- Associated Press - Wednesday, April 20, 2011

ATHENS | Easter time in Greece is usually a very profitable time of year when shops in central Athens line their windows with brightly colored wrappings for Easter candles and chocolate eggs.

But this year has been one of gloom, with rows of shuttered shops and “for rent” signs in the recession-hit capital.

There are still Easter eggs and candles for sale, offering a brief respite for Greek shoppers and merchants alike.

Yet nearly a year after Greece was rescued from bankruptcy by a $160 billion international bailout, its businesses are reeling from austerity measures imposed as a means to pull the economy out of its debt hole.

In a country where the vast majority of businesses are small and medium-sized ones employing less than 50 people, enterprises have been shutting down at an alarming rate.

Last year saw 65,000 small and medium-sized enterprises throw in the towel and shut down, said Vassilis Korkidis, president of the National Confederation of Hellenic Commerce.

Christina Karyda, a 45-year-old shop owner, fears her gift shop might soon join them.

“There is no future. There is no present, how can there be a future?” she says, gift-wrapping a decorated candle used for the all-important midnight liturgy before Easter Sunday. “We’re already in the red. We’re just going to be increasing the amount of our debt.”

Ms. Karyda has run her shop in the residential neighborhood of Kypseli since 1988. But with austerity biting, the appetite for trinkets and decorative toys is falling fast as customers concentrate on spending for more essential items.

She’s giving it until the end of the year, she said. “And then, it’s over. I’ll do another job.”

The austerity package was essential to reform the economy of a country whose finances had gone off the rails after years of overspending and over-borrowing. But the flip side has been to slash Greeks’ disposable income, which in turn has contributed to the recession.

For retail stores across the country, from butchers to bakers, chocolate shops and candle makers to shoe shops, Easter - the most important religious holiday in the Greek Orthodox calendar - is usually a good time of year.

There are gifts of shoes, clothes and even toys to be bought for godchildren, meals of whole roasted lambs on the spit to be prepared for Easter Sunday, friends and family to treat.

The government issued data this week showing that the traditional Easter meal - featuring the all-important lamb or kid goat - would cost 4.43 percent less than last year. Promising news - but many shop owners say people just aren’t spending as much as they usually do during the holidays.