The decline of an elegant Athenian shopping arcade

The Arsakeio Arcade, linking Panepistimiou and Stadiou streets in central Athens through an elegant covered corridor flanked by shops and cafes, is not what it once was. Today it exudes a sense of dejection. Entering the arcade from Stadiou Street, all the shops along the main corridor are closed, even the once buzzing Orpheus Cafe and the flagship of the Kokkonis chain, which sells flags and banners.

The decline of the Arsakeio Arcade is a small part of the overall slow death of the commercial center in downtown Athens. But it is also more than that, because the arcade, which opened in 1996, almost reached its goal of becoming the heart of cultural life in the Greek capital.

In June 1996, the Educational Society of Athens inaugurated the Stoa tou Vivliou, or Book Arcade, in the spot where the Orpheus cinema once stood off the main corridor of the Arsakeio, renting out spaces to different book sellers. The idea behind the Stoa tou Vivliou was ambitious: to bring together a number of small and big publishing companies (many of which were eager to rent a space in the Stoa) and to create a literary hub in the city center.

But 2013 is a very long way from 1996. Many of the big publishers have already fled the Stoa tou Vivliou, with Kedros shutting up shop at Christmas.

Petros Kyriakidis – a businessman who is currently being sought by authorities in connection to an ongoing investigation into loans issued by Proton Bank to businesses linked to its main shareholder, Lavrentis Lavrentiadis – played his own part in the demise of the Stoa tou Vivliou as well. Before the economic climate soured, he bought Akritas Publications, bringing the number of stores he leased inside the arcade to five. In the past few weeks alone, two have already shut.

But the Stoa is not just a victim of the economic crisis, as it has been suffering since 2008 when urban decline began to take its toll on the city center. Radical changes to the book market in Greece also played an important role in its demise, with the arrival of large bookstores carrying thousands of titles eroding the Stoa’s comparative advantage.

The chairman of the Educational Society of Athens, Giorgos Babiniotis, attributes the departure of publishing houses from the premises to the effects of the economic crisis.

“They are leaving the arcade because they are trying to reduce their operational costs,” Babiniotis told Kathimerini, adding that the society reduced rental rates by 20 percent for those businesses in the arcade that were “prompt with their commitments.”

The veteran academic also lays part of the blame on the tenants.

“They have not taken initiatives that would render the Stoa tou Vivliou a livelier part of the city,” he said. “For example, they do not follow extended opening hours [applied by many businesses in the city center], which means that every Monday and Wednesday they close at 3 p.m. Furthermore, they could, either individually or in cooperation with one another, organize events that would express an extroverted spirit.”

Babiniotis says the only activity that has offset the inertia of the book stores in the arcade is the Free University of the Stoa tou Vivliou, which is now entering its seventh year of operation and brings hundreds of people to the arcade every afternoon, when it would otherwise be at its most desolate. The educational program is now in its 19th term and has covered 107 subjects taught by 222 university teachers, writers and artists to thousands of people of all ages and educational backgrounds. The program is also very popular due to its low registration fee, which is 50 euros for each course.

But Babiniotis and his associates know that the Free University is not big enough to ensure the survival of the entire Stoa tou Vivliou, which will founder unless all the shops are leased once more.

“There is an interest from publishing houses to come to the Stoa even today,” said Babiniotis, adding that the Educational Society is open to other proposals as well, including the possibility of one large chain developing the arcade by assigning each store to a different area of expertise, as long as it remains in the book sector.

The fate of the Stoa tou Vivliou is also connected to the decline of the Arsakeio Arcade, of which it was an integral part. If the situation does not improve in the main part of the arcade, it is unlikely that the book area will see a revival.

However, the former manager of the Ianos bookstore, Vassilis Hadziiakovou, has submitted a proposal to the Educational Society of Athens for the lease of two very important spaces in the arcade: the former Orpheus Cafe and the Kokkonis shop.

“Where the Orpheus Cafe once stood, we would like to create a literary-artistic cafe. Our experience in the field would allow us to organize a series of events that would attract large audiences and liven the area up. As far as the Kokkonis space is concerned, we are talking about a space that has four levels. Our idea here is to open a high-caliber bookstore that would come to be the cultural heart of the arcade,” explained Hadziiakovou.

Babiniotis is aware of the proposals but says that no decisions have been reached yet. He also denied accusations that the rental policy of the Educational Society is too strict, saying that like at the Stoa tou Vivliou, rental rates were reduced in the rest of the Arsakeio Arcade as well.

“We are talking about the most central part of Athens and one of its most beautiful spaces,” said Babiniotis. “I don’t see why there wouldn’t be an interest.”

The chairman of the Educational Society of Athens also sees good opportunities arising from the planned pedestrianization of Panepistimiou Street. The biggest obstacle, however, remains the prevailing mentality, according to the academic.

“We had an idea to establish a book bazaar in the arcade every Sunday,” he said, citing an example. “People would come here, browse the titles, buy a book, have a coffee. But the Ministry of Commerce at the time scuppered the idea because it was to be on a Sunday.”

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