Blink –or hold your head high– and you’ll miss it. Hiding below your eye-level on the streets of Sofia, Bulgaria, these secret little window shops called ‘klek‘ (knee) are as common as the average newsagent. The name itself derives quite simply from the fact that customers are brought to their knees in order to shop there.
The concept arrived 23 years ago after the fall of the Berlin Wall when Bulgaria moved away from communism bringing with it the legalisation of private ownership. Bulgarians were now able to start their own businesses but due to the high costs of rent many people were unable to afford their own place. Using their initiative and creativity people started setting up shops that operated out of the basement of old buildings and soon klek shops were frequently spotted along the sidewalks of Sofia.
Most of the shops sell snacks, drinks, alcohol and cigarettes although you can also find numerous shoe repair shops, or service businesses such a laundry shops. All the goods on offer are kept safely behind glass covered shelves which surround the window in all their colourful splendour, awaiting for the next customer to walk by and crouch down, choose their items and pay the owner through the window.
Most of these shops are open late or even 24 hours, making the klek synonymous with after-hours nightlife– a most convenient local amenity for party-goers on their way home in need of a quick bite to eat, hair of the dog or a nicotine reboot.
While Klek shops enjoyed their big boom back in the 90s, many shops are still maintaining their business around busy roads and walkways. You’ll find most of them strategically placed beside bus stops where people are most accustomed to be lured to their knees.