Berenice Abbott, Blossom Restaurant, NY (1935)
Politics

Keeping Shop

I first walked into the seamstress’s shop on the last day of its relatively short business life. It had been there for about three years, just two blocks down from my flat, and though I had passed by hundreds of times I had always been put off by the wooden hand-painted sign in a flowery script announcing “hand-made crafts”. It was only yesterday that I noticed the other sign that said “Alterations” and remembered the cycling jersey with a broken zipper that I was always meaning to get fixed. I dashed back home and fetched it.

It was a miniscule shop, with just enough room for a sewing machine and a small couch, where I could see the seamstress’s daughter lying sprawled with a coloring box and a box of wax crayons.

As I entered the shop the woman carefully extinguished the hand-rolled cigarette she had been smoking, laid it aside, and stood up from her bench to greet me. She was wearing a sleeveless, calf-length summer shift that revealed a small monochrome tattoo on her shoulder. I noticed a sampler on the wall in Romanian with a picture of a country church, but her Greek was almost flawless.

I showed her my jersey and asked about the zipper. Then she told me it was her last day. She was giving up the shop. But she could fix the jersey by the afternoon. “But I’ll have to inconvenience you. I don’t have a zipper that fits.” She gave me the address of a downtown shop that sold yarn and thread and, yes, zippers.

“Why are you closing shop?” I asked, though I knew the answer. Expenses too high, not enough work. Taxes, she told me. “I try to do everything legal. But there are too many expenses. There’s no room for us any more. Soon only the big department stores will do alterations. But only when you buy the clothes. If you lose or gain weight, you’re out of luck”

“But there must be more work now with the crisis. It’s cheaper to fix a dress than buy a new one.”

“Not really. The women can buy a new skirt from the peddlers for the €4 I charge for alterations.” She meant the illegal immigrants who sell cheap Chinese goods on the streets downtown.

“That’s a shame,” I said indignantly.

“Oh, they’re not to blame,” she said. “In a way, I’ve always felt sorry for them. Besides, who knows, I might wind up like them someday.”

**

On my way to the thread shop I passed by a Ministry building. It doesn’t matter which one. It wasn’t one of the main buildings, though, which would have been more heavily guarded and unapproachable. This, on the other hand, was an understated but elegant landmark building from the late 30s in a quiet residential neighborhood. It had one particularly odd feature: a series of tall and narrow low-lying windows on the ground floor that afforded passersby a look into the offices. The view was somewhat obstructed by stacks of bulging dusty dossiers that lay on the cabinets that lined the street side of the offices. The dossiers seemed to be as old as the building. They were the kind you fastened with a ribbon that wound around a clasp on the front flap of the file. But there was enough free space between the piles of files for me to peek into what has happening in the office. Or not happening, as it were. I couldn’t pick out anyone who wasn’t reading the paper or chatting with co-workers or talking on the phone, anyone who was actually doing anything with one of these files. Maybe I’m being unfair. Maybe I had espied them during their mid-morning break. I suppose they eventually did do some work. Just to break the monotony.

It made me think of Menios and the small odyssey he experienced when renovating the downtown apartment he had recently bought.

You can’t get much more downtown than where Menios lives. Elsewhere I suppose he’d be hailed as an urban pioneer, part of a vanguard minority regenerating parts of what is now a dying central city. But Menios said he bought the place, a 7th floor loft in an old apartment building on one of the most congested main streets in the city, because it was a bargain, even after spending an equal amount of money fixing it.

The biggest problems during renovations was how to bring up the sheetrock, new fixtures, pipes and tiles to the loft, and how to carry down the massive amount of rubble from the walls he demolished. Both could be solved by the use of a crane, but that meant re-routing traffic, including all the trolley and bus lines, on the street below. Which technically was possible, even if only between 2 a.m. and 4 a.m. on Sunday nights and provided he had the requisite permits from the police and the mass transit authority. After numerous stops to precinct headquarters Menios eventually got the police permit. But he was stuck at the transit authority, which apparently had to draft a plan detailing when and where traffic would be siphoned off to and which power relays had to be shut off to cut power to the trolley lines in front of the building. The transit authority told him it would take about two months to do the study. Menios, who had no intention of waiting two months and who’s an engineer himself who happened to have worked on the extension to the Athens subway, asked them what was so complicated about this study that it would take two months.

“I could do this myself in a day,” he told them, in an obvious undercurrent of exasperation.

“Why don’t you then?” they asked. And that’s how Menios got his permit. The transit authority gave him use of an office and access to a computer and trolley schedules, maps of the electrified lines and power switches, and a template for the study. He finished it in a day. The next day it was signed and that Sunday morning, the crane got to work.

**

The thread shop was located off a downtown square in a narrow, dimly lit stoa. It was wedged into a row of a dozen or so similarly small shops that sold cheap electronics, lottery tickets, cheese pies, discount shoes, and bulk nuts and fruits glacés. None of these places, but especially the thread shop, depended on random passersby for its trade. You had to know what was here in order to find it.

The shop was twice as high as it was wide, like a shoebox turned on its end. And every inch of the surface of this tiny space was lined with shelves on which lay boxes of bobbins and buttons and spools of thread, and carefully arranged pyramids built from skeins of yarn.

The shopkeeper was a short woman whose long black hair and wide eyes brought to mind an Anime heroine. Though dwarfed by the high-ceiling wall of yarn behind her she looked masterfully at ease in her surroundings.

I explained what I was looking for and she dug out a zipper from a box she retrieved from behind the steps of a winding metal staircase that led to a little loft above half the shop, which may have served as yet additional storage space. It looked a bit thick for a cycling jersey and I asked for a thinner one. She found one but protested, “No, this won’t do. It’s for very fine fabric, for evening gowns and the like.”

I asked her how the crisis had affected her business. “Oh, we’ve seen worse”. She meant the junta’s tanks that had rolled by outside the stoa on their way to crush the student uprising at the Polytechnic decades ago. “People still sew and knit, you know. Of course, not because they need to anymore. It’s more of a hobby nowadays. Besides, most people have enough unworn clothes to last a couple of years.”

In the end I thought my tricot was sheer enough to justify the thinner zipper so I took both.“If you wish. I just didn’t want to sell you something you won’t need,” she said. The thick one cost 50 cents, the thin one €1.

She had been right, of course. In the end, the seamstress used the thicker one.

-/-

Image: Berenice Abbott, Blossom Restaurant, NY (1935)

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