September 22, 2011 / 3:48 PM / 6 years ago

Shopkeepers shutter shops as Greek crisis bites

<p>A man walks in front of a row of closed shops in central Athens June 24, 2011.John Kolesidis</p>

ATHENS (Reuters) - His gaze fixed on the ground, an Athens jeweler harks back to the good old days, when the city flourished and people always wanted his handbeaten gold rings and ornate necklaces.

"Today no one came," said Themis Lizardos, 44. "This is true every day." Another shop in the now partly derelict building has been boarded shut.

Generations of merchants set up successful businesses in the "commercial triangle" of Athens, a stone's throw from the central Syntagma Square where bloody anti-austerity protests erupted just over two months ago.

Now the mood among shopkeepers in the once vibrant area, enclosed by the capital's three main squares, is somber.

Tens of thousands of small businesses, which make up a big chunk of the Greek economy, have closed since the government secured a 110 billion euro ($150 billion) bailout package from international lenders in exchange for promises of painful austerity measures.

"There is no helping hand (from the government), there is only one hand, the one that presses on our heads and pushes us further to the ground," Lizardos said.

The walls of his shop are full of photographs from a time when staff worked into the night to keep up with demand for gold jewelry from Greeks, who have treasured it as part of their culture for centuries.

A gracious thank-you note accompanies one of worldwide Orthodox church leader Patriarch Bartholomew, an intricate gold pendant around his neck.

Today the workshop is run by four people, including Lizardos' cousin and uncle, who together with his father opened the business five decades ago.

Since then the shop has been the family's only source of income and the prospect of having to shut it down due to fallout from the Greek debt crisis keeps Lizardos awake at night.

"WHAT WILL I DO?"

Rising gold prices and high taxes have made it too expensive to run the workshop and he cannot afford to buy stock to keep the business running.

"If I close down my businesses what will I do now, at 44?" said Lizardos, echoing the plight of many small business owners throughout Greece.

His wife is half-American and the family is considering moving to the United States where he believes his teenage daughters will have a better future.

"When I got married I stayed for this reason, not to abandon what my father worked for all those years," he said.

"Our customers are not strangers, they are people you see in the market every day. The civil servant, the grocer, the electrician," Lizardos said.

"Some of them are priests, but even they have stopped buying. They don't want to provoke people by appearing to be extravagant," he told Reuters.

Violent street protests against tax rises and salary cuts have driven many Athenians from the city center. A police bus is permanently on standby on the corner of Lizardos's street.

The austerity and the protests have cast a shadow over small businesses in the city with demonstrations alone costing them about four working hours a day, trade bodies said.

In the Athens area, more than 20 percent of shops have closed since 2010, according to the ESEE retail federation.

SHOPS FACE SHUTTERED WINTER

Closing down or declaring bankruptcy is not easy, so many businesses simply pull down their shutters and debts start to pile up, according to ESEE.

"It will be a defining winter for small businesses. Many will not make it into the next year," said ESEE chairman Vassilis Korkidis, estimating by the end of 2011, they will be closing down at a rate of one in three, from one in four now.

Business owners in the area have started staffing their shops themselves, often with the help of their spouse or children. Usually employing fewer than 10 people, most of the country's small businesses are family owned.

"How can you fire your brother, your cousin, your family?" said 53-year-old Nikos Apostolakis, who runs a textile shop opened by his father in the 1970s on the same street as Lizardos. "Even if I cut their wages to half it wouldn't help."

More than 68,000 small businesses have shut down so far this year, according to ESEE. It expects about 53,000 to close down in the next six months.

"The latest measures have created an atmosphere of fear, that tomorrow people will not have enough money to eat," said Korkidis. "They should impose taxes that businesses will be able to cope with in the current climate."

Greece adopted yet more austerity measures on Wednesday to secure a bailout installment crucial to avoid running out of money next month.

"Regardless of what happens with the latest aid tranche there is going to be a lot of concern amongst households and businesses that in three months time there may need to be a new barrage of fiscal measures," said Ben May, a London-based analyst at Capital Economics.

Against the backdrop of a contracting economy, people are less inclined to buy to stimulate the economy and there will also be a reluctance to invest, he said.

Lizardos is worried Greece will lose a crucial part of the economy and will become a nation of big corporations. "Slowly we are all going to close down and we will work in factories for the big guys, for a 500 euro (monthly) salary," he said.

"Inside me I want to believe that maybe something will change, maybe a miracle will happen, but I don't really believe it," Lizardos said. "I don't believe it. I wish for it, though."

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