Take a knee
© Dirk Bruniecki

Take a knee

  • TEXT ANDRZEJ RYBAK
  • PHOTOS DIRK BRUNIECKI

Sofia, Bulgaria, is the only city where vendors sell their wares at street level from fold-out shelves. For customers of these klek shops, this means: down on your knees!

Basement business  Desperate for a box of Belgian chocolates? Out of beer or light bulbs? In Sofia, Bulgaria, people buy such items from little kiosks without a door but with a window at ground level where, more or less gracefully, customers crouch down or kneel (klek in Bulgarian) to collect their purchases. Kiosks are ubiquitous the world over, but only in the Bulgarian capital do you find basement stores called klek shops or just kleks.

Take a knee

Elena Schemtowa, 31, studied art in Sofia and has worked as a graphic designer. Seven years ago, when a basement currency exchange closed down, she turned the tiny space into a gallery - a modern klek with steps leading down. Today, Zelena, as she calls herself, displays art, ceramics and jewelry by some 50 different artists in a 12-square-meter room.

© Dirk Bruniecki

 The shops hark back to the early 1990s when, after the fall of communism, residents established them in basements and former bomb shelters to sell beverages and cigarettes, homemade jams and pickled vegetables. Sunglasses and cleaning agents soon joined the assortment and cobblers and tailors also offered their services from kleks. There is even a map showing the location of each klek, but chances are you’ll end up in front of a closed window. Since 2012, the number of kleks has fallen by half and only 30 are left.

Take a knee

Walentina Rangelowa, 58, learned the shoemaker's trade from her father. She is probably the city's only female cobbler. At her klek, which is part of a chain, she earns a small salary, enough to boost her pension. Rangalova has always worked in typically male jobs: Before taking early retirement, she worked in an industrial lab inspecting concrete.

© Dirk Bruniecki
Take a knee
© Dirk Bruniecki
Take a knee

Ljudmil Kyntschev, 48, is a cobbler as well. After working for three years at an amusement park in Graz, Austria, he returned to Sofia and apprenticed himself to a klek cobbler. "I've been a ,aster shoemaker for 16 years", he says proudly, pointing to his diploma. It hangs behind glass on the foldout shelving unit he closes at night to secure the klek shop that now belongs to him.

© Dirk Bruniecki
Take a knee
© Dirk Bruniecki

 Just recently, a klek bookstore and a klek pastry shop closed due to competition from modern shops and city ordinance requirements. Some people are taking things – literally – a step further and have turned their kleks into basement galleries and bars, complete with stairs to climb down. Looks like the end of the era of kneeling.

Service and travel tips for this destination are available in the Lufthansa Travel Guide at lh-travelguide.com

Take a knee

From fixing loose buttons to making a new dress: Nevena Dorolova, 41, sews, alters and mends clothes. She and her partner, a textile engineer, have run their klek so successfully over the past 20-odd years that they can even employ a seamstress. "The people who come to us are looking for quality," Dorolova says, "we have customers from all over the city."

© Dirk Bruniecki

GETTING THERE

In September, Lufthansa is flying to Sofia (SOF) up to three times daily from Munich (MUC) and four times daily from Frankfurt (FRA). Use the app to calculate your miles: miles-and-more.com/app