In his small workshop in central Athens, Georgios Nikolaou takes a seat on a replica Louis Vuitton trunk, which he made himself, and slowly peels some adhesive from his sticky fingers.
Well past the normal retirement age, Georgios has continued running his little business in Psiri because he loves his craft. But after more than five decades, the time has come to shut shop, he now says, and with this closure one more old Athenian artisan will disappear from an area that was once full of them.
“Business is so slow, there is just no point remaining open, it’s time for me to accept retirement and the fact that this business, which I have kept alive with hard work and sacrifice, will close its doors for good,” Georgios explained.
Originally from Lamia, he moved to Athens in his teens and worked as an apprentice with other craftsmen on Aiolou Street, not far from where his current shop is now. After completing his service in the military, Georgios returned to Psiri and started his own business manufacturing trunks.
Things started off well, with business booming, because just as there is now, there were many Greeks departing their villages and towns in search of a better life in foreign lands. “When I started this job, there was mass migration towards Australia and Germany, but mostly to Australia. At that time we had so much work, because whoever was about to leave took one or two chests with them to store their belongings before they left for Australia. We had a lot of orders, but now we only have a few.”
Georgios says it’s sad that craftsmen like himself are slowly disappearing, and says slow business and young people’s reluctance to enter such professions means skills such as his could be lost forever.
“Manual labour is not preferred nowadays because labour is difficult and one has to work 15 hours a day in order to make a decent living.”
He says such a meagre living is not enough for the youth of today, who all dream of lavish lifestyles. A few hundred metres away, also in the tourist hub of Psiri, is the world-famous Melissinos Art-The Poet Sandal Maker, where Pantelis Melissinos shares similar thoughts on Greek youth’s disinclination for manual labour. “We put effort, sweat and blood into crafting our sandals. Earlier today I was hammering when I accidentally hammered the nail in my finger and there was blood. So we put our soul into crafting these sandals. Young people nowadays do not really want to do something like that. They kind of prefer the easy solution.” He says young Greeks today prefer to play on their smartphones while drinking frapp� and, with what he calls an inept government, it won’t get any better soon, he fears. “In addition, the situation in Greece has reached such levels that the politicians want to eradicate small enterprises, as well as small artisans and small producers like us, and they implement harsh legislation so as to kick us out from this profession. This is the society’s massification. For this reason, Greeks have to go back to their roots, to restart themselves from the beginning, to regain their lost pride.”
Watching Pantelis work and deal with customers it’s apparent he retains great pride in his work, carrying on a legacy that was started by his grandfather Georgios Melissinos in 1920.
He made shoes for men, women, children, as well as climbing boots and riding boots. When he passed away in 1954, Pantelis’ father took over the business.
“My father was studying to be a TV director back then, but he had to have a profession that would allow him to provide for his family, so he started getting involved with making shoes and out of pure luck, an English choreographer entered the shop one day and asked him to make her a pair of ancient Greek sandals for her dancing troupe. My father made the order plus some more pairs, which he hung out of the shop. Some of the first American tourists back in the 1950s happened to see them and loved them.”
Since then, Hollywood celebrities such as Jennifer Aniston and opera stars like Maria Callas have all worn the famous sandals, and while Pantelis continues to make them by hand in downtown Psiri, he knows that if young people don’t start showing an interest in jobs like this, he too will one day be forced to close the shop.
Also in Psiri is another famous shoe store, Joanna, which is renowned for its ballet and dancing shoes. The owner, Ioanna, has owned the shop since 1978 and continues to run it, with a little help from her daughter. “In 1978 I was the only one crafting ballet shoes. But ballet and folk dance were not so popular back in those days. Times changed, people’s tastes evolved and so did our profession.” More Greeks got into dance and Ioanna’s business experienced a boom in the 1980s and early 1990s. Then suddenly, an influx of cheaper, inferior products from Asia flooded the market, and slowly her customers dwindled. She says for Greece to survive there is only one way out – people must learn to buy Greek products again. “I work with 50 other businesses, people that supply heels, shoe laces, fabric, leather, all sorts of suppliers, so you see, it may seem like you’re buying just a pair of shoes from one shop, but really you are helping so many more small business owners that desperately need your help.”
Ioanna believes that if more people buy Greek products, this will create further interest from young people to take up professions that are slowly eroding from society.
“Unfortunately, there are no new artisans, something which is a big disadvantage, considering the fact that a craft might always be useful. And I will tell you an old Greek saying, because every old Greek saying comes true at some point: ‘Learn a craft and leave it, and when you’re hungry take it up again.’
She says the older generations know this to be true, and it’s time for young people to realise it too.
As you walk through the maze-like alleys of Psiri and cross over Athinas Street you reach Evripidou Street, where Georgios Pervolarakis has been running his specialised business, which makes lampshades, for decades.
Like many others in this area, this is another multi-generational business, which unfortunately could also close once Georgios decides to retire.
“The story of this shop goes back to around 1960. This business operated under my grandfather’s name as a tailor’s shop.”
Georgios’ grandfather switched the business from a tailor shop to crafting lampshades, a craft passed on to Georgios’ father and then to Georgios himself. Unfortunately though, Georgios has been unable to find a successor – he says most young people today just don’t have the passion for these kind of jobs.
“This is a job which you might not get rich from. Usually jobs that require love and care won’t make you rich.”