Lebanon News

Beirut's Basta antique market on its last legs

BEIRUT: Daad Ghandour recalls her youth when she would spend days on end in the Basta antique market, located just a short walking distance from Downtown Beirut.

There would always be something new that would catch her eye at the market’s many antique shops. “It [Basta] used to have positive vibes that were reflected in this old area, the mood, the buildings,” Ghandour told The Daily Star.

Then about three years ago, after a lifelong passion for collecting antiques, Ghandour and her husband decided to turn their hobby into a business, and opened a shop in the area. It immediately proved a hit despite the market having steadily shrunk over the years, the couple told The Daily Star.

Unfortunately, their antique shop’s honeymoon period came to an end in the months preceding Lebanon’s coronavirus-induced lockdown, with many other shop owners in the market reporting a sharp decline in the number of customers.

The impact on the market has been harsh. “Look I’m all alone,” Kheireddine Ibrahim told The Daily Star, gesturing from the doorway of his large 15-year-old shop, which is now flanked on either side and across the pavement by metal shutters. Ibrahim said the majority of shops on the street had closed over the last six months and now only a handful remained.

Vendors throughout the market struck a somber but understanding tone, admitting that Lebanese residents could not be expected to buy antiques while the economy was in crisis and poverty was rising sharply.

Moreover, many shop owners said that they had relied on diverse foreign customers for a large portion of their business, in fact often the majority, even before Lebanon’s recent economic woes, with customers from Europe and the Gulf being particularly important.

“We count on the Gulf people. The Lebanese don’t have the capacity,” antique dealer Mohamed Charaf told the Daily Star. “A long time ago Lebanese people used to buy this stuff; they used to have a lot of money. But for the last 10 years very few do.”

With the sharp decline in tourism to Lebanon in the months toward the end of 2019 and early 2020, followed by a complete halt in tourism during the coronavirus-induced lockdown, a large source of revenue in the market has vanished. In addition, dealers also cited high rents in the area and capital controls as key reasons for shops' closures.

Charaf, like many of the younger dealers in the market, had inherited his shop from his parents, who ran the business for decades, and the multigenerational nature of so many of the area’s shops make their sudden demise that much more tragic.

“Really I was very angry when my neighbors closed, I was angry because they were really good people,” Adina Ibrahim, Kheireddine’s wife, told The Daily Star.

While Kheireddine does not hail from a family of antique dealers, it was clear he had passed on his love for antiques to his family, with his daughter Suzan telling The Daily Star she would always want to be involved in the antique industry.

While some dealers in the market primarily acquire antiques domestically, Kheireddine frequently travels abroad, with both Suzan and Adina growing to love antiques by helping him during his trips to buy and sell items.

Meanwhile, Ghandour, who also acquired items abroad, said the international movement of historic and beautiful antiques was a huge part of her love for the business.

One set of antiques in Basta that had been on a particularly unusual journey included an intricately designed bed frame surrounded by ornate cupboards, all made in France in the late 19th century. According to the Ibrahim family, they were given to Hitler as a gift from the French government in the 1930s. After World War II, having presumably passed through several owners, the items had been purchased by Kheireddine from a former British ambassador to Lebanon when the envoy left the country. They now lie tucked away in a corner of Kheireddine’s shop in Basta.

The curious backstories of the antiques, along with the expert knowledge of the antique dealers, comprise a huge part of the thrill of frequenting the market.

While Ghandour voiced her belief that the experience of shopping in person could not be replicated online, she felt that globally the antique industry was increasingly reliant on online sales, citing antique markets she had been to abroad that were also diminishing in size.

With this in mind, Ghandour and her husband were looking to set up a website and sell their wares online while keeping a physical shop in Basta.

On the other hand, the Ibrahim family felt the issues their shop was facing were primarily linked to the Basta market itself. Kheireddine told The Daily Star that he owned another antique shop in Ashrafieh which had been less negatively affected in the months leading up to the nationwide lockdown.

He said he believed the Basta antique market had been neglected and unfortunately gained an unsafe reputation. He told The Daily Star that in recent years this reputation had increasingly led to established clients growing reluctant to visit his shop in Basta, and as a result he was now looking to relocate his business to another part of Beirut.

Nonetheless, while the Basta antique market has shrunk over the years, especially in the last six months, dozens of shops continue to span several streets selling everything from cheap bits and bobs to items worth thousands of dollars.

As for Ghandour, she remains resolutely positive about the future of her shop in Basta and the wider antique industry. “We hope for the best. I’m sure that dust is going to pile up in this shop for a while, but the minute you swipe the dust away a beautiful mirror will always shine,” she told The Daily Star. “Antique is antique with no expiry date.”

 

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