“I was in a bookstore/café that could neither sell books nor make coffee”

UPDATE: I’ve been made aware by a reader that it’s doubtful whether the anecdote mentioned here is true. See the comments for details.

Megan Greene from Roubini Global Economics shares a Kafka-esque anecdote from Athens which illustrates what the real problem is in Greece:

A friend and I met up at a new bookstore and café in the centre of town, which has only been open for a month. The establishment is in the center of an area filled with bars, and the owner decided the neighborhood could use a place for people to convene and talk without having to drink alcohol and listen to loud music. After we sat down, we asked the waitress for a coffee. She thanked us for our order and immediately turned and walked out the front door. My friend explained that the owner of the bookstore/café couldn’t get a license to provide coffee. She had tried to just buy a coffee machine and give the coffee away for free, thinking that lingering patrons would boost book sales.  However, giving away coffee was illegal as well. Instead, the owner had to strike a deal with a bar across the street, whereby they make the coffee and the waitress spends all day shuttling between the bar and the bookstore/café. My friend also explained to me that books could not be purchased at the bookstore, as it was after 18h and it is illegal to sell books in Greece beyond that hour. I was in a bookstore/café that could neither sell books nor make coffee.

In the light of such challenges, it is not very hard to understand why Greece has been suffering from low growth for the last many decades. The reason is not the populist charge that the Greeks are lazy or unwilling to change, because as the recent Give Greece a Chance campaign is trying to remind us, they are neither.

Nor is it – as the Eurosceptics like to assert – the fault of the Euro itself, although the lax oversight and enforcement of the Stability and Growth Pact certainly allowed an unsustainable situation to go on for longer than it should have.

No, the fundamental problem is the Greek political system, which in order to protect a large number of minor special interests has created an economy that on the whole is extremely inefficient: Cafés that aren’t allowed to sell coffee. Taxi drivers who have to spend thousands of euros to buy a taxi license on the black market. Nationally-owned companies that operate at a loss, but can’t be privatised because unions are stonewalling negotiations. And of course, there’s such things as corruption, tax evasion, and an extremely ineffcient central government and administration. All of these and other problems combine to give Greece a rank of #100 on the World Bank’s 2011 Ease of Doing Business Index, by far the lowest rank in the EU and below countries like Yemen and Vietnam, and of #90 on the World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Index. Under such conditions, rather than criticise, we shold frankly applaud the Greeks for doing as relatively well as they are.

So what can be done about it? It’s obvious that the economy has to open up and become more flexible and competitive. At the same time, the government has to fight corruption and reduce the dependence of the political system on special interests in order to restore its legitimacy. Easy enough to say – but extremely hard to carry out in practice. However, it’s something that only the Greek people themselves can do, and if it turns out that they can’t, it’s very hard to see what the rest of us in the EU could do to help them.

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7 Responses to “I was in a bookstore/café that could neither sell books nor make coffee”

  1. I read that article… so weird, I’ve bought books late in the evening many times in Greece. I guess they should throw me in jail then.

    • AKjeldsen says:

      It sounds to me like it could be some sort of shopping hour regulation. So maybe it differs between jurisdictions? I don’t know. But thanks for commenting.

      • that would be very odd in Greece, where there are very few ‘local’ laws. there are a few – for example there is a kind of vehicle prohibited in a town in Crete. But shopping hour laws are national and it sounds to me like the person either misunderstood or chose to report falsely to make in impression. There is no law in Athens that you can’t buy books in the evening. If there were, the HUGE bookstores in central Athens wouldn’t be open til 9pm. They sell nothing but books. The airport in Athens has bookstores open 24 hours/day. Here is a link to the Store Hours for the Athens shops of one of the largest bookstores in the country: http://www.books.gr/ViewStores.aspx Though it’s in Greek, you can see the hours listed. I’m sorry to see this sort of thing passed around when it’s just simply false, because it leads to false conclusions about Greeks are backward and lazy and mired in inefficiency. As far as her cafe problems, I wonder if she had issues with cleanliness. It’s true, we don’t have a totally free market, you can’t sell food and drink if you can’t pass the public health checks. Do I know? No. Am I speculating even though I have absolutely no idea? Obviously. But apparently that’s what we’re all doing now….

      • AKjeldsen says:

        Well, I recognise that actually being in Greece, you of course have a better idea of the situation than I do. But I must say I have seen enough similar horror stories about how Greek bureaucracy works to not just discount it right away. Some of them are mentioned here:
        http://livingingreece.gr/2007/10/26/how-to-start-a-business-in-greece/

        And as far as cafés are concerned, there has apparently been a moratorium on new licenses in some parts of Athens for the last couple of years:
        http://web.archive.org/web/20090301163343/http://www.ekathimerini.com/4dcgi/_w_articles_politics_1_25/02/2009_105026

        So on the balance, that part at least does seem valid enough. Anyway, regardless of whether the anecdote is strictly true or not, the problems in the Greek economy and politics certainly seem real enough.

  2. I just thought you might want to know that the anecdote you provided was based on false information, I’m not trying to defend Greek bureaucracy, which makes me tear my hair out often enough. But when something is wrong, even if sounds like it should be right, it’s still wrong. It’s just a tiny drop in the bucket of bad reporting about the Greek crisis. (The moratorium you mention, according to the article you linked, is only in Gazi, Kolonaki, and Pangrati, which is a tiny tiny proportion of Athens as a whole, as you know – of course it could be the case that it falls into one of these places, I wouldn’t know.) I’m not Greek, I’m American, but I just like to see fair and honest reporting.

    • AKjeldsen says:

      Of course, and I certainly appreciate you taking the time to let me know. I also usually trust Megan Greene to provide accurate information, but there may have been a misunderstanding, or circumstances we’re not aware of, as you mention. In any case, I’ve updated the post to reflect the doubts about the accuracy.

      • this is what I love about blogging – exchange of ideas and people wanting to discuss and hear different perspectives. I don’t know what the deal is with that weirdo bookstore/cafe but I appreciate you hearing me out. I don’t mean to step on any toes and admit that sometimes I let the negative media onslaught wear on me a bit too much. Thanks for hearing me out :)

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