Istanbul’s last gramophone repairman keeps records turning

The last gramophone specialist in Istanbul works contentedly in his tiny shop inside the Grand Bazaar, a perfect escape from modern consumerist culture.

al-monitor Mehmet Oztekin, the last gramophone repairman in Istanbul, poses in his shop in Istanbul's Grand Bazaar. Photo by Nimet Kirac.

Jun 21, 2019

Inside his tiny shop at Istanbul's historic Grand Bazaar, Gramafon Baba (Papa Gramophone in Turkish) says he barely recognizes his hometown anymore so he spends as much time as possible inside his little time capsule, interacting with his precious reminders of the past.

Here, the last gramophone repairman in Istanbul fixes broken gramophones and finds peace listening to old records, surrounded by gramophones, tools and equipment, some of it rusted. His walls are covered with ripped, faded newspaper profiles on him and signed record covers. His space is situated by one of  the bazaar’s main gates, standing as a testament to different times.

Nowadays, his wife, Zeynep Oztekin, accompanies him to the shop because of his recent major operation. She was present during our conversation and confirmed he just has to come to his shop, even if once a week. Mehmet Oztekin says there’s no way he’s not coming.  

“In my life, my wife comes first. My gramophones come second. My children come third,” he said. Oztekin explains that the gramophone has a unique language that he understands, and he needs to hear it often.

“I came to this shop today despite my medical conditions. The reason I come is because I have certain objectives for the gramophone, and because I am stubborn,” Oztekin told Al-Monitor. He went to his shop right after his operation, rested an hour and went home, he said. “My therapy here is better than medication,” he explained.

Papa Gramophone is lonely away from his work. Finding refuge inside his shop is more rewarding than any other experience the city can today offer, he explained. His dedication is the product of both his love for the device and also habit.

Oztekin entered this lane of craftsmanship when he was 6, as his father's apprentice. After that, he was hooked. Over nearly 70 years, he has repaired hundreds of players inside his little shop, which sits by a famous kebab joint and across a tea spot he orders from often.

On the door of the shop is a note saying he is available to help college students on Thursday afternoons for two hours. He is known across the city as a man of different times and different principles, a musical librarian. For those who look into it, Oztekin’s repair shop is the gate to a world of its own, welcoming the musically curious, regardless of their age.

He said that today, his buyers do not have shared memories of the gramophone or its culture. “Not many of them are older than 40,” Oztekin said. “Despite the gramophone’s 120 years of history, the reason there is so much demand for it is because of [its clean sound] and because it speaks to the soul.”

Since its invention in 1887 by Emile Berliner, the gramophone gave listeners the freedom to keep and replay their favorite tunes, gave masses the luxury of bringing moments in time back to life in audio form. It also enabled artists to become superstars, paving the way for a new kind of fame.

Turkey’s most famous artists who sold records up until the invention of the Walkman in 1979 include the country's iconic singers — Zeki Muren, Muzeyyen Senar and Nese Karabocek — whom Oztekin said he misses. New music media such as MP3s, CDs and DVDs have hurt musical production by prompting artists to continuously create and lose their artistic nuances, Oztekin said. They “have made the human life easier, but stained the way we live,” he added.

“This life today is on steroids. The food you eat — the look is the same as 50 years back, but the taste is on steroids,” he said. “As is the case for music. The gramophone is the clean soul food,” he said. He said he thinks today’s youth are suffering from a lack of artistic curiosity.

Papa Gramophone is certain good music heals, and it's a must for good, strong mental health. The reason millions across the planet are using antidepressants today, he said, is because people are encouraged to consume products for the sake of ever more consumption. “And they are left hungry.”

Not only products but relationships and values were also dramatically transformed by the advancement in technology, which led to a culture of unconscious consumption, he said. Demonstrating a graceful rebellion against the zeitgeist, both Oztekins said they put each other first in life, and stressed that they seek to make things work rather than get rid of them.

They listen to records together, recall memories and make retrospective comments as the aged songs play, telling stories of times when the country’s largest city gave a warm holiday card feeling. Inside the Grand Bazaar, which has also changed from a regional crafts center to a spice market over the years, the couple is happy to tell their story again and again for each newcomer, holding onto a nostalgia that contrasts with advertising that says happiness can be purchased.

“People seem to have forgot what really matters in life,” Oztekin said. Noting that his own son did not take over his shop and opted not to become his apprentice, he called this time period “the death of art.” Still, when today's culture displeases Oztekin, he has somewhere to go.

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