An “Informal Sector” Activity: Ambulant Fruit Vending

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Communications were slow and scarce at the time and most of the fresh fruits and vegetables consumed within the city of Istanbul necessarily came from the many local vegetable gardens and orchards due to the absence of appropriate means of conservation. These were all within the walled city
itself, or in its immediate surroundings. One of the largest bostans within Istanbul was that of Langa, just to the east of Kasap ƒlyas. In the city, most of the fruit and vegetable sellers were of an itinerant type, and it is they who carried and marketed fresh fruits and vegetables to the areas where there were
no nearby bostans. Stable vegetable and fruit shops were relatively few. Besides, the job of itinerant peddling of fresh fruits and vegetables was not a seasonal job. In the bostans, some of which could specialize in the cultivation of a particular product, usually every fruit and vegetable for which there was a demand was planted and reaped in its own season. The marketing and sales activities could therefore proceed all-year-round.
The itinerant vending of fresh fruits and vegetables was neither a difficult, specialized occupation, nor one that required a special or formal training, or a permit or a license. To sell vegetables and fruits in the streets of Istanbul there was no need to go through a particular apprenticeship. Carrying and/ or selling ordinary merchandise was the simplest thing any newly arriving and nonqualified rural migrant could expect to do once settled in the capital, with a bit of luck, or thanks to the help of his connections and network. The irregular and ambulant peddling of some well-known and easily sellable consumption goods at a small profit was, and still is, an easily accessible “poor man’s trade.” In the less-developed countries of the twenty-first century, street trading still remains a preferential point of entry for rural migrants into the working life of the big city, but it is also a lifetime activity for many of the urban working poor.41
Contrary to the stable greengrocers, the itinerant fruit vendors of Ottoman Istanbul had no particular guild organization. The total number of these itinerant vendors have therefore never been limited by municipal regulations, or by the practice of gedik.42 The practice of gedik designates the existence of
a numerus clausus in the right to set up a particular kind of shop in a given locality.43 To exercise the profession of ambulant vending of fruits and vegetables did not require a considerable amount of initial capital endowment either. Obviously, no insuperable technological barriers were involved. These fruit and vegetable vendors lived, understandably, not very far from their sources of provisioning. Then, they either bought their goods on credit from the owner or manager of the bostan, whom they paid after cashing the proceeds of their trade, or had the necessary connections to obtain a sufficient amount of initial investment finance.
What the occupation of itinerant vending of fresh fruits and vegetables in Istanbul certainly did require, however, was the possession of one crucial asset: a solid network of personal relations. This was probably a sine qua non condition that compensated for the apparent relative ease of entry to the trade and sealed it off to “outsiders” or to any other type of nondesirables. There certainly existed a web of partnership deals and arrangements by which the various trading routes, market outlets, and potential customer neighborhoods in Istanbul were already shared and apportioned between different groups of itinerant vendors. Established credit and payment deals, pricing arrangements between the sellers (küfecis) and the producers (the bostancıs, “the owners or managers of vegetable gardens”) were also setting precedents for future pricing and distribution practices. It is also likely that fresh fruits and vegetables were sold at a lower price by these informal sector itinerant sellers, as compared to their competitors, the formal segment of the trade, that is, the stable-and tax- and rent-paying greengrocer shops.
Such a thing as an absolutely free entry to the trade of itinerant fresh fruit and vegetable vending could not have existed in Istanbul. Entry into the trade was dependent upon access to some nonprofessional, informal, and primary networks such as kinship or fellow-citizenship. This type of a solidarity network, if strongly based on fellow-citizenship, would obviously function in the long run as a means of encouraging and facilitating migration to the city and of easing the urban insertion and integration of newcomers. That is precisely how a chain-migration process functions in the long run.
And this is precisely the kind of network that the fellow-citizens coming from Arapkir and from its environs who settled in Kasap ƒlyas mahalle were forming in 1885. Of the fifty eight natives of Arapkir whose occupations were clearly specified in the census documents, forty five were classified as
küfeci (77.5 percent). Forty-five out of the fifty one fruit and vegetable vendors living in Kasap ƒlyas in 1885 had therefore been born in Arapkir. Two others were natives of the neighboring district of Arguvan. Besides, almost all of them were living within the Ispanakçi Viranesi.
