For most of her life, Melek Petek never imagined she would become an entrepreneur. Petek, who grew up in Turkey, figured she was destined for a career in academia.
After obtaining a bachelor’s degree in English literature from Bilkent University, a private college in the capital city of Ankara, Petek set her sights on graduate school—and the United States. In 2016, she enrolled at the University of Notre Dame to pursue a master’s degree in the history of Christianity,
But life in South Bend, Indiana—and graduate school—wasn’t what she expected.
“The first year here, I was really homesick. I didn’t see that coming,” recalled Petek, 32. “I thought I was more or less familiar with the culture. I could speak the language. I had a lot of American friends. I didn’t think I’d have that much trouble with the transition.”
To make things worse, the situation in her homeland had suddenly become worrisome. After a failed military coup, the Turkish authorities initiated a harsh crackdown and many people, including some of Petek’s relatives, were forced to flee the country. After that, Petek wasn’t sure she wanted to go back home. At the same time, she also began to have misgivings about her vision for a university career.
While she was at Notre Dame, Petek fell in love with a St. Paul native she met through a mutual friend. Not long after, she decided to “pause” her studies; she married and relocated to Minnesota.
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With its historic neighborhoods, “sweet little coffee shops,” and assorted cultural institutions, St. Paul proved much more to Petek’s liking than South Bend. Her biggest frustration in Minnesota: a nearly two-year delay in obtaining a work permit.
By the time Petek finally obtained a green card, she was champing at the bit to get out of the house. She landed a job at a credit card processing company before finding a gig at Anthropologie, the clothing and home-décor giant. At Anthropologie, to her surprise, she discovered that she liked the retail life.
“I learned a lot working there,” Petek said. “How to make a store look nice. Presentation. Customer service. How to be a salesperson. I don’t think I could have opened a store without having that experience.”
While she was still at Anthropologie, Petek launched a side hustle: an online retail venture that she dubbed Petek Trading Co. At first, she sold coasters, made from “upcycled” kilim rugs, sourced through friends with a rug shop in Ankara. When those proved popular, she branched out and began importing Christmas stockings, also fashioned from these upcycled, flat-woven rugs.
Encouraged by sales, about a year ago Petek decided to quit her day job and focus on growing her business. Soon she was selling both online and at holiday markets. Last August, a friend told Petek about a program launched by a nonprofit, the St. Paul Downtown Alliance, working to revitalize the capital city’s beleaguered downtown retail scene. The offer was too enticing to pass up: up to six months of free rent for entrepreneurs looking to test out a business concept in St Paul.
Petek applied and, to her surprise, was promptly awarded the location she most coveted, a street level storefront in the Hamm Building, a grand old pile on West 7th Place. She got the keys on September 1. About a month ago, she opened the shop to the public. The wares include her popular Christmas stockings and coasters, as well as mosaic lamps, olive wood utensils, vintage kilim rugs, and other handmade products that she says “tell the story of Turkey.”
Petek spoke with Sahan Journal about her budding venture, the importance of provenance in craft, and her plans for the future. Her remarks have been edited for length and clarity.
In the import business, you need to cultivate—and stay loyal—to good suppliers. When I was a student in Ankara, I knew this couple who own a rug shop right near Ankara castle. They’ve been there for 30 years. They buy old rugs and repair them. If they can’t repair them, they cut around the problem parts and turn them into something else: pillow covers, coasters, stockings.
I like to think I’ve been helpful getting them through the pandemic because I continued to place orders for rugs even when I didn’t have a place to sell them. I wanted them to have some security. They were dependent on tourists coming to their shop and, with the pandemic, there weren’t any tourists.
Learn and tell the stories of your products and their makers. That’s one of the big reasons I’m doing this: so I have a means to talk about my culture and where I come from. People get awkward around those conversations. It’s a lot easier to talk about it through the products.
Everything I sell comes with a story. I work with a fair-trade company in Turkey, started by this German guy who hires Syrian refugees and teaches them how to work with olive wood. He pays them fair wages. I don’t know how much customers care, but it’s important to me to tell them where the products come from and, sometimes, why they are priced the way they are.
I try to keep things affordable. But I also want to be able to pay people what they deserve, not just sit on all the profit myself.
In an inflationary environment, you don’t always have to hike your prices. In Turkey, prices have gone up a lot. When I was in college, a cup of coffee cost 5 liras. Now it’s 25. People’s incomes have not increased fivefold in the last seven years. But because the exchange rate is in my favor, I have not needed to increase my prices as much.
I want to keep it that way. I want people to be able to buy a piece of Turkey and bring it into their homes.
Minnesotans are…not the easiest people to get to know. Marketing has been a problem. I’m doing everything myself. I’m the only employee—the CEO and the janitor. Not being from the Twin Cities, I’m not well-connected, not well-established here.
With Minnesotans, it can be hard to break into a circle. All my friends here are transplants.*
Immigration hassles can drive you to law school. I would love to do immigration law. I know the process and how complicated it can be, because I’ve gone through it. It’s not easy. It took my husband and I—two people with college degrees—many hours. If you come here because you had to flee your country, it’s a nightmare. Someone needs to advocate for those people.
I took the test for law school and did well. But it’s so expensive, I decided to wait until I am 100 percent sure. I probably will still do it when I feel more secure financially.
Petek Trading Co. is open Tuesdays–Saturdays at 24 W. 7th Place, in St. Paul, Minnesota; and online at petektradingco.com.
*Update, November 1, 2022: This story has been changed to reflect Melek Petek’s feelings about being a newcomer to Minnesota.