NEWS

Virginia Eleftheroudaki opens the book of her life as managing director of a leading Athens bookstore

At a time when women in Greece were timidly beginning to penetrate the professional realm, there were some who dove into the deep end of the male-dominated world of business. One of them was Virginia Eleftheroudaki. In the late 1960s, she took up the reins of one of the oldest and best bookstores in Athens. In 1968, when her husband Giorgos died, Eleftheroudaki was initially called on to play a nominal role in the business but eventually she stayed on for 20 years as the managing director of Eleftheroudakis SA, handing over in 1989 to her daughters Sofika and Marina, who still head the business. Conditions at the time when Eleftheroudaki took over the firm were not ideal. The bookstore at 4 Nikis Street was failing. «Things weren’t going so well,» she recalls. «You see, two years earlier it had been made into a societe anonyme and we had increased our turnover but not our profits.» Nobody thought that a woman could save the firm by imposing discipline on how it operated. One of the first tasks she took charge of was correspondence. As she says, «The image of a company is shaped completely by its correspondence.» With a degree in economics and her knowledge of English, French and German, Eleftheroudaki was far from being a figurehead. At the beginning, she faced opposition from some executives who reminded her that her husband had run things differently. «That was a little sly,» she comments, «as he’d been gone less than a month, but perhaps they wanted to show me that he knew better.» It took officials and customers some time to get used to the idea that a woman was in charge, but Eleftheroudaki soon brought improvements to the company. She solved the problem of stockpiled books and introduced a new ordering system. Eleftheroudaki pays tribute to her friend Nikolaos Nikas, whose idea it was to reprint the company’s encyclopedia and sell it in monthly installments at kiosks, an innovation soon copied by other publishers. In her view, the advantage of having a woman in senior management at that time was courtesy and the ability to communicate with people. «The basic thing was the housewife’s ability to manage a budget. That proved a savior. I’d say I established a system of good housekeeping in management.» «When I joined the firm, I was a longstanding customer of the bookstore. I’ve adored books since I was a child,» she says, thinking back to the first Eleftheroudakis store in Syntagma Square, founded by Constantinos Eleftheroudakis in 1889 and which played a unique part in the intellectual life of Athens as a pole of attraction for the city’s intelligentsia. In 1962, the business moved to 4 Nikis Street. «Although I was at Nikis Street for 20 years and spent more time there than at home, for me the bookstore was always the one in Syntagma.» The role of books has changed with the passage of time. Eleftheroudaki mentions a recent rival to books – the Internet. «The Internet has terrific capabilities, it can solve many problems. There are already certain categories of books whose readership has fallen to a minimum. The simplest example is that of travel guides. They are slowly becoming obsolete now that an entire trip can be planned by means of the Internet.» Although she took the initiative of opening the first branch of the family business in the Athens Tower in 1973, she could never have imagined that the company would expand to become a chain of 14 bookshops. Deciding to allow her daughters to dive in at the deep end, she urged them to act independently. «I thought it wise to withdraw and not to intervene in their decisions.» Dynamism In our meeting on the eighth floor of the main store on Panepistimiou St, her elder daughter Sofika describes a habit her mother had many years ago. The four-hour journey she used to make from Kalamaki to her family’s holiday house on Spetses by boat was a source of enjoyment to her but also a daring feat. The fact that she chose to make that journey alone reveals a dynamism which seems to have played a decisive part in keeping the Eleftheroudakis name going for more than 100 years. This article first appeared in the January 9 2005 issue of «K,» Kathimerini’s Sunday supplement. Photos by Tatiana Horemi.