How do Istanbul street traders make a living?
July 11, 2011 12:08 PM   Subscribe

Street traders in Istanbul - how can they possibly make a living? Or are they stooges for crime?

I'm currently visiting Istanbul, and I don't understand how so many street traders selling such obviously useless goods at such low prices and with such infrequency (yes, I've been observing them) can stay afloat economically. Or do they need to?

Google has failed me (though I am stuck on a phone with wifi so I didn't persist). I'm aware of muggings, pickpocketings, organised crime (generally). And I'm pretty clear on more legitimate sales such as hustling people into restaurants or onto guided tours, or selling them carpets they didn't want.

The only way I can make it work in my head is to suppose, say, that the (non-food) street traders are in some kind of consortium with the pickpockets and that the small gains and occasional luggage jackpots made across the district or city are somehow then shared out among the traders. A kind of guild where you get paid by the hour for being a tourist-distractor?

Help me Turks, criminals, street traders, anyone better up on this kind of thing, to help me understand. I realise that there is probably a principle at work here that is not culturally-specific to this particular city, or time!
posted by Hugobaron to Society & Culture (9 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Do you mean the ones selling lighters and fingernail clippers and the like? If so, their expenses are practically nothing and so even with small margins they make money. Personal experience: I have purchased a nail clipper from them for a dollar. Even if you haven't personally witnessed it, they have customers.
posted by valeries at 12:34 PM on July 11, 2011

Best answer: I don't know Istanbul, but I have experienced something possibly similar in Egypt. I assume you are talking about cheap tourist crap, but I have also experienced kids trying to sell packets of tissues etc.

My thoughts are:

The low prices are still decent to them. Everything in the tourist area is more expensive: food, bottles of water, entry to things, so this may create a false impression of the price. Once they take that money to the poor part of town it's worth more.

If they haven't got anything better to do, anything they get's better than nothing. They don't have any overheads apart from probably paying someone commission to work their patch. It's not really a case of staying 'afloat' cause they're gonna be sleeping in a tenement somewhere anyway and just trying to hustle for what they can.

They use every sales technique at their disposal from badgering to emotional blackmail about being poor. Some tourists will be pressured into buying the crap at inflated prices because the traders simply won't give up and make them uncomfortable.

Some tourists will see the crap for what it is, but some come from places where some things are not around and it's a novelty to them. Also people have different tastes.

Some people have to spend money in a kind of buying frenzy when they go away even when it flies in the face of reality. It's fucking weird but there you go. Like that scene from the dark crystal when that haggard old creature is surrounded by it's treasured crap.
posted by Not Supplied at 12:36 PM on July 11, 2011

Best answer: at such low prices and with such infrequency (yes, I've been observing them)

How long have you observed them? Have you looked at different times of day and days of the week? I'm betting you have seriously underestimated their sales volume - how many items do you think a street vendor sells on an average day?

They are probably scraping together enough to make a living, if you take their minimal operating expenses and frugal living conditions into account.

As an order of magnitude example, let's say you are selling one item per hour at $1, making a $0.50 profit. If you spend 12 hours on the street, that's $6 in your pocket - probably enough to keep you from starving.
posted by Dr Dracator at 1:10 PM on July 11, 2011

Best answer: You do what you have to do. When I was in India, admittedly a few years ago, the day wages for casual labour (breaking rocks in the hot sun, etc.) were about $1-$1.50 a day. So if a street vendor made more than a dollar a day he was doing 'well.' If you are not used to the poverty, existing on this may seem impossible, but hundreds of millions of people do so.
posted by carter at 1:15 PM on July 11, 2011

And there are tourists like my husband who literally will buy all his gifts for everyone in one shot. In Istanbul it was, "Give me 50 of the evil eye charms for $1 a piece" Heck, I bought bags in a desert area in Capadociea where literally it was arid with NOTHING except the tiny bag stand; vendor kept himself occupied by hand knitting lace. Also, if you unloading the local currency you will buy a load of tourist crap.
posted by jadepearl at 1:15 PM on July 11, 2011

Best answer: "As of 2008 (2005 statistics), the World Bank has estimated that there were an estimated 1,345 million poor people in developing countries who live on $1.25 a day or less." -- World Hunger Education Service
posted by dhartung at 6:06 PM on July 11, 2011

You'll see this throughout southeast Asia as well, to varying degrees. I single US dollar can go a long way in some of these places.

Better yet, maybe the Western tourist doesn't have any singles -- only fives or tens. Jackpot.
posted by bardic at 10:10 PM on July 11, 2011

Response by poster: I hear you, people. I guess my bourgeois-tourist imagination has been getting the better of me.
posted by Hugobaron at 11:18 PM on July 11, 2011

What everyone else said. Anecdotally, and I should choose my words very carefully here, it doesn't seem too unreasonable to suggest that at least some vendors in Istanbul pad their income by handing gullible tourists counterfeit currency for change.

I pass no judgment on this practice, and I have no idea how widespread it is. But I know it exists, because I was such a gullible tourist, at the Kapalıçarşı some years ago.
posted by goodnewsfortheinsane at 7:54 AM on July 12, 2011

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