BURJ HAMMOUD, Lebanon: An antique gasmask sat staring from the back of a cluttered shop nestled under the concrete bridge that cuts through Burj Hammoud.
The mask was old, possibly left over from one of the world wars, and stood bolted to a heavy bronze machine gear, intense and eerie. That was, until one of the shop owners plugged it in and the gasmask cum lamp lit up through peace signs installed in the eye sockets.
“From war to peace,” said Avedis Der Boghossian, co-owner – or better yet, co-mastermind – of The Vintage Shop.
“It’s called the ‘Gasmasklamp,’ one word, and you must say it with a German or a Russian accent. Gaz-mask-lamp!” Der Boghossian repeated in a quick slur of words.
The Gasmasklamp is one of The Vintage Shop’s most popular items and this particular lamp is the seventh handmade from bits of antiques and odd parts. Avo and Krikor “Koko” Der Boghossian are brothers and owners of this small antique shop, which is positively littered with what, at first sight, can only be classified as pure junk.
But a closer inspection revealed a cornucopia of deconstructed machines, steel do-hingys, indistinguishable glass baubles, antique clock parts, antique fire extinguishers, hub caps, propellers, even a dilapidated piano and possibly a used bomb shell.
During the day, Avo works in a garment factory and Koko sells mattresses. At night, the two convene at their shop for an evening of invention: lamps, tables, clocks, typewriters, chandeliers, wine stands – all made from recycled stuff and selling increasingly well to modern buyers interested in retro wares.
The shop started about a year and a half ago as more of a storage place for all the stuff their odd hobby for invention had accumulated. But passersby were intrigued by the recycled objects popping up in the storefront, and now The Vintage Shop can’t keep up with demand.
“Knock on wood, it’s been beyond our expectations,” Avo said.
Their notoriety for interesting collectables peaked recently with the visit of a government official who told the brothers that he passed by every day and finally decided to take a look around.
“Suddenly we found ourselves surrounded by body guards and walky-talkies. But it’s not only about being famous,” Avo said. “It’s really about making friends.”
One such client-turned-friend is lawyer Maurice Gemayel.
“By chance I was driving by here from Jdeideh and there was a lot of traffic,” Gemayel said. The shop piqued his interest and he returned the next day. “Avo said to come back at 6 or 7 p.m. But when I came back there was no electricity, so they made me search in the dark,” he said.
Through the darkness, Gemayel found two antique typewriters to place as decorations around his new law office.
“So we fixed them, and now we are even happier than him. The junk that we are selling people, they are putting it in their offices,” Avo added in a tone always sprinkled with a little self-effacing sarcasm.
Koko – the tamer of the two – is the engineer, while Avo is the acquirer, he said, skimming through their primitive account books to show exactly how much Avo acquires. With every page of the basic graph-paper notebook, the number of acquisitions and the number of sales increase.
Avo has taken an interest in the business aspect by touring the many luxury product shops in Downtown Beirut to compare the prices of similar retro-recycled items. But that’s about as far as he’s gone.
“Right now we are breaking even deliberately. For everything we sell, we put back into the shop,” he said.
A tour through the shop revealed the characteristic humor built into just about everything.
“This is called the ‘Ship light – my a**,’” Avo said, letting the last two words trail off in a murmur. The giant lamp stands a meter-and-a-half tall on a sturdy, reconstructed tripod, mimicking the look of a large boat light. The idea was inspired by a real ship light hanging on the ceiling above Avo’s head.
“I know this will be the only one I ever find and the only one I ever sell,” he said. “They don’t break ships down a lot in Lebanon.”
And so he rebuilt a light to mimic the look of a real one, but using unorthodox parts, for instance part of a pressure cooker.
The “My a**” collection has grown to include a tram light and a helicopter engine. Despite being made of ventilator parts and durbake drums, the lights look – at least to a know-nothing – perfectly authentic.
The pair learned to repair clocks and wire electrical objects simply by trial and error. Their hobby for tinkering with objects started early in their youth. “When we were young, tools were our toys,” Koko said.
They have many more plans in store, one of which is to make a bar out of an old piano for the first literal piano bar, Avo said.
Koko said they have the most time Sundays, though often the day is filled with family and guests that stop and don’t leave until the day is done. “Sometimes we come to the shop and get nothing done at all.”