At the tail end of Istanbul’s İstiklâl Caddesi (Independence Street) in Beyoğlu, there’s a shop called Robinson Crusoe 389. It’s one of the last remaining bookshops on Istanbul’s busiest shopping street, a castaway among the big brand retailers, coffee shops and waffle places. Designed by Han Tümertekin, it opened its doors at 389 İstiklâl in 1994, selling an impressive range of Turkish and English books. The street has been renumbered since then – the bookshop’s address is now 195 İstiklâl – but the number 389 still appears above the door and on the shop’s bags.
Beyoğlu was once considered the centre of Istanbul’s cultural life, full of bookshops, cinemas and Turkish fashion houses. People would shop at Vakko (now a Mango store, the second busiest in the world) before going for tea at Markiz patisserie, rather than Caffè Nero. According to my grandmother, you couldn’t go to Beyoğlu in the 1950s and 1960s if you weren’t properly dressed, meaning that the poor and conservatives weren’t welcome. But if there’s a more democratic mix of people on the streets of Beyoğlu now, the same can’t be said of the businesses there. Small, independent places like Robinson Crusoe 389 are struggling.
To raise urgently needed funds, the shop has introduced a prepaid loyalty card scheme (known as RobKart) with the slogan: ‘Pay now, buy later.’ Whether it will be enough to keep the shop afloat remains to be seen.
This article was published in the London Review of Books blog on August 23, 2013