Kitty-Cats, Socialists, Fish-heads and Rare Books

David Solway
January 8, 2018
With the possible exception of executives of regulated utilities or owners of supply-managed farms, you rarely find socialists running private businesses. Except, apparently, in the near-failed socialist state of Greece. Canadian writer David Solway made this discovery at an antiquarian bookstore in Athens, where he learned from the hard-bargaining proprietor that socialists can be as good at taking other people’s money as they are at spending it.

Kitty-Cats, Socialists, Fish-heads and Rare Books

David Solway
January 8, 2018
With the possible exception of executives of regulated utilities or owners of supply-managed farms, you rarely find socialists running private businesses. Except, apparently, in the near-failed socialist state of Greece. Canadian writer David Solway made this discovery at an antiquarian bookstore in Athens, where he learned from the hard-bargaining proprietor that socialists can be as good at taking other people’s money as they are at spending it.
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I don’t make a habit of visiting used or rare bookshops – the print museums of our digital age – but I have occasionally enjoyed book-hunting in an out-of-the-way bibliotheca, most memorably when I was living in Greece a few years ago. I had wandered in, quite by chance, to the Karaghiozis Emporium in the warrens of the Plaka – the neighbourhood at the base of the Acropolis. Despite its impressive moniker the Emporium was actually a decrepit little hovel, its name borrowed from the celebrated Turk-Greek shadow puppet-theater character – an uneducated, unemployed trickster given to risqué jokes and sharp social satire – who has delighted Greek audiences for generations. The place struck me as a kind of bookend, so to speak, to the Karaghiozis Museum in the posh Athenian suburb of Maroussi, thus bracketing the vast social disparities in Greek society while at the same time accentuating its cultural and historical unity.

The Karaghiozis Emporium was nothing more than a literal hole in the wall, a gap in a stone façade fringed by a pelmet of aluminum shutters. It was not so much a used bookstore or a rare bookstore as a rarely used bookstore. The only occupant when I entered the premises was the affentiko (proprietor, from the Turkish effendi), a grizzled dwarf who seemed a dead ringer for the rogue puppet himself. He was seated on a rather high tripod, sipping a turkiko (Greek coffee, adopted from the Turkish occupation) which he poured from a battered briki and scanning a much crumpled newspaper, which turned out to be the popular left wing Eleftherotypia, favoured by trade unionists, diehard communists and prospective terrorists.

He scarcely troubled to notice me as I cast a skeptical eye over the mouldering copies of socialist tracts, translations of various French anarchists, a prominently displayed Franz Fanon and, of course, the obligatory pile of Communist Manifestos and Das Kapitals, all looking distinctly worse for the machinations of that ruthless free market enterprise, Time. There was also a saucer of milk and the scattered heads of maridhes (smelt) on the dirt floor laid out for the feral cats that would slink in for a brief repast. The affentiko obviously had a soft spot for the proletarians among the scavenging classes.

As he had not bothered to acknowledge me and as I could see nothing of interest among his wares, I was about to leave when I noticed, at the top of a corded bundle by the cave-like entrance, a cat-eared copy of Yannis Ritsos’ Epitaphios, the radical poet’s 1936 threnody for a worker assassinated during the Salonika general strike. This was indeed a rare find. Receiving permission to untie the parcel – permission consisted of an abrupt lowering of the head, the Greek gesture for assent – I also discovered the 1967 edition of Dinos Christianopoulos’ Poiimata (Poems) and a loose-sheet copy, collected between cardboard panels, of Eleni Vasileiou’s Appolonia, which I’d vaguely heard of but had never come across.

I couldn’t believe my luck and immediately began the process of negotiation. Notwithstanding the advice of bookseller and author David Mason in his charming pamphlet The Protocols of Used Bookstores – “Do not ask for a discount” and “It is not nice to lecture the proprietor on how and why you know that the price of his book is ludicrous” – I knew that bargaining is expected and pro forma in a traditional Levantine or Greek marketplace, which the Karaghiozis Emporium manifestly was. Now the affentiko deigned to address me and pointed to a tiny stool at the edge of the cluttered table where I could make myself uncomfortable. And so the haggling began, amid the yowls of cats, the incessant hammering from the adjacent metal shop and the whorls of black smoke wafting in from the passing trikiklos (3-wheeled motorized carts).

Socialism may be anti-capitalist, but socialists often make the best capitalists. So with my interlocutor. His political disposition was no impediment to his shrewd and sinuous bargaining methods, which included claiming that the rarity of the books was akin to “triremes that fly over the trees at sunset,” quoting one of Ritsos’ better lines from “The Dead House.” This impressed me greatly, far more than another used bookseller I had dealt with in Montreal, who quoted only prices. He then described his strenuous and costly odyssey to obtain these coveted tomes in the scriptorium of a monastery on Mount Athos – a most unlikely repository for a cache of leftist volumes – and expressed unwillingness to part with them except to someone worthy of so precious and exquisite an intellectual treasure. Sensing that he was attempting to compensate for his unusually short stature with an unreasonably tall price, I feigned a weary indifference, assuring him I was mainly interested in the books as a sentimental token of my visit to the Plaka.

Moreover, I affected to have little leisure, letting it be known that I had to stop by the shoe shop across the alleyway for a pair of sandals before rushing to Pireaus to catch the ferry back to the island where I was living. This was, I soon realized, too clumsy and transparent a ploy to be effective, but I partially recovered lost ground by matching his Ritsos quote with one from Giorgos Seferis’ signature poem, “In the Manner of G.S.”: “Ships whistle now as night falls on Pireaus.” This earned me an involuntary grunt of approval and an apparent willingness to bend on price. To press my advantage, I glanced frequently and conspicuously at my watch. He sipped his turkiko and grumbled beneath his breath, peering closely at the books as if he were about to cut diamonds. It didn’t look like we were making much progress. Then came his crowning maneuver. He slipped from his perch behind the table and made as if to replace the books in the corner where I had found them. My face fell, rather too visibly. That was his cue.

Suddenly appearing to change his mind, he smiled benignly, as if taking pity on the poor foreigner who had belatedly understood the immense spiritual value of the antiquarian gift he was about to forfeit, and stated the final price, the best he could do considering his daily expenses, the stray cats he had to feed, the exorbitant rent for this spilaion (cave), and the three daughters he had to build prika (dowry) houses for. My daughters, he said, quoting Ritsos again, are “at the windows, hidden behind their dreams.” Despite the poetry and my growing respect for the man – which I don’t grant lightly to socialists – I resisted the urge to capitulate. But eventually, after due consideration of the bookseller’s dignity as well as my pocketbook, I agreed to a price that was a little higher than I’d budgeted for, and a little lower than he’d initially demanded. Like the characters in a Karaghiozis-orchestrated triumph, everyone was happy. The bookseller got his adjusted price, I luxuriated in my trove, the cats had their maridhes and the daughters, no doubt, could look forward to their prika.

But, of course, since the shoe shop was in full view directly across the way and I couldn’t honourably renege on my weak transactional strategy, it also cost me a pair of sandals.

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