The two siblings in their store.

The book with the due payments.

Greetings from Scotland with love.

“Diplos” convenience store

Text: Pavlos Methenitis | Photos: Dimitris Vranas (A.I.F.)

Manolis Charalambous runs a traditional convenience store called “O Diplos” in Parikia, with the help of his sister, Mrs. Koula – an iconic shop, a staple in Paros for more than fifty years, with raving customers from all over the world.

The young have no memory of shops of this kind, but the less-than-young are moved as soon as they set foot in “O Diplos” store in Parikia. Even if they have forgotten what an old-school convenience store looks like, their noses will readily remember this appetizing grocery smell, this wonderful mélange of cheeses, pickles and oh-so-many other goodies.
Mr. Manolis treats us to some excellent glass jar-packed capers, produced in Paros, “not made in Turkey” as the price tag reads. As their tangy flavour bursts all over our taste buds, Mr. Charalambous shows us around to the diverse range of products on display and through the history of the store.

All around us, in the refrigerator and on the shelves that reach up to the ceiling, there is a cornucopia of shopping options including decorative hookahs, glassware, serving trays for cafés, cleaning products, stationery, brooms, tin cans, picture frames, and delicious local products: garlic, fresh eggs, chickpeas, black-eyed beans, souma (grape-distilled spirit) and Farmers’ Cooperative Union of Paros wines (Paros and Ekatontapyliani). And the list goes on with olive oil, vinegar, locally crafted spoon sweets, grape molasses, sea fennel, souma & honey mix, Parian sun-dried wine, and, last but not least, locally produced cheeses, such as manouri (semi-soft whey cheese) and sweet myzithra (whey and sheep’s or goat’s milk cheese), not to mention cooperative cheeses: xinomyzithra, krassotyri (wine cheese) and ladotyri (oil-preserved cheese).

Their father, Dimitris Charalambous, whose family fled Asia Minor in 1922 with the expulsion of the Greek population by the Turks, used to go around the villages of Paros exchanging fabrics and household textiles with local products such as cheese. The father, “the retailer”, entered the home of the cheese maker and, depending on the level of cleanliness of the producer, proceeded with the transaction. The cheese maker had to be thoroughly clean, and they would go to such lengths as preventing women from making cheese “during those days of the month and after love-making”, says Mr. Manolis. His father, who had been working in the tobacco fields of Paros since he was five, set up the store with his wife Aspasia, in the early ’60s. “O Diplos” meaning “double,” owes its name to a family mem ber who used to ask for a double serving in the soup kitchens feeding the workers. The local community embraced the shop – customers would come, sit on the steps of the back entrance and sip souma paired with sardines…

Regular customers used to buy on the cuff. Mr. Manolis proudly shows us the old ledger listing a long line of due payments. We’re talking major social service here… The family business sold supplies on credit even to the archaeologists excavating a site on the neighboring island of Despotiko in 1965, as archaeologist Fotini Zafiropoulou notes in her book Bound for Syros, Paros, Naxos, Ios, Oia-Thira (2008). As she points out, “I doubt anyone would even think of, let alone do, anything like that today,” and goes on to remark that ‘‘‘O Diplos’ convenience store in the local market area is one of the few left today that have retained their original character. Mr. Dimitris is no longer young, and neither are we, but his family carries on his legacy. In the age of plastic money, they rarely use the calculator they keep, just in case, I guess, as they prefer to do sums the old way, and continue to sell authentic products of Paros – capers, garlic, cheese, fresh eggs, chickpeas – alongside cans of sardines and stuffed vine leaves, just like in those days. A feast for the senses and an anti-globalisation buffer, this last beacon of good-living is not to be lost.”

Today, with the crisis taking Greece decades back, post-its with new due payments sadly pile up behind the counter. All the same, the two siblings, true to the promise they made to their parents, are willing to keep the store for as long as they can. “The shop is a globalisation-free zone – even if a supermarket was to open across the street, we would stay put…” Mr. Charalambous says in a tone of serene stubbornness. “We haven’t turned it into a mini-market because it was our parents’ dream to always keep it as a family shop, where family people would walk in and feel at home. However, the crisis has affected us. We struggle to make ends meet, but we’re holding on and trying for the best- for as long as we can…” he says.

Mr. Manolis proudly shows us photos of his shop taken by tourists. It is obvious that the moral gains from its operation outweigh the material ones. He places an array of photos before us: the enthused Argentinean who came back to see Mr. Dimitris Charalambous once again, only to find his memorial service notice hanging on the door of the shop; the Frenchman who helped rub off dried oregano leaves in exchange for a sachet of the fragrant herb to give his mother, and a host of other friends from across the globe – all of them thrilled that they had managed to see, smell and taste something important, something human: a rare social specimen, an endangered convenience store that no international organisation bothers to place under protection.

Summer 2015