Christos J. Kananis, Merchant of Athens
The Hoboken Reporter, April 18, 1984
By Christopher Hoyle
Christos J. Kananis is an enthusiastic man. He's enthusiastic about his gift shop, Athens, at 791 Bergen Ave in Jersey City, and about the growth of the Greek community in his area. He impressed me as a self-made man, an achiever, and a creator who has made some sacrifices along the way to realize his goals.
He lives on Kennedy Blvd with his wife Theano and his children, John, twelve, and Alexandra, six. Recently, I had the pleasure of dining with the Kananis' at their home. This was my first taste of Greek hospitality, or "philoxinea," which, roughly translated, means "making a stranger feel at home." Theano Kananis served a wonderful meal of lamb a la youvechi, (a dish cooked in the oven), with village salad, Greek Mavrodafni wine, Greek coffee, and kataifi, a kind of pie, for dessert.
I talked with Kananis and persuaded him to tell me the story of his experiences, and of his excitement about the future. His energy inspired me. And Kananis hopes that his example will inspire others, of all nationalities, to challenge and to make the best of themselves.
He was born in 1945 and raised in Athens, Greece. He played and studied like most boys do until he reached grammar school, when something happened to him. He was delivering a package to an Athens architectural office, and it happened that the architects were constructing a scale model of the Pan European Center of Delphi. This model captured Kananis' imagination. First he asked to watch, then he asked to help. He so impressed these architects that they took Kananis under their wing. He explains: "I was fortunate enough to have a head start, being given the opportunity to work for the architectural office of Mr. Antonios Lambakis, Nicolas Desilas, Demetrius Kodargiris, Pavlos Loukakis, and model maker Georgios Giamalakis, who also happened to be the first model-making teacher at the School of Fine Arts (Valkalo) in Athens." At age 16 he learned the skills of architectural drafting and building architectural models. But soon he felt his destiny lay elsewhere.
"I left to fulfill my desire to know the world, and to travel," he relates. And travel he did, visiting countries in every continent on the globe. Through his travels, Kananis garnered valuable experience and insight into the workings of the world. He passed through the Americas, Africa, China, India and Europe. He appreciates the multitude of life styles of the people in these lands. This understanding has helped him to appreciate his own dual culture all the more.
He also served in the Greek Army, and in 1968 decided to join his family in the United States.
Kananis had married Theano by this time, and both were eager to make a new start. But their early years in this country were difficult ones because of Kananis' lack of English. He got a job as a busboy at the Holiday Inn near the Holland Tunnel. His brother Peter helped him find that initial job, and later asked him to join him at his Renaissance Diner on Route 22. But Kananis declined that offer, and moved from the Holiday Inn to General Motors, where he served as an inspector.
At about the time of the oil crisis, he went into business for the first time. He worked with a man who operated ultrasonic drills on semi-precious stones. The two agreed to move into the field of jewelry casting, but the venture didn't work out. At that juncture he decided to go into business for himself. The idea of being his own boss appealed to him.
"In 1976, my desire for something better, something different, and something mine, led me to decide to start a gift shop."
The early days of this new gift shop, called Athens, were probably like those of many new, struggling businesses. Yet there were special elements of adversity to grapple with. He didn't start with the kind of capital, connections and assistance that many retailers did. He location, 124 Storms Ave, was off the beaten track of most shoppers. Despite these obstacles, he took the plunge. His grand opening was on December 1, 1976. Once started, it was often a struggle to keep going. His selling area at the old location was small - eight feet by eight feet. To gain the attention of the Greek patronage, he had to provide Greek newspapers, which were not easy to find. Every morning before he opened, Kananis would drive into Manhattan just to procure these papers, which he took a loss on.
"I didn't get help from anybody," Kananis says. "I was working day and night. I made a lot of sacrifices." He did all the design and interior work in his store; he cut the glass shelves; he had to scavenge wood and bend old nails to re-use them. These were just a few of the trials and tribulations of Athens' beginnings. As Kananis tells the story, "It was quite disappointing in the beginning, but I kept working and fighting it out to keep it surviving. I would sweep my whole block's sidewalk four times a day to keep a clean, inviting atmosphere."
