They are tucked into odd corners of large American shopping malls, in the shadow of the huge national retailers that dominate these places. These are small, independent shops owned and run by individual entrepreneurs, often immigrants, that cater to customers looking for something different, whether in clothes or jewelry or artifacts. Today on New American Voices you’ll meet a young Turkish-American woman who is part owner of a newly opened boutique in Baltimore, Maryland, that sells handcrafted items from Turkey.
The Agora of Anatolia is a small, wedge-shaped store located in the bustling Gallery Mall in Baltimore’s trendy Inner Harbor. The shop is filled with intricately decorated pottery, silk scarves, silver jewelry and glass amulets meant to guard against “the evil eye.” Everything in the shop is imported from Turkey. Heves Soysal, a slight, dark, intense young woman in rimless glasses, presides over Agora of Anatolia’s cash register.
“Business is going great, actually. We try to hit all the levels of people, levels of customers. We have some expensive products, and then we have some – you know, just come in and get something. We have, like, copper items, we have silks, we have little knick-knacks, I mean we just want customers to come in and to see and then say, ‘Okay, I can afford those’, or ‘Oh, this is great, I want this.’ So, we just have a variety of products.”
Ms. Soysal came to the United States seven years ago to study business. After finishing her master’s degree she worked as an accountant for several companies who sponsored her for her work visa. Last year she was joined by her brother and sister-in law, who won a government-sponsored visa lottery and received a so-called “green card”, allowing them permanent residency in the United States. Together, they hatched the idea of opening a shop specializing in Turkish handicrafts.
“We had a concept that… Since I’d been living here seven years, I go back to Turkey and bring some present back to my friends. And they loved the Turkish plates, they loved the Turkish stuff. Every time I bring something, they say ‘We want more, we want more’. So we decided, okay, we might want to do this business.”
The would-be entrepreneurs knew next to nothing about setting up a business in America. As it turned out, the first and biggest obstacle they encountered was finding affordable space in which to display their wares.
“My sister-in-law and brother just worked really hard to go into the fairs and to find some place in the malls. They talked to everyone in Baltimore, in Washington, in New Jersey. They picked up talking to the mall managers, going to New York to see, you know, how they set up, where do people present their stuff. Because we didn’t know anything about it.”
In the end they were lucky, Heves Soysal says: the Gallery’s management offered them an unused, oddly-shaped space behind a coffee shop. The rent, some two or three thousand dollars per month, was much more reasonable than anything they had encountered in their search, even for portable carts in mall walkways.
“In the other malls the rents were so high. We were looking at the carts, and the rent for the carts and the kiosks were like four thousand dollars in September, October, November, and in December they go up to nine thousand, ten thousand dollars, during the Christmas season. So God helped us. I mean, God helped us, God really opened a door for us.”
Armed with a degree in business, Heves Soysal became the shop’s financial manager. Her brother, meanwhile, puzzled over how the awkward space they had rented could be redesigned for maximum effect.
“My brother and sister-in-law just worked on the store really, really hard, and we had another friend when we were first opening the store and he helped us design the store, basically. You know, every day we went to the display places, we – my brother and sister-in-law, actually – just put their heads together, how can we use the space more effectively. From the beginning we didn’t have that much capital to start with, so when we sold something, we invested it in the display. And it just worked.”
The handicrafts that Agora of Anatolia displays and sells are personally selected by Heves Soysal’s brother, and made for him by artisans in Turkey. Ms Soysal says many Americans are enchanted by these items.
“They really are amazed at how much handwork is done on the plates. Everybody walks into the store saying it’s gorgeous, it’s beautiful, it’s just incredible handwork. Which is true, this is something that you can’t just do overnight, it’s just a God-given ability to paint, to create something. It’s passed on from father to son, you know, family to family. ”
The store has an extensive selection of items bearing the black-within–white-within-blue circle that in Turkey traditionally is associated with protection against the “evil eye.” There are bracelets and necklaces and key chains, all with the evil-eye symbol. Ms Soysal says some American customers don’t know how to react to these talismans.
“With the evil eyes we have some interesting comments. Like we have some ladies, and as soon as they hear “evil eye” they run away. And we say, ‘No, no, no, no, no, this is just something that we believe protects you from envies and jealousies, it’s been around for five thousand years. It’s very common to see this in Turkey in every house, when you get a new car, when you start a new business.’ And some people fall in love and get tons of it, and some people just run away… from the evil eye!”
Heves Soysal herself probably has one or two of these traditional talismans against the evil eye guarding her shop. She is hopeful her business – which only opened last November - will prosper, and eventually have branches in malls throughout the area.
English Feature #7-38762 Broadcast June 21, 2004