Portraits capture brick-and-mortar shopkeepers clinging to their trades

Written by Vladimir Antaki

Vladimir Antaki is a Saudi-born photographer based in Montreal, Canada. The following is an edited excerpt of his new book “The Guardians,” in which he photographed shopkeepers across Europe, the Middle East and America.

While waiting for a train in New York City, I saw a man with an imposing and majestic posture. He was working in a newsstand, but he could have been a vending machine for all the attention people were paying him.

I discreetly took a photo of him and gave a gesture to ask if it was OK. He motioned yes, so I took a second shot, a closer one. It was only a few months later that my photo project “The Guardians” was born.

I became obsessed with that chance meeting. Ever since that day, I never pass through New York City without visiting Jainul (pictured above). Jainul and people like him are important. Without them, the urban environment would have none of its vibrancy, its humanity.

There is incredible beauty in the bespoke shop; a beauty and uniqueness in time and place that is disappearing as it struggles to swim against the tide of homogenizing modernity. Many of the “guardians” I photographed wonder who will ply their trades once they are gone.

Part of my duty as an artist is to capture these urban temples and to preserve their memory. They are monuments to knowledge passed down through generations and are portals to another time.

Over the past six years I have visited over 200 shopkeepers in 20 cities. Below are some of the most compelling stories, presented in the guardians’ own words.

Mehmet Öztekin, gramophone repairman, Istanbul

I am Istanbul’s last gramophone repairman. I’ve dedicated my entire life to them.

I learned the trade from my father when I was 7, by helping him in his workshop. Back then, gramophones were very precious; I was not even allowed to touch them, only assist him with the tools.

In the past 45 years I have (also) produced more than 9,000 gramophones. Most of them were sent to different countries around the world. I have trained many masters, but they became unemployed over time because interest in the instrument waned and people would get rid of them. I have trained gramophone collectors as well.

More people have started listening to gramophones again and looking for them on the internet and in flea markets. I see my work as a kind of cultural preservation. They should be protected for future generations.

Bill “The Birdman” Kasper, record store owner, New York

Vladimir Antaki

A lot of people look through the door and say, “Oh, look what’s in there, it’s a disaster.” But then a lot of their friends say, “Oh, the old man knows exactly what he has and what he doesn’t have.” If you’re not afraid to come in, you’ll probably end up buying a lot of stuff.

When this store opened up, it was very crowded, and a lot of people came. But over the years not many people bought music like before.

Wherever you go, it’s Subways, Starbucks, Dunkin’ Donuts and everything. They don’t bring anything to the neighborhood. When I grew up you had the barber shops and the little delis. You used to be able to charge your stuff (and) then you paid at the end of the week or something. You can’t do things like that anymore ’cause most people wouldn’t pay you back.

Denise Acabo, chocolate seller, Paris

Vladimir Antaki

When I discovered this shop dating back to 1903, I fell in love with it and wanted to make it mine. Every time I was in the neighborhood, I tried to convince the owner to sell me his chocolate factory. He finally accepted my offer, and I became the owner of AÌ l’Etoile d’Or in 1973.

My shop offers nearly a hundred confectionery and organic chocolates from French chocolate artisans. My clients come from all over the world. I have a lot of customers from Japan, so I hired a Japanese lady to help me in the shop.

I am often asked why I dress the way I do. Back in boarding school, I was head of the French Scouts until the age of 21, so I decided to keep the kilt. I have five different ones from Burberry. I gained some weight from trying chocolate all day, and I do not fit in four of them.

Dominique “Ménick” Perazzino, barber, Montreal

Vladimir Antaki

I opened Chez Ménick in 1959. In May, the shop will celebrate its 60th anniversary.

The decoration of the salon came naturally. When I was younger, I used to play hockey and baseball, but I was less talented than my friends. I soon became known as the sports barber. I liked the nickname, and I decided to keep it.

The floor of my barbershop is reminiscent of an ice rink and the walls are filled with photographs of the best moments of my career and some famous athletes like Guy Lafleur, Pierre Bouchard and Yvon Lambert, to name a few. Hulk Hogan used to swing by the shop every time he was in town. When I decide to close shop, all the memorabilia will go to the City of Montreal archives. It’s a great honor, I must admit.

Mario Antonio Hernández Escamilla, sculptor, Mexico City

Vladimir Antaki

I restore and create Catholic art. I started when I was 14.

My workshop has been at this location since 1944. My father studied at the Academy of San Carlos; he taught me everything: anatomy, drawing, sculpture, carving. My great-great-grandfather Margarito Hernández was the first sculptor in our family. Two hundred and four years later, I am the 12th sculptor of this dynasty and unfortunately the last one.

The Church was one of my most important clients, but it doesn’t send me business anymore. It’s more interested in politics. It has abandoned its parishioners. Everything is made in China nowadays. It’s cheaper. I work every day to survive.

My biggest wish was to train an apprentice, but unfortunately, no one is interested. I am going to take all of this knowledge to my grave.

Edwige Charey, magazine seller, Paris

Vladimir Antaki

In 1993, I took over Les Archives de la Presse, a specialist bookshop selling all kinds of magazines: old, recent, fashion, cinema and sports. We closed the bookstore in July 2013 (after the above photo was taken). My boss wasn’t able to find a buyer, so he decided to call it quits.

My biggest wish was to be able to train someone and pass on the knowledge that I acquired over the years. I find it hard not to be able to pass the torch. I enjoyed meeting new people and being the confidante of some of my clients. In front of my desk, I had a chair, and many people sat in front of me to talk to me and tell me their woes.

Today, I share my passion for books and beautiful things with my grandchildren. I did not leave with sadness because I realized that all that I’ve learned helped me grow.

“Baba” Conrad Sarr, shoeshiner, Paris

Vladimir Antaki

I’ve been a shoeshiner for about 20 years now, but when you do something out of love, you don’t count the time and effort you put into it.

I went to college and got a senior technician certificate, then I decided to travel for a bit. Traveling made me realize that some trades weren’t recognized for their true value in France. I had an all-consuming passion for the maintenance of my shoes. As the saying goes, “A man is known by the shoes he wears,” and this is why I decided to start this salon.

This place is about human connections. Some of the happiest moments in my life have happened here. I meet a lot of people through my work. When you walk through the door, you become an “average Joe,” you are not defined by your work or social rank; you are Baba’s friend, you are part of the salon.

Marie Gagné, antiques seller, Montreal

Vladimir Antaki

Rétro Ville is an antiques shop. I sell objects from the time of my grandparents’ childhood. Most of these things have disappeared from circulation, then reappeared about 40 years later, and have become highly sought after by collectors.

This shop has only one goal: to make people happy. We do not take ourselves seriously. Time stops here, and we find ourselves in another era. The 1950s were magical years because they arrived just after World War II. We also sell some objects from the 1960s and 1970s.

People come here to relive their childhood or the childhood of their parents or grandparents. Nowadays everything goes by so fast — blame it on new technologies. In my shop, people can disconnect from the craziness of the 2000s, and it makes them happy.

Interviews have been edited for length and clarity. “The Guardians,” published by Kehrer Verlag, is available now.