All of this cannot, obviously, be just coincidental. All too clearly, coresidence in a subunit of a neighborhood and the practice of an identical trade constituted, for the poor and mostly Alevî migrants from Arapkir and its surroundings, a preferential mode of insertion and integration into city life. This
was not new in 1885, and the chain-migration process had certainly been going on for a number of generations. Understandably, the “soft landing” opportunities and the support system provided by the already established fellow-citizens in Kasap ƒlyas encouraged the migrants from Arapkir to bring their families with them, or to establish a new one in Istanbul. As it still is the case today, migration to Istanbul and settlements in the city in past centuries could and did follow patterns of regional or religious allegiances and solidarities. Co-locality and kinship were, then as now, the guiding principles.
The economic activities of the Arapkirlis in Kasap ƒlyas are indeed a recognizable ancestor of what later came to be called the “informal sector” inthe less-developed countries of the late twentieth century. In the economic development literature, belonging to the “informal”—or “marginal”—sector is defined as a way of doing things characterized by ease of entry, reliance on family-owned and indigenous resources, small scale of operation, use of labor intensive technologies with skills acquired outside the formal schooling sys- tem, and unregulated and competitive markets.44 Besides, the primary objective of informal sector activities is to generate employment for the participants rather than to maximize profits. Some of these characteristics of informality may have to be qualified with the adverb “relatively” but, clearly, the definition broadly applies to the migrant Arapkirli network in Kasap ƒlyas in the nine- teenth century.
The legal and social status of the itinerant vending of fresh fruits and vegetables in nineteenth-century Istanbul had apparently not greatly changed from what it was back in the second half of the seventeenth century, as described by Robert Mantran.45 The “informality” we have observed in the
second half of the nineteenth century had in fact been there for at least two centuries. According to Mantran, some members of the Janissary corps based in Istanbul were at that time actively helping some of their fellow citizens to start a trade of street vending, mostly of fruits, vegetables, yogurt, and water.
These Janissaries were apparently also keeping “nondesirables” from exercising the same trade. The absence of legal barriers to entry to the trade was, in the seventeenth century as in the middle of the nineteenth, more than compensated by other, nonlegal—but certainly as efficient—screening procedures. Once settled in the city, other avenues for urban integration were obviously also open. Among the natives of Arapkir living in Kasap ƒlyas in 1885 there were five households where both father and son(s) were working as küfecis. In one of these households, located in the Ispanakçi Viranesi, both the father, aged 44, and the three sons, all born in Arapkir and aged respectively 19, 17, and 11, were listed as küfecis.
It is noteworthy that none of the natives of Arapkir and of its environs, most of whom were of rural origin, had been qualified as a rençber (a day laborer or a farmhand—a denomination that necessarily implies agricultural work) in the 1885 census documents. There were two rençbers in the 1885 census listings of Kasap ƒlyas, and both were working in the nearby bostans. None of them, however, had been born anywhere near Arapkir. This can be considered a sure indication of the pretty rapid occupational integration of the Arapkirlis into the urban economic tissue. The well-established küfeci network, which distributed fruits and vegetables in the urban economy, provided to the newcoming Arapkirli a means of fast economic insertion. The Arapkirli rural migrant was indeed a rençber himself. Besides, the transportation and itinerant selling of fresh fruits and vegetables obviously was an occupation not too removed from direct agricultural work. Nevertheless, the fruit-vending Arapkirlis had become part of an urban economic network.
They were now officially identified by their new urban professional status and their agricultural origins were easily forgotten or disregarded.
The itinerant vending of fresh fruits and vegetables was far from being the universal predicament of the Arapkirlis in our mahalle. In 1885, many of them had already moved on to other occupations and, perhaps, to other neighborhoods. There were still five Arapkirli household heads who continued to reside in the Kasap ƒlyas mahalle although they had already moved to a different occupation. Among them, two had entered the civil service. Two others had also risen in their respective guild’s hierarchy and had become wardens (kethüdas) of their respective trade guilds. As to the last Arapkirli, he was not an itinerant vendor of fruits and vegetables anymore, but had become the owner of a greengrocer shop (manav). He had transcended his precarious itinerant position and acquired one of the rare greengrocer gediks.
He had thus moved from the “informal” to the strictly legal and formal sector and become integrated into the official and socially accepted segment of his trade. He was not a fruit vendor but a fruit merchant now.
