Monday, 2 September 2013
The corner kiosk ... an essential part
of the way of life in every Greek town
On the day I arrived in Rethymnon last year I was saddened to see the local períptero beside the bank in Tsouderon Street had closed, with the shutters pulled down and bolted. My worst fear was that the downturn in the Greek economy had brought about its permanent closure.
Those fears were allayed when it opened the next day. How could daily life on Tsouderon Street continue with this unique contribution to the rhythm and character of Greek daily life? Thankfully it is still there this year. For the períptero (περίπτερος) or kiosk is a part of everyday life in Greece and an essential element of the streetscape of every Greek city and town.
Early in the morning or late into night, the períptero is the first and last place most Greeks look for when they are buying buy a newspaper, cigarettes, ice cream or soft drinks. In the days before mobile phones, this was the place to make a phone call. The kiosks sell everything imaginable, from pens, lighters, postcards, stamps and disposable razors, to kombolói (κομπολόι), the worry beads that serve every Greek male as an antidote to smoking.
Late at night, long after the last shop has closed, you do not have to walk far to find a kiosk that is still open. One recent count estimated there are 46,000 períptera throughout Greece, with 1,200 in central Athens alone, 5,500 throughout Athens and 1,500 in Thessaloníki. In Rethymnon, there is virtually one on every street corner. They usually open all day long, from morning until late at night, seven days a week.
Some of my other favourite períptera include one in Syntagma Square, outside the Economy Ministry in Athens, where I found a toothbrush and socks late at night after my luggage failed to arrive with me, and another in Venizelou Square on Iráklion which has the most bedazzling range and variety of newspapers.
As a major outlet for high consumption goods, the small kiosks are big business throughout Greece. They contribute to up to 5% of the annual GDP of Greece, and the average daily turnover of a single kiosk can total €1,500 – it is said a well-located períptero can take as much as €2,500 a day. Even in these bad days for the Greek economy, the local períptero has its takings boosted by the boom in tourism this year.
The three main product lines contributing to this high turnover are cigarettes, newspapers and ice cream. Greek law allows one tobacco sales point for every 400 people, and because the kiosk operators take up most of this quota they enjoy a virtual monopoly on cigarette sales.
Greece has a large number and variety of daily national and local newspapers. Most kiosks string the daily newspapers up like washing on a line – many even use clothes pegs to secure the afternoon editions to make front-page easy reading for passers-by.
When it comes to ice cream sales, many kiosks are operating close to the margins of the law. They are supposed to sell dairy products at a regulated distance from shops and supermarkets. But manufacturers’ pressures and inducements ensure few supermarkets ever complain formally. Local regulations usually limit kiosks to two fridges each, but the distributors of ice cream and soft drinks, anxious to promote their own brands, often put pressure on the operators to take more, so that fridges and coolers take up space on the street.
Some local officials turn a blind eye, but others are more rigorous in pursuing operators with extra fridges. The kiosk managers are at the mercy of local regulators, but are particularly vulnerable when they are dealing with the kiosk proprietors.
But you cannot buy a períptero. A law dating back to 1949 allows only wounded soldiers drawing a pension from the Defence Ministry to own a kiosk. Although Greece sent troops to the Balkans in recent decades, traditional tensions with Turkey eased long ago, and Greek troops have not fought in a war in the memories of most Greeks.
So, the proprietors are often soldiers’ widows, or policemen and soldiers who have been injured in peacetime activities. Most are not involved in the daily management of their kiosks, and many kiosks have been have been passed down the family line.
The law allows the owners to rent their períptera for three-year periods than can be renewed, and it is estimated that fewer than 5 per cent of kiosks are owner-managed, while more than 95 per cent are rented. Indeed, the licence owners often demand high initial down payments and high weekly rents.
The Greek poet Kiki Dimoula portrays everyday life in Athens in her poems. In Mourning in Kypseli Square, she talks of
... the kiosk.
Standing on its feet all day
with its small-stock melancholy,
in its afternoon papers.
But the reality is less melancholy and more colourful. These small, stand-alone mini local shops are often wooden cabins. At one time, they were generally painted yellow, although many today many are made of steel.
The legal size of a períptero is small – just 1.9 metres square for the central cabin, with an extra one metre all around, generally used as an area for displaying newspapers, or keeping a fridge or two or a freezer stocked with ice cream and cold drinks. The displays often spill out onto the streets, sometimes taking up more extra space than the original kiosk itself. But because of their convenience, few people complain – apart from neighbouring shopkeepers.
The central cabin generally has small windows on three sides, with a door at the rear. Normally, only the front window is used for shopping; even when the other windows are open, they are intended to allow the seller to watch his shop and goods. Most of the time, the seller is alone managing his business. Inside, when the space is overloaded with stock, the cabin has no space for two.
Although everyone in Greece now seems to have at least two mobile phones, some períptera still have a telephone at one of the side windows for local people.
The whole kiosk is generally covered by a colourful protective canvas, often sponsored by cigarette or soft-drink brands, with overhanging eaves that are often dripping with kombolói (worry beads), newspapers, plastic beach toys and postcards. In addition, many períptera have stocks of phone cards and prepaid cards for mobile phones, ice creams, confectionery, soft drinks, magazines and postcards. Others sell football scarves and pins with Greek flags or the logo of the local football clubs.
This is also the place to buy sweets, chocolate, chewing gum, pasteli (παστέλι, the uniquely Greek sesame-seed-and-honey bar), as wells as batteries, ballpoint pens, stickers, towels, razors, shampoo, contraceptives, metro tickets, bus tickets and parking tickets. At archaeological sites such as the Acropolis in Athens or Knossos in Crete they sell guidebooks, maps, tourist trinkets and cheap figurines.
Few períptera ever accept credit cards. The culturally-accepted and expected habit when it comes to paying is to place your money on a little tray like a coloured ashtray, on the counter, and your change is placed there too.
In the past, because this is a cash-based business, kiosk operators faced the constant danger of armed thieves demanding cash or phone cards. It remains to be seen whether the new threats to the survival of the kiosks are the disastrous downturn in the Greek economy or the anti-smoking laws and increased taxation on tobacco.