A Spirited Bookshop in Thessaloniki

By Chris Deliso

Aug. 24, 2006 (Balkanalysis.com)

No doubt, Thessaloniki, Greece’s de facto cultural capital has no shortage of fashionable cafes and nightspots. But beyond going out merely to drink or be drunk, to see or be seen, is it possible to feel the convivial spirit of an ancient land, world-famous for its legacy of feasting, the arts and philosophy?

Indeed there is! Tucked in a back lane right in the heart of Thessaloniki, a welcoming bookshop, Loxias, celebrates almost three millennia of Greek literary offerings in its well-lit book cellar. Upstairs, where the cafe is located, a cozy interior overlooks Roman ruins in the backyard. The walls are lined with turn-of-the-century photographs, and voluminous barrels of wine greet the visitor. Yet while it serves all manner of drinks, from espresso to beer, Loxias is most distinguished for being an ouzerie-bookstore — a booklover’s haven that can also be celebrated by late-night lovers of Greece’s spirited, diminutive national drink, ouzo.

The owner of the shop, the good-natured Ioannis Kiprianidis, sums up the special atmosphere that has developed in Loxias since he opened it in 1987. According to the 60-year-old former student of pharmacy, previously engaged in the bookshop business in Italy, Loxias “recognizes the banquet mentality of the Greeks, by which the motto, “eat, drink and philosophize’ comprises our tradition.”

Loxias now boasts, along with its occasional visitors, a loyal extended family of intellectuals, sybarites and armchair politicos. On any given night it might be crowded with gesticulating Greeks arguing about a medley of topics ranging from Aristotle’s categories to theater to the latest pronouncement of Karamanlis.

Here, laughter and animated banter predominate amidst smoky iterations of the latest national political duplicity or an exposition of ideas, or just the occasional friendly gossip.

And then there is, finally, the quietude of the shop’s romantic corner on the miniature backyard balcony, overlooking Roman ruins where cats flit in the dusk.

For Kiprianidis, Loxias is a “steki’- an affectionate Greek word meaning something akin to a “local,’ yet somehow more personal still. It is a place, he attests, for “enjoyment and spiritual pleasure, an alternative to the usual cafes with their cards, smoking and televised nonsense!”

Regular customers feel themselves as part of the Loxias family. Dr. George Karamanolis, a professor of ancient philosophy at the University of Crete, recalls what first drew him to the shop way back in 1989, when he was a student in Thessaloniki. “The first thing I appreciated was that it stayed open until late at night,” he recalls. “The owner seemed to be living there all the time. I sometimes found it open even when coming back from a bar at 3:00 in the morning!”

And not only was it open, says George; the cafe was also “full with people who were having vivid discussions about politics, the identity of modern Greece, books, ideas, and so on. Ioannis always came to welcome you and to talk to you, often getting you involved in the discussion too. I hadn’t seen such a bookshop before. It didn’t just sell books, it housed ideas and arguments about books, from people who loved books- it did not take long for me to become a frequent client or, better, a friend of the bookshop.”

Indeed, while Loxias is unique for being Thessaloniki’s first bookshop-cafe, it has a deeper significance.

Loxias is remarkable for many reasons, but most of all in that it upholds something that has almost vanished from Greek society today: the venerable old tradition of the bookshop as a cultural center for discussion and debate, presided over by a cultured patron of learning and the arts.

The figure of the erudite bookseller – a cerebral purveyor of literature who would not only know what books he was selling, but also know their contents, inside and out – is a long attested character central to the old Greek culture. It is this sense of bookselling as a vocation, and not just a job, that is in danger of being lost today.

“Some thirty or forty years ago, Thessaloniki had a very lively bookshop culture,” says Ioannis. “Back then, there were excellent, learned vivliopoleis (booksellers). There was an established culture, one that was meaningful in its own right.”

Today, the city is full of newer, bigger bookstores, but unfortunately, most of the old expert booksellers no longer remain. Some retired, others died. And, as everyone knows, there was a society-wide replacing of books by television, video games, etc.- and little by little, the role of the traditional bookshop waned.”

For Ioannis, today’s one-dimensional, consumerist world of easily dispensable toys, techno music and soulless technology is utterly alien to what he experienced growing up. “It was very different when I was a boy,” he says.

“When I held a book for the first time, I would always revere it as a very special thing, something to take care of, to love- a really big gift. No one thinks that way anymore. Now it’s like a game or just another product. It doesn’t mean anything for them anymore.”

With the advent of the internet, and today’s fast-paced and competitive lifestyle, people neither have the impetus nor the time to read real physical books much anymore, the vivliopoles concedes. It is with good reason that Ioannis considers himself as “someone of the last generation.”

However, when he is feeling optimistic, the bookman (and others) see his cozy little shop as something that might help to stem the tide.

“There has to be some kind of a jump, a spiritual shift if we are to have a younger generation of booklovers,” he says. But this valuable aspect of Loxias has been attested. Indeed, the erudite scholar and author Dr. Karamanolis attests, “it may just be largely due to this place [Loxias] that I have come to love books and ideas so much.”

Even though it is a tidy little shop, Loxias does have a massive collection of Greek works, from the time of Homer and Hesiod up to the current day. Rows are neatly arranged according to title, festooned with the odd picture of Nietzsche or ancient Greek masks. Evrything, even the most obscure treatise examining, say, Byzantine campaigns in Armenia can be found here.

At the same time, Loxias’ books also celebrate the progression of the Greek language, from the literary heights of antiquity and 5th century Classic Attic, to the Koine of the Roman Empire, the Byzantine vernacular of saints and the stilted anachronisms of their bishops, and the modern katharevousa (’clean’ Greek, unsuccessfully introduced and based on ancient grammar) and demotic that followed it alike.

The only drawback, as far as foreign visitors are concerned, is just this- the language issue. All of Loxias’ books are in the native tongue. Thus those who don’t read Greek will probably not end up bringing anything home, other than the warm glow that comes with wine, beer and raki (though there are some lovely photo books of Greece and its islands).

The sort of works sold here are well bound, whether soft or hardbacked, pocket-sized or for the coffee table, yet always dignified- that is, not exactly the type to be international bestsellers.

However, after a few glasses of Greek spirits, everything becomes possible. Joannis jokes, “all Greeks drink, but not all of them read; however, when they get a little bit drunk, and they see the books- ah, that can be that moment of passion when they get inspired to buy one!”

If you go: Loxias is located in downtown Thessaloniki, at 7 Isavron Street. It is easy to find from the central Plateia Navarino, a long pedestrian street that runs from the Arch of Galerius at Kamara down to the busy shopping street of Tsimiski.

Just walk down the Plateia towards the sea, and Isavron will be on your right- a small sidestreet just before Tsimiski. Loxias is halfway down on the right.

The bookstore is coming off of summer holidays and is currently open every day after 6:30 PM- just fine for nocturnal Greeks and visitors alike.