants, metal-embellished belts, the shawls and satchels, the blue tulips on enameled plates.
It’s hard not to like the famous, simple, evil eye amulets the best, though. Bekcioglu has a whole wall devoted to the blue glass “eyes” that traditionally are said to stare down spell-casters who would bring harm to individuals or their households. These nazar bonjuks are made of glass and come as big and flat as a salad plate or as small as tiny beads. They hang by themselves, like simple, elegant works of art, or they are incorporated into key chains, figurines, and myriad household items. They are entirely folkloric, with no religious association. Thus, among Karavan’s crowded collection of nazar protection, they dangle from the hems of wall hangings featuring both Christian saints and Muslim heroes.
Indeed, it’s hard to think of anything difficult, troublesome, or even out of sorts invading Bekcioglu’s delightful Karavan. This is the way he’s planned and made it. His intention is to entice us not only into his store, but also into the experience of his homeland. “It’s an incredibly cool country where the main thing is hospitality. For anyone who goes, it will be their favorite country – the landscape! The food!”
Karavan is a perfect place for people to learn about Bekcioglu’s beloved Turkish culture. They can have a cup of coffee, chat, and absorb Istanbul or Ankara as if they were there.
When Bekcioglu teaches his elementary language students, he does so with lots of stories, cartoons, and funny songs. I imagine that these function in roughly the same way as the beauty of Karavan’s surroundings work for shoppers and visitors, for his mission is the same in the store and in the classroom: To open the world up to curious people and to excite them about Turkey. Of each job he holds he shrugs happily and affirms, “This isn’t work: It’s love.”
Visit www.karavancolumbus.com or call 614-291-4438 to learn more.
Check out more of Ann Starr's writing at starr-review.blogspot.com where she reviews and muses about her experience with contemporary fine art and music.
© 2015 Short North Gazette, Columbus, Ohio. All rights reserved.
Return to Homepage www.shortnorth.com