While roaming the picturesque streets of Santorini you might happen upon the jewel that is Atlantis Books, the only bookstore on the island.
This week on the blog we caught up with Craig Walzer to discuss the journey of Atlantis Books and the fine collection of novels, Greek classics and special editions that line the shelves. Friends from Oxford, Craig and Oliver fell in love with the island while on holiday. Little did they know their joke of opening a bookstore would turn into a reality. Driving to Santorini in a van with some friends, books, tools and a bunch of enthusiasm, Craig and Oliver built Atlantis Books from scratch. Passion, dedication and the unwavering support of the local community has allowed his dream to thrive.
Tell us about how you ended up on Santorini
Oliver and I were studying at Oxford at the time and found ourselves with very long holidays in between terms. One holiday we hopped over to Athens for a couple of weeks. Having discovered we were staying next door to some very intrusive neighbours we decided to jump ship and head to Santorini. It was great; quiet and beautiful and we spent hours reading on a terrace, drinking wine and eating tomatoes. We soon discovered we’d run out of books to read and worst of all, there was no book shop on the island. In our hazy state we joked about opening our own bookshop. The next day we made the rash decision to head back to Athens to speak to the embassy about making this tipsy dream a reality.
Fast forward to after our graduation in 2004 and we decided to make the brave, and perhaps foolhardy, decision to drive to Santorini in a van with some friends, books, tools and a bunch of enthusiasm. We had no idea what we were getting ourselves into and we had very little money but with a lot of dedication, the invaluable help of the locals and all the passion in the world we built our bookshop from scratch.
How has Santorini changed since you’ve been there?
We’ve now been on Santorini for 12 years and we’ve seen it change a lot. It’s busier and the dynamics have changed somewhat. There’s a big cruise presence now so tourists come to make Santorini their home for just a few days or even hours now and of course there has been the usual development in high-end villas and hotel to help fuel the burgeoning tourist trade. But with all this development comes a greater sense of sophistication; the island is full to bursting with interesting people and wonderful cuisine. I think Santorini is finally getting the chance to develop having been basically empty since the earthquake in 1956.
Tell us about your relationship with the Santorini locals
Since arriving on the islands we found the locals to be nothing but incredibly helpful and friendly. In all honesty it was an incredibly daunting prospect arriving on an island expecting to start a business, we didn’t even speak the language! The people of Santorini were always there for us, offering advice, holding our hands and helping us navigate Greek bureaucracy. They even helped us source a till and taught us how to use it. But most of all they supported us and helped spread the word about our shop and encourage fellow islanders to visit and buy a book or two. We are indebted to them but are pleased to see they join us in events at the shop as well as encourage their children to participate in activities we organise at local schools.
Tell us about the books your source
Our single theme, when choosing titles, is simply good books. We are in the luxurious position of being the only book seller for hundreds of miles – we are lords of literature here; if people don’t like our choice they simply don’t have any other option so we can be as whimsical or as poncey as we like! Ultimately though we just want to have good books. If someone comes in wanting 50 Shades of Grey they’ll find we don’t carry it but we’ll steer them in the direction of something much, much better by D.H Lawrence or James Salter. We carry everything from €5 to €50,000. We even have our own in-house printing press called Paravion Press. We also sell rare books, first editions, antiquarian books, classics, modern classics and books on Greek medicine, science and art from the sixteenth century; it’s become a bit of an obsession finding them!
We also found that many tourists wanted to buy something to remind them of their time on the island but couldn’t fit heavy books into their luggage so we came up with a solution. We create beautiful, lightweight books that come with an envelope; you write a letter home in the book and then post it home as a souvenir.
Most requested book?
Naturally we get many requests for Greek classics; The Odyssey and Greek Mythologies. We have really beautiful editions such as Penguin’s new cloth-bound versions. We also carry a collection of books called the Misunderstood Monsters of Greek Mythology, which are beautifully illustrated and are bound with Japanese stitching. We have Arthur Rackham’s beautiful editions of Aesop’s Fables which can sell for a grand. We do try to keep our dignity by offering an excellent section of works related to Greek interest alongside copies of Steinbeck, A Confederacy of Dunces and novels by Jane Austen. We like to include our personal favourites and what we’re reading at the moment.
Tell me about the space you live and work in
Originally we were located in a beautiful old building right on the cliff side that sat in the shadows of an old Venetian castle from the fifteenth century. We were in awe of where we lived; it was a real hallucination of space. Unfortunately we had to leave after the first year as developers moved in to build “presidential suites.” How’s that for evolution for you!
Atlantis Books is now in its second location. Our shop is six steps slightly below ground in a building that used to be a Venetian captain’s house. The building collapsed after the earthquake in 1956 so what used to be the top floor became our terrace and the store is what was the servant’s quarters and wine cave; possibly even where the donkey was kept. Who knows! We really didn’t consider the principles of business and design when we bought the space. However, we managed to work with what we had and created a unique space unlike anything you’ve ever seen before. We even have people living here now! The integration between residential and commercial is evident throughout the shop. So much so that you might even see someone trying to sell you books in their pyjamas!
Do you think you’ll stay in your current location or do you think you’ll outgrow it over time?
Personally, I don’t need such a large space. We’re happy here and enjoy spending time tinkering with various elements of the building. The thought of rebuilding the shop elsewhere is exhausting. I’m 35 now – I don’t have the same naïve energy I first had! Hopefully we won’t have to pack up and move but only the future will tell.
If you could do it all over again – would you?
I’ll simply quote T.S. Eliot, who I think sums up my thoughts exactly: “What might have been is an abstraction remaining a perpetual possibility only in a world of speculation”.
If it weren’t books, what would it have been?
I was in law school for a while so I imagine I would be working in that field. The others who were first involved now have other jobs, are married and even some have babies! Oliver, who I first dreamt the whole idea up with, now works in the mayor’s office in New Orleans. Tim, the visionary behind what the shop was going to look like, works in furniture design in Edinburgh and Will, another original partner, is a graphic designer in NYC; we still work together on our printing press, Paravion Press. Everyone comes back now and again - our friend Chris even got married on our terrace a couple of years ago, we really are one big family!
What is the best part about living on Santorini?
It’s beautiful! The beauty is what drew us here in the first place. Yet over the years I’ve started to get numb to it. You can be in the queue at the tax office or at the bank and you’re surrounded by people on the holiday of a lifetime. You can so easily lose sight of everything, but then you find the quiet moments when you remember the natural beauty of the landscape, the incredible cave-like buildings in icy whites and blues. To call this stunning place our home was all we really wanted in the beginning. We wake up in a painting every day. We’re really lucky that the local community has accepted us into their embrace, we feel at home here.
And finally, are you happy?
The good days are really, really good.
We made something beautiful and have only made something even more beautiful over the years- the reason I’m proud of the place is that we do everything we can to seduce people into our shop and the world which we’re trying to create, but at the end of the day what seals the deal is we have a fine collection of books and we also make fine books; we aren’t just a pretty face. We have substance.