The bookstore of the hearth
“A bookstore is one of the only pieces of evidence we have that people are still thinking.” Jerry Seinfeld.
The Estia bookstore of the past.
I remember receiving my first book from Greece as a gift from a returning aunt. Attempting to open it, I was disconcerted by the revelation that every second page was stuck together, necessitating the use of a knife in order to liberate the treasures that lay hidden within. Even before immersing myself in the reading of the text, I could not but indulge in the tactile pleasures of Greek typesetting. Unlike the dead flat, spirit levelled type of say, a Penguin book, Greek type impressed itself firmly onto the page, causing an innumerable array of lexical undulating bumps, ridges and valleys, serving as landmarks for the reader as he traversed any particular kingdom of the empire of the Word.
My favourite books were those that retained the polytonic system, as opposed to the current austere monotonic monstrosity. Not only was this system integral to a proper understanding of Greek grammar and the connection between the modern and ancient languages, it was also very pretty and lent itself well to being gazed at adoringly by the discerning eye. As time passed and polytonic books became scarce, I invariably sought after books published by one of the most venerable and significant book stores and publishers of Greece, the «Βιβλιοπωλείον της Εστίας» (Estia) or Bookstore of the Hearth, which during its 128 year history, and up until its tragic closure in March of this year, was responsible for the publication of over 4,000 new titles, encompassing the works of some 1,500 Greek authors, all in the polytonic system.
To loiter around the shelves of Estia bookstore in its penultimate place of abode, Athens’ Solonos Street, which should be renamed Book Street owing to its concentration of purveyors of the printed word, was to be immersed in a particularly olde worlde literary culture of a type that long ceased to exist in the Australian world of the large commercial book chains. During my first visit to the bookstore, back in 1992, I revealed my Greek Australian provenance by browsing the shelves. Immediately I was set upon by a member of the staff who asked me what in particular I was searching for. «Τίποτα το ιδιαίτερο,» I responded. «Απλά, χαζεύω.» My inquisitor looked me up and down incredulously, before shrugging his shoulders and sighing in resignation: «Ναι, φαίνεται ότι έχεις χαζέψει.»
The concept of browsing was unknown. Patrons instead would arrive seeking a particular book or a particular author, the concept of leaving one’s literary activity to pot luck seeming ludicrously disrespectful. Given that just like an iceberg, not even a tenth of the titles available were on display, should one have wanted to browse, such a pursuit would have been rendered impossible. In this, it is quite plausible that Estia bookstore formed the inspiration for the book hunters in Walter Moers’ classic ‘The City of Dreaming Books’, for the cavernous and seemingly endless basement of the bookstore housed a vast number of hitherto unknown and precious titles on an infinite number of subjects. Yet amidst the chaos, the owners seemed to know the exact position of all of the books in their possession, and a good many of the authors personally themselves.
Furthermore, unlike the generally clueless staff of the bookstores I had come to patronise in Melbourne, the staff of Estia seemed to be possessed of a disconcertingly inordinate facility for literary criticism. I remember one hairy, unshaven and yellow toothed cashier interrogating me as to my choice of Thrasos Kastanakis’ classic of ambition and redemption «Ο Χατζή Μανουήλ.»He would not let me leave the store to devour my purchase until he had expounded why, in his view, the author was suffering from psycho-sexual problems and how this can be revealed in his literary tropes. Then he prescribed a compulsory reading list of other worthy Greek authors and demanded that I come in to discuss each one with him after I had been suitably enlightened.
Loitering also provided unprecedented opportunities to meet literary luminaries, for Estia truly was the entrepot of the Greek literary scene. On any given day, numbers of sundry politicians, actors, poets, writers and thinkers could be found in the store, seeking particular publications, enquiring as to the sales of their own publications or, even more often, those of their rivals. It was in this way that I was able to meet, albeit gushingly and with a complete loss of articulation, the great Antonis Samarakis, the erudite yet urbane Freddy Germanos, and not a few politicians whose names I will forebear to blight the august pages of this publication.
The Estia bookshop was one of those rare things in modern Greece, one of the twelve oldest businesses in the country, stemming five generations and providing a tangible link of continuity and an unparalleled commitment to the publication of Greek literary works, many of which have been of immense significance to modern Greek culture.
If one considers that in the year that Estia was founded, seventy per cent of Greek males and ninety two per cent of Greek females were illiterate, the effect that Estia had upon Greek cultural life can be viewed in perspective. Through its publication of a literary journal, it was able to provide a mouthpiece for the legendary “generation of 1880,” comprised of such writers as Kostis Palamas who were concerned with folklore, everyday life and introducing the demotic tongue, rather than slavishly following European literary models.
Such an endeavour would continue through the publication of translations of ancient Greek works, making these available to the public, often for the first time, and reached its apogee when Kostas Sarantopoulos, who presided over the bookstore between 1925 to 1972, instituted the publication of the “New Series of Greek Literature,” featuring the works of the influential ‘generation of 1930’, Seferis among them, whose writings finally emancipated modern Greek literature from European domination.
What granted especial significance to Estia, constituting it as the hearth of Greek literature, was the commitment to the publication of truly worthy literary works, avoiding the commercialisation of best-sellers or, unique to Greece, the selective promotion of works on a political or ideological basis. The targeted publication of the writers of the ‘generation of 1980’ such as Tatsopoulos, Homenidis, Tamvakakis and others, continued Estia’s tradition of purveying Greek literature hand in hand with its propagators, in a most beneficial partnership. The commissioning of worthwhile translations of non-Greek authors, such as Gunter Grass and Milan Kundera was also a labour of love, making accessible important works the owners believed that the public should be exposed to.
At first, I thought that the announcement of the closure of Estia was an April Fool’s joke. After all, would not the populace rise up in anger or righteous indignation at the news that one of Greece’s oldest institutions was no more? Would not public collections be instituted, wealthy benefactors contacted, writers and politicians mobilised to save the hearthland of Greek literary activity at a time when thinkers and writers are needed more than ever to rethink and restructure the permutations of Greek society? Apparently not. There were no protests, no taking to the streets or ritual burnings of rival bookshops. Instead, the news was received in muted silence, as if, in this period of economic and spiritual crisis, while the closure of a family business is a tragedy, the closure of a bookstore is irrelevant as it is a luxury. Yet arguably it is in those books in the bowels of Estia, recording the trials, tribulations and passions of generations of Greece that lived through worse times than the present, that will offer the guidance, strength and consolation the Greek people so sorely need in order to sustain them as they slowly make their way out of the abyss. It is in Estia and its cultural heritage that the arsenal for recovery can be found. As Doctor Who would put it, albeit paraphrased: “You want weapons? We’re in a library! Books! The best weapons in the world!”
* Dean Kalimniou is a Melbourne solicitor and freelance journalist.