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A Greek's only hot-seller: tear gas masks

"We don't have money...Now our only target is to have food to survive," Greek shopkeeper Michael Ipermahos says about the gravity of the financial crisis. "My advice to my children is to leave Greece, throw away their Greek passports and be a citizen of another country."

ATHENS – Shock was a common sentiment in the heart of Athens this week. 

Athinas Street, the colorful shopping mile in the Greek capital, is known for its lively fish and meat markets, where spice salesmen mix with traditional shoemakers and sidewalks are packed with commodities for sale. 

But at one corner earlier this week shoppers and residents stopped to look at the ugly face of growing public anger in the Greek crisis.

Workers were removing broken glass, burnt wood and other rubble from the Bank of Cyprus building, one of at least 48 Athens buildings that were torched by protesters during riots two days earlier.

Two blocks up the road, 50-year-old Michael Ipermahos stood outside his small clothing store and looked on in despair.

"Once, we were proud to be Greeks. Now, I am ashamed. Ashamed not of myself, but of the Greek politicians and what they have done to this country," he said.

'Work, work, work'
Ipermahos said he has been to several of the public demonstrations outside of the Greek parliament in the past months to peacefully protest the harsh austerity measures and to voice his anger over what he calls "injustice.“

"I work, work, work, day and night, 16 hours every day, sometimes in temperatures below freezing, sometimes in brutal heat," said Ipermahos, a father of two children – ages 20 and 23 – who still live at home with him and his wife.

"We are not lazy," he said. "But while my income is shrinking, the taxes are going up, fuel prices are skyrocketing and even basic food is becoming more expensive."

On this cool morning, only a few people stopped to look at the tee-shirts, jackets and other garments that Ipermahos sells.

But he does have one item that sells briskly.

"Gas masks," Ipermahos said, as he pointed to the prominently displayed protection gear.

"Because tear gas is regularly used at the protests, we now also offer gas masks. It is one of our best selling products," he said.

But it may not be enough, over the course of the past two and a half years, Ipermahos said the little shop that he owns with his brother-in-law has seen a 60 percent decline in business.

Courtesy Chris Manolitsis

Chris Manolitsis, a 52-year-old freelance sound engineer, is feeling the crunch of the Greek economic crisis.

And, hope for a better future is fading.                                                             

"It is almost certain that we will lose our jobs; we are only counting the days,“ he said. 

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Tightening the belt
Of course, it’s not just retail businesses that are feeling the crunch in Greece.

Chris Manolitsis, a 52-year-old freelance sound engineer who has been working with Greek artists for over 30 years, said he had been struggling ever since the 2008 collapse of Lehman Brothers in New York.

"The Greek music industry has generally deteriorated because people do not have the money to go out to nightclubs or events anymore, one of the first things everybody saves on is entertainment," he explained.

In recent years, the father of two grown-up children had to cope with a 50 to 60 percent reduction in his income, though he still feels somewhat financially independent because he has been receiving money from other sources, including rent from a house that he bought in better economic times.

However, his alternative income sources are far from secure.

"The woman who is renting my house is a civil servant who had her salary already cut three times and she is now facing a fourth cut," Manolitsis said. "I agreed to reduce her rent by 20 percent, otherwise the mother of a young child would have moved out and I would have been left with more uncertainty.“

And his 27-year-old son Terry, who finished college with a degree in media and communications, was recently fired from a job as a security guard, the only employment he could find after finishing his studies. As a result, the young man left for Scotland, looking for job opportunities outside Greece.

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Broken promises
Manolitsis blames the current financial crisis on two decades of financial mismanagement, which has resulted in broad public anger and deeply rooted mistrust towards politicians.

"Greeks had the wool pulled over their eyes, so to speak,"  he said.

"When former Prime Minister Papandreou won the elections in 2009, for example, he received overwhelming support on a platform that there is plenty of money," he said. "Two days later, the politicians said sorry, we made a mistake, there is no money.“

Today, most Greeks feel that they have been pushed to the limits, leading to growing despair and rising suicide rates.

"The situation is a tragedy and a shame for a nation with such a powerful heritage," Manolitsis said. "Of course I am worried about my future, but we have to keep going and I am not afraid to get my hands dirty or explore new routes."

Next week, the Greek sound engineer has signed up for a training seminar, which will teach him how to sell insurance.