Of the two natives of Arapkir who had already entered the Ottoman civil service before the 1885 census, the first, Abdullah bey, had become a scribe in the Customs Office.46 This Arapkirli had lived in Istanbul for more than twenty years. In 1885, Abdullah bey already had a son who was 21, who had been born in Istanbul, and who had followed in his father’s footsteps and had also entered the Ottoman civil service. This son was a scribe at the central Post Office.47 The second Arapkir-born resident of Kasap ƒlyas who had gone to the public sector was a summoner (muhzır) at the Mahmudpaœa Court. The two Arapkirlis who had become wardens of their respective guilds were also certainly not recent rural migrants. It is unimaginable that these two wardens had only recently been recruited to their
respective occupations in Istanbul. Coincidentally, neither of these wardens was a küfeci, but both worked in occupations that were widely practiced within the Kasap ƒlyas mahalle. One of these Arapkirlis had become kethüda of the guild of street-porters (hamals) and the other was warden of that of the sellers of coal (kömürcüs).
The second half of the nineteenth century was a time when most of the traditional craft and trade guilds of Istanbul were losing their monopoly and much of their importance and influence.48 In general, nonguild labor, such as the itinerant fruit and vegetable vendors, scarcely found its way into the records, although it had its importance in Istanbul. Its significance, its magnitude, and its contribution to the urban labor market is often overlooked, especially for periods preceding the nineteenth century. Much of the debate on labor and manufacturing in the Ottoman Empire has focused so far on the craft guilds, on their restrictive and monopolistic practices, and on their final demise. Rela-tively little attention has been paid to the status and function of nonguild labor in cities. In Istanbul nonguild labor and nonguild activities have often constituted a pool of cheap and unqualified labor, as well as a possible avenue for the integration of rural migrants, a transitional stage on their way to being part of a regular guild. The Istanbul labor market may not have been as strictly segmented as is suggested by traditional interpretations of usual guild practices.
Besides, as there never was a centrally imposed pattern of guild organization in Ottoman cities, local arrangements could and did diverge considerably.
The itinerant fruit vendors of Kasap ƒlyas constitute a case in point. Except perhaps for the watercarriers (sakas), ambulant vendors were not, in the Ottoman Empire, generally part of a guild.49 Merchant guilds, such as that of greengrocers, however, were well represented in Istanbul. In the early
nineteenth century, stable fruit and vegetable shops did have their own guild in the capital, headed by a kethüda. They were relatively few, and had the privilege of gedik. They might indeed have had good reason to complain about unfair competition on the part of the ambulant küfecis, who, after all, sold more or less the same merchandise but had no guild regulation and paid no taxes. If they did complain, however, they were certainly not heard, judging from the perennity of their competitors.
Many of the guilds were apparently just loosely organized associations with few privileges to offer to, and almost no effective power of, control over their members. In these, membership probably did not mean much more than having a common commercial activity. Such seems to have been the case
of the stable greengrocer shop owners (manavs) of Istanbul. Besides, the activity of the stable greengrocer shops was obviously not of strategic importance, and their plea was not heard by the authorities. Theirs must have been a “soft” trade monopoly that apparently could not help allowing market penetration by newcomers and the survival and reproduction of a permanent pool
of potential competitors.
The guild of the manavs was therefore neither powerful, nor rigid or closed, which may explain how and why, in the face of these established and apparently well-organized manavs, the poor provincial küfecis, these premodern “marginal sector” workers just went on with their trade and their unfair
competition generation after generation, deregulating the market. Some of these “informal sector” workers even crossed over to the “formal” segment of the same line of activity, and simply set up shop in the capital. Though we have no solid documentation on this, a sort of symbiotic relationship may
have existed between ambulant fruit vendors and stable, “formal sector” greengrocers. The symbiosis could take a number of forms, ranging from a cartel-like partnership involving a sharing of trading routes, outlets, and markets to a straightforward relationship of employment for purposes of transportation and delivery of goods.

In any case, retail activities and markets for consumption goods, and especially for fruits and vegetables, in Istanbul, were perhaps more fluid than is generally construed, and guild and nonguild activities of a similar kind were far from being totally impermeable to each other. This permeability finds an illustration in the ambulant fruit and vegetable vendors who had migrated from Arapkir and were living in Kasap ƒlyas.


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