The owner of the oldest bookshop chain in Greece has told of her devastation at closing her last store after the country's financial crisis hit the business “like an avalanche”.
The 118-year-old Athens bookstore of Eleftheroudakis, run by Sofika Eleftheroudaki, will close on 30th September following a seven-year debt crisis. In that time, turnover at the company has plummeted from €24m in 2008 to €0.5m today, with employees falling from 130 to 10 as it was forced to shut all but one of its two dozen stores.
Now its last shop in Panepistimiou Avenue is set to close at the end of this month too.
The well-respected company, which started as a family business in 1898 with a bookstore on Syntagma square, plans to restructure and reopen in a new guise “thinking outside the box” and will also continue to sell books online, after facing years of increasing capital controls, rising lease payments, disruption in trade, inflexible payment terms from publishers including in the UK and US and the shrinking disposable income of customers.
Sofia Eleftheroudaki explained to The Bookseller that the country’s financial crisis struck the business at an already difficult time, when it was paying “extremely high” lease rates for its stores.
“Just to give you an example, we were paying for our flagship store €70.000 per month with a 10% annual increase,” Eleftheroudaki said. “In 2010 we asked our landlords to lower the lease, but they did not agree and in 2011 we had to leave the store. This building remained empty for two and a half years until it was finally rented to a college at a monthly lease below €10.000."
She continued: “Due to the above, the crisis hit us like an avalanche. There was just no easy way out. Shops had to close, staff had to go, and the business was falling rapidly. During 2011 and 2012, we had demonstrations everyday and sometimes more than one demonstration in one day at the same street. During the riots in February 2012, our shop was hit and a big window broke. Customers started avoiding coming to the centre of Athens because they were afraid. We often had to either close the store and wait for the demonstrators to pass by, locked inside the store along with our customers, or in a few instances we just closed and left early. Our main store accounted for more than 50% of our retail business, so this situation was a terrible blow to us.”
By mid 2014, Eleftheroudaki said there was a “feeling” that the economic environment was improving after all. However, this optimism changed “rapidly” after the announcement of the new elections in the winter of that year, she said.
“The current government is against all private business,” complained Eleftheroudaki. “The worst in this country is that laws change constantly and there is no stable environment for a business to thrive.”
The business owner has described how "whether with friends in the evening or with customers during the day, everyone just talks of his/her daily struggle to survive. What to do, so that electricity will not be cut. What to cut, in order to pay taxes... People see their pensions diminish. They lose their private social security. It is unbearable."
Adding to Eleftheroudaki's woes was the inflexible payment terms of large UK and US publishers, to whom she owed large debts. "It was impossible to continue working, even through prepayment." she said. “It would have helped if I could at least maintain the open account – on a probation scheme, for example. This would give me the opportunity to continue trading not on credit but through prepayment…I need the lifeline to the publishers and their distributors.”
On a recent trip to the Beijing International Book Fair, Eleftheroudaki had the chance to explain her situation “to the head of one of the biggest publishing groups in the UK/USA in person”, she said. However, so far she has not heard from him since that conversation. “I think he understood but so far I did not hear from him," she said. "My question is -do publishers want booksellers to exist or not?”
The retailer is now closing the last of her chain stores after deciding that the economic situation in Greece is “unbearable”.
Since the decision, however, Eleftheroudaki has been flooded with old customers bemoaning the great loss of a once great Greek institution.
“Since I announced that we would close the shop, people come literally in their hundreds every day to the store,” she said. “It is not only the discounted books they want, many of them come to me to talk, to hug and often they are with tears in their eyes.
“The Eleftheroudakis brand name is extremely strong, generations grew up with my grandfather’s encyclopedia, they used the shop in my father’s time to come and read scientific books as libraries hardly existed in the 1960’s and students did not have money to buy the foreign books. I had many lawyers, economists and doctors visiting me during these days, telling me that they became what they are today because of Eleftheroudakis.”
She added: “It is an extremely emotional time for all of us.”
Eleftheroudakis will restructure and reopen in a new format, yet to be fully revealed. However, Eleftheroudaki said the new bookstore will be “the place where the entire process of creating and appreciating a book is happening all around, whether it is writing, printing, searching or reading a book, everything is possible”.
“Eleftheroudakis” will be designed to act as a process; a reminder from the past and a learning hub for the future,” she added.