A basement and haven

Manolis Barbounakis has spent half a century in his legendary Book Basement bookstore on Aristotelous Street in downtown Thessaloniki. In October 1950, aged 17, he set out from Perivoli, Rethymnon, for Athens. Nine years later, he loaded his belongings and his motorbike onto a truck and went to Thessaloniki to work as a publisher’s representative and later to build his own realm. «The way you’re going, you’ll get to America!» his mother Eleni wrote to him from their village. Barbounakis described his mother as «an uneducated but wise woman who taught me about life.» Since then, he has literally lived among the books in his basement. In the afternoons, he used to perch on a bed behind the shelves with his Cretan tsikoudia and play host to personalities from the arts and politics. «During the junta, many books were prohibited, the market was limited,» he said, but in those hard times he made good friends. Among them was writer Menelaos Lountemis, «a sensitive, brilliant man, a lover of life,» actor Manos Katrakis, who was a close friend, and publisher Kitsos Tegopoulos, «who stood by me courageously in very difficult times.» Barbounakis is proud of having been the first to organize book presentations in Greece. His photographs of celebrities, including journalist Freddy Germa-nos, writer Costas Mourselas, philosopher Cornelios Castoriadis, and popular actor Aliki Vouyiouklaki, testify to the marvelous moments his bookstore has seen. The Book Basement still attracts politicians, journalists and academics who leaf through new titles, comment on the news and sip tsikoudia amid the squawking of the parrots that accompany Barbounakis in rhyming Cretan mantina-des, on the subject of which he has written three books. Greeks are more interested in tavernas than books, he believes. «It’s always been like that and it always will be. The only difference is that there used to be more young readers,» he commented.