The end of a long lifetime devoted to the world of books and writers

Last Sunday when the news got round that Mr Nikos was dead, nobody needed to ask who it was. On the contrary, all that anybody needed to know for sure was the surname. Most Athenians at one time or another had been catered to at the Estia bookstore by the courteous Nikos Pantelakis, where he worked from the war until the end of the 20th century, He spent a lifetime in the bookshop, meeting the leading literary lights who frequented the store, initially located on Stadiou Street and later relocated to Solonos. «I was 10 years old when I went to Estia in 1923… and left in January, 2001;» so Pantelakis summed up his career in his autobiographical work «Like Reading a Book,» published by Estia. In it he recorded his personal experience of people and books from the greater part of the 20th century. He was born in Athens, at 23 Karneadou Street. His father owned carts and «we had a modest income,» he wrote. Things got tough when his father died. Nikos was the eldest of four children and his mother soon needed help. «One day my mother came and got me and took me to the Estia bookstore, to Ioannis Kollaros. She knew him because they were from the same town, Pyrgos on the island of Tinos.» That was it. He started, worked hard, read a lot, and came to love the people of the book world. «I had entered a circle that moved me, and as a child the work appealed to me. When I got my hands on a book, I had to read the title and interpret it. So when I saw a book by [Grigorios] Xenopoulos with the title ‘Stachya kai paparounes’ (Corn and Poppies), I had to know what it meant, what was written there, with ‘novel’ underneath. I liked it, I really liked it… Now you’ll say, 10 books come out a day; then five came out a week, if that, so we can’t make comparisons. Now you go mad trying to keep up; by the time you’ve put your head down, another book has come out.» His first job was to dust the books; later he carried them in a trolley. Eventually he helped with the printing, bookbinding and sales. And he was present at all the great social and political events of his time. In wartime, he wrote, «there was work in books; people had nothing to do. Sometimes the curfew was at 6 p.m., sometimes at 8. What could you do? People had nothing else to do but read; they read a lot.» He was in the resistance: «During the occupation, bookstore employees were all members of EAM [the National Liberation Front]. And so was I.» The most significant experience was his contact with writers, intellectuals, teachers and politicians. Mr Nikos was always there – polite, well informed, ready to supply information, to talk and to greet people. «No customer went away without help. As an employee of the bookstore, I was no expert; I hadn’t studied anything. But I had studied books.» Born in 1913, Pantelakis was 88 when he retired in 2001 to spend the rest of his days with his family. He treasured his memories: «If I went to the Estia bookstore now, I could tell you where every book is, which shelf is which, where things are that I put there and are still in the same place.» On Monday, the booksellers of Athens, publishers, writers and readers bade him farewell for the last time at the Kaisariani cemetery. Luckily his memories did not disappear with him, saved as they are in his autobiography, where he documented not only much of the history of the book world but also the manners and customs of his time. What started by chance, from the need for pocket money, became a lifetime of devotion, passion and professional conscientiousness.