By Siobhan O’Leary
ATHENS: Running an independent brick-and-mortar bookstore in the 21st century is a challenge under the best of circumstances. But with worries mounting in the Euro zone and the Greek economy in a downward spiral as its populace protests austerity measures, the obstacles are more magnified for booksellers in that part of the world.
Five years ago, Foteini Tsigarida moved back to her native Athens after a several years working in publishing in New York. She had gone to the Big Apple to complete an MA in publishing at New York University and enhanced her studies with positions at Arcade Publishing, the consulting firm Market Partners International, and three years in forecasting at HarperCollins.
“Going back to Greece was more of a decision that was imposed on me, rather than a free choice, as the family business awaited renewal,” said Tsigarida, who was expected to be the one to offer “energy, strength and fresh ideas” to the bookstore her family had run in downtown Athens for decades.
Modernizing the family business was no small task. Tsigarida was simultaneously regarded as the one to fix anything that was wrong with the company, but also faced with skepticism when it came time to implementing changes — including upgrading hardware, renewing logistics programs, automating processes, educating employees, enhancing the customer base, etc.
“One of the hardest things, I think, for anyone working in a family company, is to come to terms with the way things used to be for the older generation and not to lose patience, as it takes very long for change to become a reality,” Tsigarida said.
What emerged from this change process is the Bookstop International Bookstore, a wholesaler and retailer of books for learning foreign languages (predominately English, French, Spanish, German, Italian, Chinese). The store also carries international fiction and non-fiction in English, French, German and Italian, and features a large collection of English children’s books. There are two storefronts — one focused on retail and the other on wholesale — though the majority of business is on the wholesale front. “We distribute books to booksellers all around Greece, both the mainland and the islands, and our peak season is the back-to-school season from September to October.”
Bookstop employs five people — three full-time and two part-time — though personnel doubles during their busy season. The store’s primary suppliers are the main ELT and trade UK publishers (OUP, CUP, Pearson, Penguin, HarperCollins, Hodder), French publishers (Hachette, CLE, Gallimard), Spanish publishers, along with the major Greek ELT publishers, like Express Publishing, MM Publications, Grivas, etc., Greek DAF (Deutsch als Fremdsprache) and Greek FLE (Français Langue Etrangère) publishers.
Confronting the Economic Crisis
But how is the store managing to stay afloat and even thrive in light of the dire economic conditions currently facing Greece? According to Tsigarida, the Greek publishing sector has been hit by sales losses of around 25% in each of the last two years. Some publishers have started to lower prices to counterbalance the declines, she added, but this has not yet had an impact on sales.
“Overall, the bookstores, mostly the superstores and chains, are suffering a lot from low traffic and limited spending, and as many of them are incapable of paying their debts, the whole chain suffers.” Downtown bookstores are hurting even more due to constant demonstrations and chaos in the city.
Bookstop, like any bookstore, faces the task of adapting to digitization, but the imminent anxiety is that of the financial crisis and how publishers will need to let people go to lower costs, publish fewer books and make a stronger effort to understand their audience better and to meet their needs.
“On a national level, my fear would be to leave the Euro currency,” said Tsigarida. “If that happens, we will survive, but at such a cost that the efforts of at least the last 50 years will have gone to waste. I want to believe, though, that sensibility will reign and all Greeks will see their future within the European Union and not outside it.”
There is no doubt that operating in a niche has benefited Bookstop to this point, but the high prices of foreign language books are a deterrent. Though customers’ limited financial resources are having an impact on sales, this is happening on a much smaller scale at Bookstop, as Greek parents continue to spend on their children’s education even when times are tough. The store’s retail customers include teachers, students, parents, professionals (for particular trade titles), passers-by, tourists, and more.
The store’s smaller size and lower overhead lends it a certain amount of flexibility in terms of adjusting to the marketplace. Though Greek readers are not entirely ready to make the leap to digital, and publishers are therefore generally reluctant to invest in digital products, Tsigarida anticipates an increase in online products in the ELT environment that will test the waters of the Greek market. “We are in the process of building our e-commerce site and will be able to offer e-books as well,” she said. Bookstop already carries hard copies of books that incorporate e-books. Tsigarida also feels that it is important to invest in content and start publishing where there is a need that is not being fulfilled. For example, she just acquired rights to a Spanish grammar title that was in print for 20 years before its publisher retired. She plans to edit and enrich the title in its next edition and to seek out other partners for similar collaborations.
“The major fear is to vanish, to become redundant as publishers reach the end consumer directly. A lot has to happen in between, but I do think that there will be a moment in time when bookstores will exist, but under a different identity.”