A sad story about a coffee shop

This is a short story about Brazil Coffee Roasters and Dry Goods (Breziliya Kurukahvecisi), a shop in Kadıköy.

When I was contracted to act in a miserably-organized ad shoot* at the beginning of Season Two, I was hanging out with the director of the shoot in the van and mentioned that there was nowhere to buy good coffee in Istanbul. Can you imagine, a whole year drinking instant? Miserable. He recommended a spot in Moda, a district in my Asian side district of Kadıköy, where they imported it and roasted it themselves. I was elated and the next day set out to find it. I was put off by the Aunt Jemima sign, but please remember this is Turkey and our race issues have a different context. 10456781_1708218709446294_2003148570279157791_n.jpg

It was a cheerful place staffed by a crowd of middle-aged dudes who bustled behind the counters like bumblebees. A birdcage in the corner housed a green songbird, merrily chirping away. Every shelf was packed with teas and coffees from all over the world, there were sacks of seeds and nuts open on the floor, basins of dried apricots and dates and chocolates, drawers full of powdered pistachio and jars full of blueberries. They had articles (in Turkish, naturally) proclaiming the health benefits of this berry or another, and one suggesting that four cups of coffee a day would lead to an extraordinary long life. IMG_20160331_160957063.jpgThey had two open canvas sacks of coffee beans, one dark and one light, sitting next to a roaster. I asked for a half-kilo of filter coffee (what you and I know as “normal coffee”) and they scooped up a scoop of the darker beans, poured them into a grinder, and the bright-eyed guy behind the counter chatted with me about my obvious foreignness and what I was doing in Turkey. My Turkish wasn’t great then, but he was genuinely interested and I did my best. I paid fifteen lira. (So back then about seven dollars a pound–a decent price for good coffee even in the US.) We didn’t have a french press or anything, so I used the çaydınlık (the turkish teapot) and just mixed the grounds and water direct. It was great coffee–the freshest I’d had all year. IMG_20160331_160918072.jpg

Jari and I, true to our Park heritage, must drink coffee until we pee out all our moisture and we become as dried out as corn husks. In those days I still worked at Bugün and copyedited from home, so in the mornings before the first articles came Jari and I would brew a pot and sit in the sunlight in the living room like lizards, playing computer games from the 90s, drinking coffee. It was a great and magical time. We made expeditions to Breziliya when we ran out, and they’d put on a muppet show for us when we arrived. “It’s been two weeks since we’ve seen you,” one of them says, and then one calls across from the other aisle, “Yes that’s right two weeks, two weeks, we expected you.” They were funny guys. The more Turkish we learned, the more we could communicate. They had been in business eighty years, and had been for sixty years in that spot–in Moda. I asked one time where the coffee came from and they deadpanned at me: “Brazil.” Duh.

What made the place stand out was that every place around it was a new bar or restaurant. This little store clearly had some accumulated character and history. They weren’t pretentious, just earnest.

They had a news article out front on the window with their story. In 1917 a soldier named Hacı Sıddık Ergincan finished his military service in Trabzon and bought a one-way boat ticket to Istanbul with the intention of starting up a coffee business. He stayed with his relatives and opened Merkez Kurukahvecisi in Kasımpaşa in 1920, a neighborhood on the IMG_20160331_160857809_HDR.jpgGolden Horn on the European side in Beyoğlu.** Business boomed, and he opened up a total of seven shops. He had a son, Mevlüt, who began to take over the family business as his father aged. He had a couple of neat marketing ideas, including printing the logo on coffee cups, and selling coffee in 50-gram bags like teabags. According to this story I’m reading now, the first coffee was from Indonesia and too hard for Turkish tastes, so they began importing from Brazil instead, and changed the name to Breziliya Kurukahvecisi.

The shops one by one were shuttered for various reasons, but the one in Moda still prospered. Mevlüt passed the shop onto his grandsons (not sure why his son wasn’t in the picture here) and those are the bright-eyed guys I know–Nejdet and Bülent.

(Now I’ve made you like the place, so I’m sorry for what I’m about to do.)

I got word they were closing. Some other Kadıköy resident put up a thing on Facebook saying they were closing because they couldn’t make rent. I was stunned and saddened. I went down to the shop yesterday to check. Some of the shelves were empty, a few of the customers or family members were talking to each other and sobbing. Bülent and Nejdet were still bright-eyed, intense. I asked if I could talk to them for awhile. Bülent came outside and sat down with me.

He explained that in 2014 a new tax law had come into effect, changing rent control laws. It made it possible more or less for property owners to dramatically increase the rent on businesses that had been renting for more than ten years. The Armenian Orthodox Church owns the entire block Breziliya stands on, and asked for double what they had been paying–30,000 liras. They refused and tried to take legal action, but no avenues were available.

“Whatever bar that comes here will probably be charged upwards of 40,000,” Bülent said. “It’s not just money, it’s character. They’re ruining the character of the old Moda Çarşı.” He pointed out a few places. “That place got closed ten years ago, that place closed in the 80s.” I asked if there were any others from the old days, and he said their shop was the last holdover.

And it’s true–there were no bars or rakı balık places in Kadıköy in the Moda Çarşı even ten years ago. It was just a quirky community mostly known to outsiders as a retirement home, a quiet place away from the bustle of central Istanbul.

“I’ve been working here since I was 13 years old,” he said. “I’m 42 now. Five families depend on this place.”

Bülent’s daughter (granddaughter? niece?), about five years old, ran outside the shop at that second and he swooped her up and started to tickle her. I took a few pictures and thanked all the guys inside and wished them the best. They were distracted but thanked me for being a customer. I insisted I get a picture with Bülent, and he directed us in front of the coffee roaster.
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I wanted this story to have a villain, but the truth is the Armenian Orthodox Church in Moda is dying. I checked out a service there and it only had two old congregants still chanting away. This government has not been kind to old institutions of all sorts, whether it’s churches or historical landowners, nor has it had any eye towards cultural or historical preservation. No doubt they need the money to take care of themselves. I don’t want to indict anyone here, not landlords, nor the government, nor capitalism–it’s just a bitter reality that places change and we lose the things we love.

*It was a Vestel ad. I appear in it for two seconds and the shoot took all day and drove me around needlessly to four different places all over the city. Fun, though. 

**Also, the birthplace of our democratically elected president, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

My source for the story is this post and my interview with Bülent, and if I screwed up any translations I welcome corrections.

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