On the northern slope of the Acropolis in Athens, Greece just down the street from the famous Roman Emperor Hadrian’s Library, you’ll find a small shop with an eccentric window front. Look inside and you’ll see another world full of wacky posters and paintings, funny furniture, and thousands upon thousands of leather sandals. This is the famed (yet little known) store of The Poet Sandal Maker of Athens. Pantelis Melissino, the current Sandal Maker, is the third generation artist carrying on the torch of this craft from his grandfather Stavros Melissino. Since 1927 the Melissino family has been touching the feet and strapping the ankles, of both royalty and rock-stars alike with an impressive list of clients who have stepped in the store – Jackie Onassis, The Beatles (x4!), Queen Sophia of Spain, Sarah Jessica Parker, Kate Moss, Lily Tomlin, Sophia Loren, Jeremy Irons, Bob Saget, Joe Biden and his family, Leonard Cohen, Barbara Streisand, et cetera and et cetera. In Ancient times the leather from Crete was known to be the finest in the Greek world and according to myth, it’s believed that the gods went there to have their sandals made with supernatural powers. Which would explain the attraction from Queen Sophia of Spain.
To get an idea of just how popular these sandals have been, just walk along the tourist traps of Monastiraki square, you will see numerous replicas of Melissino’s originals. Sterile shops with names like BodyTalk and Ges Shoes (Guess?), can’t hold a candle to the purity and eccentricity of Melissino’s shop and style. Out of a simple idea to recreate the grecian sandals of a departed era has revamped into somewhat of a cultural phenomenon. Although the acropolis can clearly be seen from the street front, this place still feels like a secret tucked away from the masses – so close to the center, you could almost miss it. As I explored the store with my camera, I asked Pantelis if I could come around to watch him cut the leather to size my sandals. He replied, “Be my guest.” The back end of the store was a mess of tools, leather strips, and quirky decorations – a true workshop of an artist. As I clicked away, it was hard not to imagine the tens of thousands of sandals Melissinos’ hands have cut for royalty, celebrity, and the common man alike. With the hordes of people that return and discover his cache of wonders, I was really surprised and impressed by his humility and dedication to the craft and his family’s tradition.