Sofia’s Basement Shops

After the fall of the Berlin Wall, 23 years ago, Bulgaria was one of the many countries that moved away from communism. The legalization of private ownership of production enabled the Bulgarians to start their own businesses, but rents of store spaces were too high for them. As a result, loads of fascinating, little basement shops popped up along the sidewalks of the country’s capital Sofia.

These characteristic ‘klek’ (‘knee’) shops operate out of basements of old buildings through a cellar window not far above the ground. Colorful, glass-covered shelves around the window show what the shop has to offer. Most of them sell stuff like cigarettes, little snacks and alcoholic and soft drinks, but you also see shoe repair shops and other kinds of service-oriented businesses. Customers have to squat down to make their order and pay the vendor from the window. The shops are open till late and sometimes even 24/7.

For years there were klek shops in almost every street of Sofia. The miniature convenience stores cater “to the cigarette fix of the passing pedestrian or the midday thirst of those waiting on bus stops” and seem to sell the right stuff for which people have no objection to stooping to street level, explains visual artist Ivaylo Getov, who made a great photo series about the klek shops. Nevertheless, the characteristic shops are disappearing slowly with the time. I guess some of them will remain open, simply because they’ve turned into a tourist attraction that tells a lively story about Bulgaria’s shift from communism to capitalism.

Apart from their historical relevance, the klek shops are an impressive example of bottom-up urbanism. It’s the kind of bottom-up urbanism that’s driven by honest economic motives. After the collapse of communism the Bulgarians simply had to take care of themselves, so many of them took the chance to sell stuff from their basement windows.

Check out this great collection of photos of klek shops throughout Sofia if you want to see more.