Mondo Weirdo

Pete Hausler recounts an unforgettable encounter with a Turkish shop owner and book-lover.

By Pete Hausler

Published December 12, 1997 8:00PM (EST)

A few summers ago I traveled to Turkey for a three-week wander along the Mediterranean. Having plenty of quality reading material when traveling is imperative, since big chunks of time are spent either sitting on trains, buses, trams, ferries and planes -- or in terminals just waiting around for them. So I packed three books: Ralph Ellison's "Invisible Man," Robert Graves' "I, Claudius" and Heinrich Bvll's "The Clown."

Three days into the trip, while walking through the old quarter of Antalya, Turkey's southern coastal hub, I stumbled upon the Owl Book Shop, a store that sold used English-language books. Though it was before 9 a.m., the shop was open and a man sat outside in a lawn chair with an empty beer bottle at his feet and a perspiring full one in his hand. He was sweating as much as the beer, even though the breezy morning hadn't heated up yet. The man asked if I liked books. Following my enthusiastic yes, he popped out of his chair, stuck out his hand and said, "I am Kemer. I buy and sell. Please go in." His deep voice, dark hair and beard and flawless-but-accented English gave him the appearance of a shabby Peter Ustinov.

A friend had recently raved about Mikhail Bulgakov's "The Master and Margarita," but I had been unable to pick it up before I left. But there it was in Kemer's bookstore. I still couldn't believe that I found an English-language bookstore on the south coast of Turkey, let alone a book I really wanted, one I had been actively seeking. Kemer knew that I wanted the book more than he wanted any of the books I had to trade. I tried to be casual but it was too late. I had committed the cardinal sin of haggling in a barter-based society: I showed enthusiasm for my desired object. I knew that when the bargaining began, he was going to skin me.

Kemer proposed that he would hold onto "I, Claudius" for a day, to see if he wanted it, and he would give me a John Guare play as collateral. We hadn't even been talking about John Guare, nor had I ever heard of this playwright. I said, "I want Bulgakov for the day, then I'll come back and we'll work out a deal tonight." But he was insistent. "Look," he said, pointing to the Guare title page, "it is signed by the author. He visited me at this store at the beginning of the summer." I shrugged finally and said OK. He kept my book for the day and gave me the signed copy of Guare's "Six Degrees of Separation." I read the play at a nearby beach. It was my first swim in the Mediterranean and my first and last Guare play. I returned the book that evening.

I ended up staying in Antalya for three days. My last stop on the way out of town was Kemer's shop. He still had my "I, Claudius." We continued our haggling. He laid out the final offer: his Bulgakov for my Graves and a few dollars. "Why not an even trade. One for one?" I protested. He replied: "How am I supposed to make money and keep my stock up?" I smiled. His shop was so casual that making money hadn't seemed like a big concern. As I was leaving, Kemer said, "Wait." He grabbed the Bulgakov out of my hand and red inked the title page with his shop stamp that read: "Owl Book Shop. Sale and Exchange." This book remains one of my most treasured.

Pete Hausler

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