The legendary Greek kiosks, better known as periptera.
You’ll stumble upon multitudes of them during your visit to Athens and you will surely purchase something more than once. They’re like condensed supermarkets parked on street corners and squares, whose tiny size belies their vast stock: anything from magazines to yoghurt to tissues to beer. Most stay open late into the night and some, especially in the city centre, are open round the clock.
The first Athenian periptero appeared in 1911 on Panepistimiou Street. It would probably still be standing if the construction of the nearby Metro station hadn’t caused it to collapse (nobody was hurt).
In the beginning of the 20th century (and up until a few years ago), kiosks were given exclusively to war veterans and the disabled to help with their livelihood. The licences passed on to their wives and children after their death. Originally kiosks only sold newspapers. After the first World War, they began to sell cigarettes, a few sweets, and not much else since, by law, the wooden stands could not be larger than 70x70cm.
As the decades unfolded, the periptero slowly evolved into what it is today. First came the soft drinks, then the chocolate and chewing gum. Refrigerators were installed, and today you can find almost everything except steaks and poultry on the premises. The range of wares changes depending on the location. In Syntagma Square and elsewhere in the city centre, kiosks cater to visitors, selling souvenirs and foreign press. In more residential neighbourhoods, the peripteras (owner of the periptero) knows which brand of cigarette each customer smokes, what newspapers they read, and what time of the day they come to purchase them. If the locals need something they don’t have, the peripteras will order it for them. It’s that kind of old-school tradition.
Probably the biggest success story in the history of the periptero is that of “Minion.” In 1934, Giannis Georgakas opened a kiosk on the corner of Stadiou and Patission Streets and called it Minion. Besides cigarettes and newspapers, he expanded his merchandise to pens, sunglasses, and grooming paraphernalia. Over the next 20 years, his business grew into a huge department store with over 1,000 employees. It was the first store with escalators in Greece.
Sadly, most of the traditional yellow, wooden kiosks have been closed or torn down in the past few years. With 24-hour mini markets opening around the city and with the recent decision not to renew old licences, not to mention the impact of the economic crisis which forced over 500 kiosks to shut down, a unique feature of Athens’ urban landscape is in flux.
Ask any elderly local what the periptero means to them. They’ll tell you it was a local meeting point. They’ll tell you it’s where they used to go make their phone calls in the 1950s and 60s, when landlines at home were an unheard-of luxury. They’ll tell you it’s where they rushed to on Sunday morning, rain or shine, to buy the Sunday paper; where they spent other mornings hands clasped behind their backs, head tilted upward, reading the front pages hung from the roof by clothes pegs. The pre-cell phone generation will remember the payphones most kiosks installed, making “hey, I’m calling you from the periptero” a phrase more common than “hello.”
Today, these not-so-little bastions of history remain an essential part of everyday life for every resident of Athens. They’ll be just as essential to you while you’re here. Where else can you get sponges, parasols, blue beads to keep the evil eye at bay, magnets, ice cream, water, cookies and magazines under one miniature roof?