Wednesday, November 27, 2013

An Egyptian Adventure at Venice Beach

Riding on the bus from LAX to my mom's, we meet a man who'd just opened a new shop on the Venice Beach boardwalk.  An Egyptian shop.  His name is Peter and he invites to come see the shop and have a cup of Egyptian tea. 

It was in the brick courtyard on the boardwalk that used to be Charlie Chaplin's house where he invited his friends to stay, he told us.  Hmmm, I know where the Frank Gehry house is, why have I never heard of the Charlie Chaplin house?  Since this is on my bike to the beach route, I said I'd try to come by.

So Monday morning, after riding down to the Venice pier on a great day for a bike ride, I stopped at the brick courtyard on the way home.

Here's what it looks like from the bike trail.  517 Ocean Front Walk.

And as you go into the courtyard, it looks like this.  It's cute and quaint, but apparently it was never Charlie Chaplin's.

I had looked it up and found a site called Westland that had a post titled:   Debunking Venice's Historic Myths.  

The writer says that he's:

 "operated a Venice history display and postcard stand along Venice's Ocean Front Walk since 1979."
He talks about the many stories about Venice Beach and then goes through many of them and tells us whether they are true or not.  In one section, he talks about whether celebrities really once lived somewhere.
"517 Ocean Front Walk - Charlie Chaplin - NO

The current owner named the commercial courtyard the Charlie Chaplin Courtyard under the mistaken belief that it was built by the silent movie star. The Sea Spray Apartments were built in 1922 as exclusive apartments."
No matter.  I find Peter and get introduced to his Egyptian partner Saber.  They met in Egypt.  And, I forgot to mention, when Peter got off the bus, he then got his bike off the rack, and rode home.  Maybe after setting up this shop he can't afford a car, but I'd like to think his use of public transportation and a bike is his environmental consciousness. 

Saber and Peter at their Egyptian Shop
I'm invited in and shown around.  Since I forgot my little pocket camera in Seattle, I've taken along my big new camera.  I tell them I'm a blogger and take pictures.

I'm a little disappointed with these pictures.  I think there is so much detail in each item that it all gets lost in a picture that tries to get too much.

There's lots and lots of items for sale.  I've never been to Egypt, but I'm guessing this looks a lot like the tourist shops around the big attractions in Egypt.  All the kinds of images of Egyptian art we know from museums, television shows, and books on ancient Egypt.

Peter gets me some tea. (I took some photoshop liberties with the background.)  I know in India that shop keepers often bring tea out for their customers.  And I think it's pretty common in the Middle East.  It's the first hook the salesman puts into his customer.  I should have had my first warnings.

Then Saber starts talking to me about my family.  He pulls out a scroll and says, "This is a family tree."  It's a painting of, apparently, a family.  He asks my name and gives me a chart of the Latin alphabet with their hieroglyphic equivalents.  S.  He points to the hieroglyphic on the chart and then writes it in marker on the scroll he's holding.

Uh oh.  Now what?  I think I'm caught on his line.  Soon he's written my family members' names all over the top and bottom borders.  I've lost round one, now it's just a question of how much I'm willing to pay for this.

Sure, this is a risk he's taking as a salesman, but I'm also in awe of his salesmanship.  He's a pro.  I've met these guys before - in Greece, in Israel, and particularly in India.  But this guy is really good.  He's written my family all over this painting - I've got to buy it, right?  What's he going to do with it if I don't?  That's confidence.

So he tells me that because I'm going to write a story about the shop he will let me pay whatever I want.  But before I offer $10, he takes me to a small painting on the wall and asks me, "Which one is bigger?"  My (see, I've already accepted that I'm buying it) painting is about three times the size.  The painting on the wall is priced at what I thought was $22.  He corrected me.  It was actually $220.  Well that's absurd.  I'm out for a Monday morning bike ride and I'm being hit up for something I don't even want for $220.  I tell him I'll pay $30.  He tells me that the paintings are done by poor Egyptian students and it takes about three weeks to make one like mine.

