Splash of color: Tehran bazaar’s pencil seller

In a dimly lit corner of Tehran’s Grand Bazaar, Mohammad Rafi is surrounded by all colors of the rainbow in his tiny shop that sells nothing but art pencils. The world may have gone digital, but Rafi has stayed true to his passion of the past 35 years, surrounded by thousands of pencils in every hue and shade imaginable.

With the pencils stacked from floor to ceiling, his tiny cubicle has become a photogenic splash of color, hidden deep in the market known as a “city within a city”. “I don’t know how many pencils there are but I have about 200 colors available,” said the proud 50-year-old owner of the Medad Rafi (Rafi’s pencils) shop.

Finding his shop requires a veritable treasure hunt through the maze of alleys and passages of the storied market in the heart of the Iranian capital. Rafi himself takes up much of the three square meter (30 square feet) shop in the market’s arts and crafts section where he has welcomed generations of customers.

“Every time a customer shows up, I enjoy it, even if they don’t buy anything,” smiled Rafi. He then spent 10 minutes advising a schoolgirl in search of two pencils, one blue, one orange, who tried out different types, doodling on a drawing pad on the counter.

Colors and textures

“Depending on what they want to do with it, I advise customers on the color, the texture or the brand,” said Rafi, who only sells the pencils individually, not by the box. He is proud to cater to all budgets, offering domestically made pencils and ones imported from Europe and America.

“The most expensive pencil costs 100,000 tomans (around two euros),” he said, “but it is one of the best.” A drawing lover since childhood, Rafi has always adored pencils and, after his technical studies in the 1980s, began his professional life in a pencil manufacturing company before opening his shop.

He knows that, in the days of high-tech and touch-screens, the humble colored pencil has had its golden age, looking back nostalgically at the past century when all children carried them in their school bags. Unlike many other shop owners in the bazaar, he will not pass on the business to his son, a trained physician who “is not interested in this work”.

Until he retires, however, Rafi plans to keep serving his loyal customers, meeting their every creative need, including even “some pencils that are no longer produced”. “Fortunately, I have a large stock” accumulated over the years, Rafi said, proudly brandishing the oldest pencil he has, “made 72 years ago”. — AFP

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