The working and fighting paid off. From those humble beginnings, he weathered the storm and his business grew into what it is today.
Athens is remarkably diverse. Most of the gifts have an artistic flair, and some are created by Kananis himself. "I believe that this is the only Greek-American gift shop of its kind in New Jersey," boasts Kananis. He sums up his livelihood: "We specialize in gifts for all occasions, needlepoints, DMC threads of France, fine jewelry, ceramics, a variety of religious items, invitations, favors for all occasions, party supplies, hand-embroidered tablecloths, American-Greek greeting cards, christening sets and a wide variety of other things impossible to list."
The store is a potpourri of items and colors. The room is dominated by pastel colors of wedding items. The proprietor has made the most of his space. A stroll around the place reveals items both familiar and unfamiliar. Kananis displays a rich creative talent in his own sculptures, urns, shower umbrellas, wishing wells and sculpted candles.
He created his first sculpture, which still graces his shop, in 1970. It is a solid clay figure of a woman's torso. He received no formal training in sculpting, though his experience in architecture helped him. He also does ceramic sculpting, examples of which are his brown urn and blue young man, both hand painted.
Some of the personally hand-made items that he sells include wishing wells and shower umbrellas, both ornately decorated. The wishing wells, employed often for bridal showers, stand about five feet high and three feet around. Kananis' flair manifests itself again in the umbrellas, which sometimes sport a hand-made dove on the top.
The sculptured candles, however, are extra special. They stand four to five feet high, and are carved in extra light colored wax. They are used at weddings and christenings for the most part, with two servicing a wedding and one a christening. The candles are dressed or joined by a multitude of fabrics - nylon netting, lace, tablecloth, and organdy, among others. They can be garnished with napkins, roses, satin ribbons and silk flowers.
At a wedding, two candles are joined and lit before the ceremony, symbolizing the bond and enlightenment of the bride and groom. In addition to uniting the two candles, the hand-cut, hand-embroidered tablecloth can be blessed at the same time.
Not surprisingly, the candles are very popular among all nationalities. Kananis explains that "Although it is a Greek tradition, I'm happy to say that there are many Americans who love them and use them for their ceremonies."
A proportion of Athens' business does come from the Greek community; his shop is a focal point for many Greeks in the area. He still carries the Athenian newspapers, which are flown in from Greece daily.
Kananis is a strong proponent of the Greek community in Jersey City and would like to see them get more exposure. "The Greek community is too quiet in Jersey City," he says. "There are Greeks in all walks of life - lawyers, teachers, doctors, electrical engineers, and of course, restauranteurs. The community is so progressive, yet there is no news coverage of the good things happening."
Greek involvement is increasing in the area. Kananis persuaded the Commercial Trust Bank to hire a Greek to fulfill the needs of the Greek-speaking community.
There are two beautiful Greek churches in Jersey City; St Demetrius on Summit Avenue near the PATH station, and Evangelismos on Montgomery and Summit. "Thank God they are large enough to meet the needs of the Greek community," says Kananis.
Both churches maintain schools that teach Greek as a second language. He explains that "The kids go home after school, eat, then go to the Greek school. The Greeks in Jersey City, in addition to belonging to the old kinds of organizations, are happy with the creation of many Greek-American organizations, such as AHEPA, known all over the US. There are many others. They are also very proud of GOYA, an organization for the young which educates them to Greek culture."
He would like the success of his fellow merchants to set the pace for the rest of the community. He cites, "It's not just me. Almost anybody can do what I've done. I've just pulled myself up by my bootstraps."
Kananis once felt that there was a "dose of apathy" in the US, but that now people are taking stock of where they are and where they want to go. He says, "I really feel sorry for those who underestimate the values of this country. I wish they could go a little further and see for themselves, instead of listening to people who try to present illusions as facts."
If his example is followed, the Greek community of Jersey City will contribute and enjoy its share of the coming prosperity. And perhaps that collective achievement can inspire others to make more of themselves and their special culture. After all, as Kananis observes, "We all boil in the same pot."