"My" Scroll Before He Wrote On It
$30 is still way more than I need to spend on this.  But it's a new store, some of the money will somehow, I rationalize, go back to people in Egypt, though I have no idea whether his family is connected to the military dictatorship, the Muslim brotherhood, or any of the other factions and who will get the money.

I have no cash.  They credit card reader on Peter's iPhone isn't working right so I end up at an ATM at a shop nearby.  When I get back Saber tells me to write a good story about the shop.  Will he like this?  If he doesn't will he reclaim his papyrus?

As I ride home with my new scroll, I'm asking myself:  Is it a dry erase pen he could just clean off if I didn't buy it?  (It turns out to be permanent ink.)  Is it really painted or just a print that costs them a dollar or two each, so that marking up one is worth it if they sell two out of every ten they mark?

I don't know.  I don't really care.  I'm not easily separated from my money by salesmen like this, but he was really good.

I did go online today to see how much Egyptian papyrus paintings cost.  At Pyramid Imports you can get an 8"x12" painting for from $13 to $14 reduced to $5.99-%6.99.  This is about the size of the one they had marked as $220.
A 13x17" painting sells for $14.99 reduced to from $6.99 to $7.99.
A 13x33" painting sells for $24.99, no reductions.

And all these prices will add shipping but no tea and no banter.   And the online sales folk don't have to pay rent for a highly trafficked tourist spot. 

Mine is 17.5" high and I'm guessing at least 36" wide. (It's all rolled up and well wrapped and I don't want to open and have to rewrap it.)  So I probably paid a fair price for it.  If I wanted it.

I first encountered serious bargaining in Greece as a college student.  Storekeepers would tell you how much you were robbing them and they would fight tooth and nail over a price.  But if you met the shopkeeper socially, he would treat you with utmost generosity.  A little later I was in the flea market in Rome and wanted to buy a pot of geraniums for the American family I was staying with.  Since it was a gift, I erased the chalked price on the flower pot, as I gave it to the salesperson, who promptly wrote a lower price on the pot.

As a Peace Corps volunteer in Thailand, I got much more skilled at the fine art of bargaining, though the Thais are much less serious about this than the Greeks or Indians.  And, I'll add now, Egyptians.

Saber was a pro.  It was like watching anyone really skilled at what he did.  Say, like watching a magician make the money in my pocket mysteriously jump to his pocket.  I knew he was doing it, yet I couldn't stop him. 

As regular readers know, I'm trying to get rid of things not buy new ones.  But now I have an Egyptian family painting with all the names of my immediate family members written on the border in hieroglyphics in felt pen.

So, I do recommend you at least stop in this shop if you're on the Boardwalk.   The address is 517 Ocean Front Walk shop number 16 in the courtyard.  The buildings were NOT built or owned by Charlie Chaplin, but it's a good possibility that he walked by them at some point.  It's south of Rose about four or five blocks. 

After thinking things over, I know that I would be much more interested in modern Egyptian art and posters that reflect what's happening in Egypt today.  These copies of ancient art are nice, but I'd rather see and buy art that connects me with today's Egyptians and their struggle for democracy. 

I'm guessing this shop is as close as many people will get to stepping into a tourist shop in Cairo.  Just check out the prices of Egyptian stuff online and don't pay anything close to the prices marked on the goods in the store.  Remember, don't ever feel like you've been cheap.  If they sell it to you, they're making money.  If your price is too low, they'll say no.  And if you are too easy, it's no fun for them.  The prices marked on things are just the beginning points of an elaborate bargaining process.  Your best weapon is knowing what these things go for and checking online makes that pretty easy. 

And these are, I'm convinced, two decent men trying to pay their way in life and support their families with this store.


  1. You are absolutely correct, haggling is supposed to be competitive for shop as well as buyer, and you're supposed to know real (what locals would pay) prices in order to buy. Every price paid not knowing that is often too much. Some do well and others, not well.

    Fair (fixed) price is another way to set price; we trust people not in the room to 'normalise' the market price. If one is cheated this way, all are cheated! So much better.


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