Story by Sophie Cannon ·
ATHENS, Greece – What do the Gladiators of ancient Greece and the Beatles of the ‘70s have in common? Not much but the shoes on their feet.
Nestled in between stores off Syntagma Square, the main market of Athens in the neighborhood called Psirri, is a narrow shop, marked with the faces of celebrities from all over the world. The one thing they have in common: They are all posing next to a happy, middle-aged, gray-haired man wearing what could be Gladiators’ sandals on his own worn feet.
Pantelis Melissinos is the third-generation owner of the sandal shop, marked with the sign, “Melissinos Poet Sandal Maker.” Inside, the walls are covered in sandals, signed photographs of his celebrity clientele and larger-than-life neon paintings done by Melissinos himself.
Names like Jackie Onassis, Bob Saget, Sarah Jessica Parker and Barbara Streisand are thrown about as if they were regulars. But there are many more.
“My father was in charge, but I hear about Gary Cooper, Sophia Loren and Joseph Cotten,” said Melissinos of his father’s time as the owner of the store. “These are the names that I heard from my father, but of course the Beatles also came and made a difference. After the Beatles came, all the young people wanted to have the sandals that the Beatles wore.”
While the celebrity factor may leave many starstruck, Melissinos treats every guest who comes into his shop with kindness and a smile.
“It’s nice when you meet celebrities, but it’s also nice when you meet ordinary people,” he said. “I cannot tell the difference because it’s the same pleasure. It all depends on the person you have in front of you.”
Melissinos will only make and sell his custom creations in person, as he fits the shoes to the feet of the customer in the store. While this limits sales, it also ensures quality and the element of uniqueness many crave when shopping abroad.
“We make them to people’s feet, we adjust them,” Melissinos said. “It’s the quality, it’s different when you are here and we see you and when we try to make something for you and not for somebody else.”
The shoes themselves are all made from cow leather. There are stockpiles of most styles and sizes in the back and on the walls, but if someone needs a custom tweak, Melissinos has his tools on hand and can reshape the leather or make it darker by rubbing olive oil on the shoe.
Melissinos’ shop is often packed, many visitors coming from all over the world to buy his shoes and say hello, some coming for the second or third time.
This is true of Rona Chang, a 20-year-old student at Cornell University, originally from Los Angeles, California. Back for the second time with her mother and father, Chang, wearing her shoes from her visit three years ago, came to say hello to her favorite Greek artisan and to add a new pair.
“They stand the test of time,” Chang said. “He [Pantelis Melissinos] seems like such a great guy. He takes his time to fit the shoes well and makes it a custom experience.”
The process starts the moment customers enter the shop, when they are handed a pamphlet of the many styles.
“They say they wish we had fewer styles because it would make their lives easier,” Melissinos said. “After they pick a model, we find the right size and work from there. We adjust them to their feet because no feet are the same…then they leave this place happy.”
But there is no happier face in the store than that of Melissinos, himself. At 58, he has been running the shop since he was 25, taking over after his father retired. From father to son, the sandal shop has been passed along since the 1920s. The original Melissinos, Gheorgios Melissinos, Pantelis’ grandfather, started the shop in 1927 at the base of the Acropolis.
“It was popular because my grandfather made quality shoes and the queen and the royal people used to come here and get their shoes in Athens,” Pantelis Melissinos explained. “Then my grandfather died quite young, only 54. He had a stroke and died, and my father who wanted to be a film director had to quit his studies and started making shoes.”
When Stavros Melissinos took over, he abandoned dreams of being a film director, but never lost his artistic spirit. Instead of film, Stavros channeled his energy into his shoes, but also into his newfound love for poetry, gaining himself and later his store the nickname, the “poet sandal maker.”
And then Pantelis Melissinos came along, and decorated the shop from floor to ceiling featuring not only the famous shoes, but giant original paintings inspired by his roots in Greece and his time spent in America. A Parsons School of Design graduate, Melissinos got his bachelor’s degree in illustration and his master’s degree in painting at the New York school. From there he went on to become the artistic director of the Greek Cultural Center of New York for two years before coming back to Athens.
But like his father and grandfather before him, the store was calling. “Eventually I took over the sandal business because my father was retiring and I didn’t want the store to disappear. I just wanted to keep it alive for as long as I could keep it alive, so here we are,” Melissinos said.
Despite his fame as the third generation poet sandal maker, Melissinos is constantly worried about the future of the shop.
“Now we are facing the future with fear, because of the [economic] crisis, not only in Greece but in Europe in general, and we don’t know what the next day will be,” Melissinos said. “The economic crisis, but also the general crisis, because people have become consumers and not people. They have lost their humanity. Although we sell a product, we believe that you should buy it only if you need it, not only be a mindless consumer.”
This down-to-earth persona is recognized and appreciated by his customers. Cheng, having only met Melissinos twice, picked up on this as well, after seeing how large his store could grow if he gave into big business methods of production or distribution.
“He keeps the brand to himself, not trying to expand to make a ton of money,” Cheng said. “To be able to keep it small and for himself and to ensure the quality of every sandal is really admirable.”