From trash to treasure: İstanbul’s Dolapdere flea market

The whole world is caught up in the consumption craze. Research shows that this madness is shaped by trends and habits rather than our actual needs. However, there are still people who prefer to buck this trend. They refuse to be part of a society buried in shopping malls, and instead of following the latest trends or chasing after the next new thing. An increasing number of people are building their own shopping universe instead.

Although flea markets don’t appear in consumption-oriented lifestyle magazines, this growing trend appeals not just to the “let’s check it out” generation; people of all ages are interested. Economic difficulties may be one reason for this growing trend —the already-unstable Turkish lira lost 28 percent of its value against the dollar in 2018 alone, with inflation now hovering around 20 percent. Food prices have skyrocketed, and unemployment is close to 11 percent.

Along with the struggle to make ends meet, another thing the flea markets’ regular customers have in common is their admirable stance on consumption. They prefer to save money and buy high-quality, second-hand products. Instead of showing off, they’re embracing the idea of buying only what they need. They believe in preserving the ecological balance and share a common desire to move away from the madness of production and consumption.

Mübin Kızıl explained to Ahval why his preference for second-hand goods.

“The world’s natural resources are limited, and producing some things is very harmful to the environment. Out of respect to all living things, I prefer second hand over everything else. Some people are hesitant about buying second-hand clothing, but I wear them with peace of mind. I describe these things as ‘experienced,’ and I feel like they carry stories within them that feed my spirit. By using second-hand goods, I’m building a new story into them. This is how I model anti-consumerism,” Kızıl noted.

There is a saying that goes, “If you really want to learn about a city, go to the flea market” because that’s where you can see the residents’ habits, lifestyle, and hobbies.

One of Istanbul’s most interesting flea markets is in the neighbourhood of Dolapdere, near the old city centre. This market is open on Saturdays, and it’s busy from morning to night, with some customers showing up at sunrise.

The people at the flea market can be categorised into four groups. The first group are often considered “Others;” they have very little purchasing power, and they’re generally immigrants from Syria, Africa, and Afghanistan. Vendors are another group—they sell the products they buy here, either in auctions or on the Internet. The third group are the collectors. They come before the booths are even set up because the most valuable products sell as soon as they are set out. The last group are those who are conscientious about over-consumption.

An endless array of products are arranged on shelves or on canvases spread on the ground—used brand-name clothing, shoes, faucets, water heaters, ceramics, photographs, televisions, irons, clocks, stoves, toys, teapots, even real fur. Some sellers don’t know whether or not their electronic products work. If you want to take a gamble, you can pay 1 lira (about 20 cents) at the coffeehouse inside the market and they’ll plug it in for you to test it out.

It’s truly possible to call this market Istanbul’s recycling centre. Most of the products here were mixed in with the week’s trash in bins across the city, items people splurged on and threw away even though they’re still usable. Scrap collectors who’ve helped to empty houses also sell their wares here.

Seyif İleri was one of the first sellers at the Dolapdere flea market, coming here after the one in Topkapı was shut down.

“Doctors and professors come and find what they’re looking for. Mostly antiques and electronics are sold here. Old money, too, and gold and silver. Once I even found a diamond ring. I sell whatever you can think of, and can I earn up to 200 lira ($37) each day. I’m happy I can do this work,” İleri explained.

Born in 1939, Naz Anne was also one of the first to open a booth in Dolapdere.

“I’m from here, and I’ve been at this market for over 15 years. There were very few of us at first, all locals selling things in front of their houses to make a little extra income. Now they started coming from all over, all kinds of people—scrap collectors, antique dealers, Black people, Syrians,’’ she explained, adding, ‘’They mostly buy blankets and pillows. Most of us buy household goods from the scrap collectors. I sell clothes that I buy from them. A couple of months ago, I bought a bunch of clothes for 2,500 lira ($470). Sales were much better before, but now, nothing! Three or four years ago, we were making tons of money, but now no one has any money.”


Haggling over prices is an indispensable ritual at the market, explains Cengiz Akdoğan from his booth.

“There is still a neighbourhood culture here. We meet lots of people and make friends. We’re like family. I sell telephone supplies, items that were unsold in shops. My stuff is so cheap because it’s scratched. Of course, people won’t pay a lot of money for that, but they’ll buy it at a big discount. The prices change with haggling—we have to haggle. No one gets mad. That’s what’s so special about Dolapdere. Some flea markets only cater to certain people, but not this one,” Akdoğan explained.

Flea market regulars develop a hunter’s eye. They develop a different way of seeing, and they notice things that look like trash or that others just don’t see.

One loyal customer in Dolapdere, a lawyer, has the hunter’s eye. His quest went on for so long that he was able to assemble a set of very rare law books.

“Really remarkable things turn up here. You can spend a little or a lot. It’s fun rummaging around, but you have to like old things,’’ he explained.

‘’Looking for something and finding it gives people the greatest joy. I feel so lucky to have found these old law books. There’s really a serious economy developing here. People gather up old stuff and bring it to the flea market, and then buy bread for their families. I never go to malls. If I have the urge to buy something, I satisfy it here.”