ISTANBUL, Turkey — The first rule of shopping in the centuries-old markets of Istanbul is this: The asking price is merely a suggestion. In fact, it’s barely a suggestion. A price is equivalent to a declaration that a merchant is open for business. But you will not pay that number, and he — it is always a he — does not expect you to.
The second rule is to walk away, because the mere act of turning is the most effective method of chipping away at that price. Merchants expect you to walk away, and if you don’t, they probably pity you. For instance, a colorful brass lamp on sale for 30 Turkish lira, or about 16 U.S. dollars, becomes 25 lira, then 20 lira and then 15 lira before you retreat five steps. When you truly have no interest in the lamp, you begin feeling guilty for having ever entertained the thought of buying it.
The third rule — and this is the most essential, maddening and amusing rule — is that you’re never done negotiating. You might think you are done; you might think you have won. You’re not done, and you haven’t won.
Consider an afternoon spent walking through the historic halls of Istanbul’s most famous market, the teeming Grand Bazaar, amid throngs of people and past crammed stalls as merchants chirp, “Excuse me, lady, very nice!”
When my travel companions and I came upon the bazaar’s hundredth stack of brightly colored ceramic bowls that make ideal gifts for the folks back home, we got down to literal and figurative business. Our spiritual leader, a Manhattan mergers and acquisitions guy who has negotiated his way through countless Asian markets, did the talking, and he got the price down to what seemed reasonable: 3 lira apiece for 18 of the little bowls (down from the marked price of 7 lira) and 15 lira for three larger bowls (down from 25). By our math, it totaled 99 lira.
Then our salesman, a stylish man in his 20s with gelled hair and a thin beard, punched some numbers on a calculator and asked for 144 lira. “No,” I said, “that doesn’t seem right.” He punched the buttons again and came back with 129 lira. Then I took the calculator and did the math: 99 lira.
“Oh, yes,” he said. “I am very tired today.”
From your first step onto the bazaar’s white marble floor, there is no mistaking where you are: a living, breathing nexus of sport-meets-history-meets-entertainment. You might want to buy a thing or two — knockoff Derrick Rose jersey? $10,000 rug? — but even if you don’t, the markets are an essential stop.
Turkish markets are enjoyable like Las Vegas is enjoyable: The reward isn’t simply being a part of the crowd, it’s taking a step back to appreciate the crowd — the people, the doing, the unlikeliness of it all.
In this case, the unlikeliness is shopping as sport, a sport barely disturbed by the outside world; when prayers echo through the city streets, as they do several times a day, no one in the markets seems to notice.
Early in the day and during the week, you’re free to move easily between stalls, through the long hallways and beneath the photos of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, Turkey’s first president. The merchants consider eye contact an invitation to pitch their wares. The cheaper the wares, the more aggressive the pitch.
Later in the day, and particularly on weekends, the scene becomes elbow to elbow, with what appear to be some locals crushed alongside camera-wielding tourists. Everyone is looking for the same thing: deals.
The maze of stalls makes the number of options virtually uncountable, and the variety is vast — as is the quality. The $10,000 rug probably is worth the money (well, after you bargain it down a couple grand). But the stall crammed with an array of leather — perhaps I should say “leather” — Nike, Converse, Vans and Asics shoes — perhaps I should say “Nike,” “Converse,” “Vans” and “Asics” — available for 50 or so lira per pair are worth skepticism. When the shoe merchant saw my intrigue fade, he squeezed my shoulders and said, “Why not, my friend?”
The real answer was that I was concerned about the quality of the shoes. While a full-body green track suit bearing an Adidas logo (I was so tempted) or polo shirt featuring the Izod alligator might not be an unreasonable risk, shoes sourced from questionable roots seemed unwise.
Instead I just said, “Today is not the day.” Before the man’s hands were off my shoulders, he said to the next customer, “Hello, my friend! How may I help you?”
Though the Grand Bazaar is Istanbul’s most famous market, partly because of its size, age and location in the central tourist district near the famed Blue Mosque, it is hardly the only one. About half a mile from the Grand Bazaar is another famous stop: the Spice Bazaar. It’s among the most sensory experiences you can have in Istanbul, filling the nose with smells of zesty herbs and the mouth with flavors of which salesmen are happy to endlessly provide samples. It is more fun to discover your favorite flavors of Turkish delight — chocolate covered, yes, and poppy seed too — than haggle over a T-shirt.
We quickly settled on a clean, roomy stall recently updated with recessed lighting and clean glass shelves. Dried fruit, nuts and bright, colorful spices lined the walls.
A round-faced man approached and introduced himself as Super Mario. When we said we were American, he said he lived in Laguna Beach, Calif., in 1975.
“Today is my birthday!” he added.
Super Mario gave us tastes of anything we wanted: half a dozen types of Turkish delight, pinches of spice and small handfuls of nuts.
“You know where the almonds come from?” he asked. “California.”
I appreciated the honesty, even as one of his colleagues told another customer that, sure enough, it was his birthday too.
We came to like Super Mario as he guided us to the three or four spices we bought, sealing the deal with several handshakes. The next day, deciding we were still a few spices short, we returned to the Spice Bazaar and headed straight for Super Mario’s stall. He brightened at seeing us, and I asked if it was still his birthday.
“Again it is my birthday!” he said.
We spent half an hour tasting more spices before selecting a few to have vacuum-sealed for the long flight home.
“Super Mario, just give us your best price and we’re all set,” I said.
Super Mario punched some numbers on a calculator and showed it to us. We paid it. He threw in a box of apple tea to say thanks.