In April of this year, Ukraine-born artist, musician and dancer Anton Kats raised the curtain on Documenta 14 in Athens with his “A-Letheia” project, in which he turned abandoned street kiosks in the downtown areas of Psyrri and Kypseli into interactive installations. At the time Kats told Kathimerini that he saw the kiosk, or “periptero,” as representing an important part of modern Greek history since the beginning of the 20th century as it served as a common point of social interaction.
Athens’s first kiosk opened in 1911 on Panepistimiou Street. It’s quite possible that it would still be operating today had it not been swallowed up when the ground beneath it collapsed in 1997 during construction of the metro line that now runs beneath the central thoroughfare. Thankfully the woman who was working inside the periptero managed to get out just in time.
What kiosks look like has changed a lot since 1911, as has the legal framework governing them. They were once gifted by the state to wounded war veterans in lieu of a pension. Their value grew over time and they became property to be passed down from the original holder to his children or grandchildren. In 2012, kiosks were on the way to being liberalized, but in 2015 the coalition government of leftist SYRIZA and right-wing Independent Greeks (ANEL) reversed this, keeping the ownership and operating rights to kiosks closed off to all but those who inherit them.
In the 100-plus years they have existed in Greece, kiosks have not only grown in number but also in size. At first, the kiosk operator, or “peripteras,” had to squeeze into a space of just half a square meter. Today they’re a lot roomier, while they’ve gone from just selling cigarettes, candy and newspapers to books, souvenirs and all manner of other items.
What does the periptero mean to those who run these businesses today? What does the new generation of peripterades, who’ve inherited their livelihoods from their fathers and grandfathers, think about kiosks?
Spyros is 29 years old and works at a kiosk managed by his father and uncle on busy central Patission Street. “Looking at my grandfather, my father, my uncle, and then comparing them with myself, I don’t think there’s much of a difference in the way we operate,” he says. “What makes it worthwhile for me is the game with the customers, otherwise it would be an insufferable job. I’m waiting for my cousins to grow up so we can share the work.”
He starts smiling as soon as I ask him what he means when he says “the game.”
“Well, besides the ribbing from older customers, there’s the opportunity to make new friends, chatting with shopkeepers in the neighborhood, interacting with customers and the tricks of the trade that have been passed down from generation to generation,” he says with a laugh.
“What tricks?” I inquire. “If someone asks for a bus ticket, unless he buys something else, I tell him I’ve run out. We do that because we don’t make any profit off of tickets. We save them for our regulars. We do the same with matches, because they cost next to nothing and the profit from selling them for us is pretty much zero, so I often say we’re out of matches while trying to sell them a lighter, on which we do make a profit. If their change is 10 or 20 cents, I’ll ask them if they’ll take a piece of gum in order to round it out,” he says.
Fanis, 26, has worked in a centrally located kiosk in Gyzi for years and says he knows what a customer is going to buy before they even reach the kiosk. “You can tell from a distance which guy will buy one or two particular newspapers along with some cigarettes that go with their image. What’s fascinating about those who buy newspapers is the way they address you depending on which paper they buy,” he says.
“It’s funny how to this day people that buy condoms lower their voice when asking for them, as if they’re embarrassed. Hardly anybody buys them without buying two or three other things; then they discreetly ask for a box. Maybe they want to hide them among the other things that they buy. Who knows?” says Fanis.
“Some even try to steal them. It’s hard to catch a thief so we have different tricks: For example, when they ask us for help finding a magazine we just say that we don’t have the one they’re looking for, because they’d probably strip the kiosk of everything out front by the time we stepped outside to the magazine racks,” he adds.
Kiosk operators have honed their craft and are constantly trying to find ways to keep up with the competition.
“For years, the shop right behind us was empty,” says Spyros on Patission Street.
“Maybe potential tenants were scared off by the fact that there was a kiosk – and a big one too – right in front of it. I heard that someone was thinking of renting it and starting a business selling discount tobacco products, so we called the landlord and asked him how much this guy was willing to pay him in rent and made him a better offer. Today we just use it as storage space for items we sell. We might be out of pocket, but we would have been in a worse position otherwise.”
A community hub
Fanis says the kiosk he operates also works as an information center. “I always remember my father telling me the kiosk must also function as a hub in order to stay alive. University students come to leave their contact cards for those interested in private tuition. Potential buyers or renters ask me to keep an eye out for any real estate in the area. Unemployed people ask if I know of anywhere they can get work. We’ve always served some sort of advisory role. I love the crazy people who come asking for coffee or souvlakia, then there’s those who ask me if I’ve seen someone or other, those who ask me to keep an eye on their shop when they go on holiday. The kiosk was and still is the heart of the neighborhood,” he says.