Christo and Helen Maniatis
Christo and Helen Maniatis weren’t born in this area, although they have been living in the Berkshires longer than many of us. After a recent Sunday church service at St. George, Christo sits with me during coffee hour at a table next to a group of boisterous small children some, knocking against his chair and others interrupting a conversation that we somehow kept flowing between us. He didn’t seemed fazed by the commotion, but rather quite at ease in such familiar surroundings as he talked about his life in Pittsfield.
He and his wife lived only four blocks from this church. There was a time when many, many Greeks lived in the neighborhood, and most everyone would just walk to Sunday service. Church was always packed, and an annual picnic would draw truckloads of people from other parts of town, numbering more than 200 in attendance.
Those days are long gone, and the longtime Greek parishioners who grew up in Pittsfield are becoming fewer and far between. This brings me to a diversion in subjects for this column. For a short spell, I am moving away from writing about the newest church members, and instead focusing on those who have longevity at St. George.
And that’s where I found myself, sitting across from this 90-year-old former restaurateur dressed in tan khaki pants, white sneakers and a bright-red ribbed pullover sweater. Christo looks like he was ready for a round of golf, although the weather wasn’t ideal with temperatures just nudging past 30 degrees. He is skeptical about my intentions, my questions, and jokes, “Are you getting this for my obituary?”
Hardly. When I asked the age of his wife, he answers, “83,” then continues, with a twinkle in his eyes, “My mother says marry someone young and she will take care of you.”
Christo moved from Lagkadia, Greece, to Pittsfield when he was 8 years old. For those who need a bit of geographical placement, that village is in central Arcadia, between Tripoli and Olympia. In 1929, Christo remembers a bustling Pittsfield, with not an empty store on North Street and some 15 restaurants lining the bustling street. At age 10, young Christo sold the Berkshire Eagle newspaper for 2 cents a copy on his designated block between Columbus and Summers Street, where the American House Hotel once was located.
Christo served three years in the military. When he first got out of the service, he worked in Florida as a banana broker. He would find buyers for a load of some 25,000 bananas at a time that were shipped from Cuba to Miami. With each pound worth 6 cents, the entire load would yield about $1,500. He worked for himself on the docks of Miami; bananas would arrive on a boat, and Christo would pick up one or two loads. Trucks-for-hire would be standing by waiting for work, and he would load them up with bananas and send them off. “I wouldn’t buy the bananas unless I would have a client,” says Christo. “It was interesting and fun to be on Miami Beach, single, 26 years old.
He transferred to Columbia, S.C., to work in a wholesale banana house. There is a large produce market located there, where wholesalers still sell to supermarket buyers and other merchants. It was in South Carolina where Christo met Helen, who was attending the University of South Carolina. A first-generation Greek, she was born in New York City, her mother from Kalavrita, Greece, and father from Smyrna.
Just after Helen and Christo married and moved to Pittsfield, the Greek community came by their new home to meet Christo’s new bride. Helen recalls strolling along North Street with her baby in a carriage along with dozens of other women like her who crowded the sidewalks. England Brothers Department Store was a popular stop, and new moms would park their baby buggies in the foyer and shop while the babies napped or gurgled away happily, popping to check on them regularly. That was when it was a bustling town, but still a close community. On Thursday nights, stores stayed open late and the downtown area was mobbed.
The Maniatises knew right away they would be restaurateurs when they moved to Pittsfield. “I told my brother that after I got married and settled down, I would join him and be partners,” says Christo. “I had already invested in it.” So began a 40-year stint as co-owner of a restaurant called Johnny’s on West Street, where it was located for 20 years. It was among six restaurants located in that popular part of town, and then later it moved to Merrill Road. It was a good setup for Christo, with the restaurant closed on Sundays and each brother taking another day off during the week, so they both had a five-day workweek. In 1986, at age 65, Christo retired and sold the restaurant to his nephew. It has since closed.
Christo and Helen have two children: Nicholas, now 61, who lives in Pittsfield and Kiki, now 58, who lives in Grosse Pointe Farms, Michigan, just outside of Detroit. They also have five grandchildren and six great-grandchildren.
After retiring, Christo and Helen bought a place in Naples, Florida. They sold it five years ago, although they still go annually and rent a place instead. Christo has a fondness for the East Coast after all the years of working along the coast. He liked the quietness and beauty of Naples, although it has become a lot busier there through the years. He is among friends there from the St. George community, with Jim Panos and George Vazakas also spending a lot of time in Naples. When they first started going down there, the closest church was Fort Myers. Now there is a church in Naples, St. Katherine Greek Orthodox Church, with a large membership. “All of the sudden, I don’t know where all the Greeks came from, but they came out of the woodwork,” says Christo. “Most of them are immigrants and a lot of Albanians.”
Christo enjoys golfing in Naples and also at the Country Club of Pittsfield. He has golfed with scores in the low-80s, with five holes-in-one, and has been in a number of tournaments. Although he loves the warmth of Florida during the cold winter month in the Berkshires, this snowbird is committed to Pittsfield. “It’s got everything I want,” he says. “I love the four seasons, and it’s a great city to bring up a family.”
by Anastasia Stanmeyer