A neighborhood market close to the center of Athens is experiencing a gradual decline

The smells and images are familiar to me from childhood. No matter what happened, I’d shop in my neighborhood, pick up a loaf of bread and a few lemons, greet a few people. That’s the way it was. I remember that every year the local shops grew as new stores – most of them family businesses – were added. Some closed down, others thrived, as they do everywhere. Since last September, however, there’s been talk of an end for small businesses, not only in Brahami, as the Athens district Aghios Dimitrios is also known, but in general. What with fierce competition and the international crisis, traders predict that few will survive. They may be right, but the small stores on Aghiou Dimitriou Avenue won’t give up the fight easily. Conversation with the local traders is revealing. One believes «there’s only room for tough guys» who can adapt to the new conditions. Another believes a «shake-up had to come,» to get rid of the amateurs. Someone else commented that «impersonal retail chains have brought one good thing among the bad; they’ve helped people realize why it’s worth coming back to shop with us.» Whatever the reasons, the facts speak for themselves. Since July 2008, 13 stores have closed on Aghiou Dimitriou. And others among of the 2,000 or so small retail outlets in the municipality are facing the same prospect. Doldrums Miltiadis Batos has had run a music store off Brahami’s main square for 24 years. He runs it alone; he couldn’t afford staff and he doesn’t need them anyway. Business is slow. When he opened in the 1980s, there were 877 music stores in Attica, of which only a few dozen remain. There are other problems: The music industry is in crisis, and many people download music from the Internet rather than buy it, but trade has dropped even further in the past few months. As Batos explained, CDs are not a basic necessity: «People try to make a living first and then think about entertainment. After all, if they want to listen to music, they’ll turn on the radio,» he said. «I’m too old to make quick decisions and much too young for a pension. I’ve got to the point where I admit I’m trapped. I’ve come to terms with it by adopting a less costly lifestyle. I’ll keep the shop because I have customers getting on for 50 who aren’t into new technology and downloading songs. They listen to music the way they used to. They want you to greet them by name when they shop. Of course, I live mainly off accessories and spare parts: headphones, MP3 and MP4 payers.» Some traders have benefited from the crunch. It has brought more customers to the Piyi frozen-food outlet, for instance. «I sell more frozen meat now, and inexpensive fish is in greater demand,» said proprietor Nikos Soursos, who explained that more people will make a soup from cheaper fish than before. On busy days, usually when people are fasting from meat, Soursos gets his niece to help out. «It’s all in the family, he said. «Greeks don’t readily employ someone who isn’t family, and when they do they make them a family member.» He loves his work and did public service in the coast guard when he was 18. «I would have been on the point of retirement now,» he said, «but I couldn’t have paid the price of unbearable boredom.» It’s a hard life with long hours. He opens early in the morning, closes down for the midday break, and opens again in the evening after cleaning up. «It’s hard work being in the refrigerators; harder than for those who sell clothes, for instance. It would be a lie to say I don’t envy them.» His hobby is touring on his motorbike. His friends set off on Friday and he catches up with them on Saturday. «I’m used to arriving last, covered in sweat.» Parking Brahami residents tend to pick up a few items from the local market that they’ve forgotten to get at the supermarket. They choose the stores that give them good service. The market is known for its food. «It was one of the first organized markets in Attica,» said fishmonger Grigoris Kostouros. «My father-in-law opened this shop in 1950. There were butchers and fishmongers side by side and you could find anything you needed. That’s why it keeps going, except that the lack of parking facilities doesn’t suit people who come from far away.» «We storekeepers are grumblers by nature,» said Elisavet Micha, who owns an optician’s store. «Even if we’re overwhelmed with work, we go on about how it was better in the past. People certainly are more careful with their money this year. They’re hesitant, and with my product they try to get the best deal from their health insurance. But television has played a role, running scary reports before Christmas as if the end was at hand. Things aren’t easy, but we haven’t come to a dead end. Within a radius of 600 meters there are five or six opticians; we’ve all more or less got enough work.» Whether they are healthy or struggling, old or new, very few stores in Aghios Dimitrios are owner-occupied. As most of the stores belong to the same few people, rents are fairly standard, 1,200-1,500 euros for a space of around 50 square meters, with better deals for the longest-established traders.

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