The Most Beautiful Bookstore On Earth
A merry band of bohemians built an improbable cultural haven in one of the most beautiful places on earth. Now, they must try to save it. Again.
Smack in the middle of the main street of Oia, a ridiculously picturesque village at the northernmost edge of the Santorini caldera, there is a hole in the ground. Not a particularly big hole, nor a deep one. You can easily miss it among the surrounding coffee shops, boutiques and souvenir stores. If you don’t, there are a few narrow steep steps that take you to a tiny courtyard at the bottom. You are now about ten feet beneath street level. It’s not a big hole, like I said.
There are two doors at the courtyard. The one to your left leads to a tiny cave-like room that extends beneath the street. There are clothes and boxes of stuff lying around in it. It is evident that someone lives there -maybe more than one person. That door is usually closed. The door to your right is usually open. It is the entrance to one of the most remarkable bookstores in the world.
Atlantis Books has become a venerable landmark in one of the most popular tourist destinations on earth. You have probably read about it somewhere -it has been featured in numerous top-10 lists and Buzzfeed listicles along other notable quirky bookstores (a bookstore on a barge! A bookstore in an old church!). It is one of several independent bookstores that operate as creative collectives. They are comprised of a tiny subculture of neo-bohemian liberal arts graduates that travel the world and work -and sometimes live- in bookstores like the Shakespeare and Co in Paris or the City Lights in San Francisco. Now, you expect a quirky independent bookstore or two to exist in counterculture capitals like San Francisco or Paris. But Santorini?
Two of those bohemians, 25-year-old Americans Craig Walzer and Oliver Wise, found themselves in Santorini twelve years ago with nothing good to read. Along with some friends, they decided to open an independent bookstore of their own then and there. They filled out the paperwork, wrestled the bureaucracy, rented the space -a magnificent cave with a spectacular view of the sunset- bought books, and employed an endless procession of friends and co-bohemians that came by to work for several months each, for no pay other than the view, the chance to read a lot, and a tiny bed behind stacks of books.
The very next year, the owner of that original space refused to renew the lease, as he wanted to turn the building into luxury suites for the ever increasing number of tourists willing to spend over €500 a night to enjoy that same view. So the bookstore and its bohemian proprietors moved further up on main street, into that hole in the ground.
And now they are about to be evicted again.
This past September, I attended the 4th Caldera Arts Festival, hosted by the Atlantis Books in Santorini, and found out more about its current status and its uncertain future. Also, I listened to David Sedaris reading excerpts of his diary.
This is what Atlantis Books essentially is: A cave of books, most of them in English (but also a small selection of Greek, French, German and Chinese titles), sold by a bunch of young Americans -and the occasional Greek or north-European-, who live in that same cave.
Like most old dwellings on Santorini, this building was essentially built by digging a hole into the soft volcanic rock. It was meant to look like a cave, because that was the only stable structure people could afford to build on the island at the time. Today these structures seem quaint and delightful, like hobbit-holes for the very rich. But they are not, one could argue, the most appropriate design for a bookstore.
In Atlantis, the books are in crammed in crooked makeshift shelves that seem to bend inwards, following the contour of the irregular walls, or piled on tables and nooks carved into the cave walls. There is a tiny wooden loft that can only hold the weight of one adult at a time -that is the non-fiction section. There is a bed hidden above the children’s section, and a hidden door that opens to an unbelievably narrow staircase that leads to a trap door opening onto the roof.
It is a very unusual place, and a joy to explore. Among the tourist traps of Oia, it is a hidden gem, a wonderful surprise. Even people with no intention to buy or read books -and among the thousands who come to Santorini every year, those are a majority- enjoy exploring the tiny book cave, taking photographs of the tightly packed shelves, the quirky quips scribbled on the walls by the ever-changing staff, or the house cat, and they leave delighted, eager to tell their friends or anyone who would listen “hey, so I was walking in Oia and you’ll never guess what I found. It was like a hole in the ground”.
“This is our honeymoon”, said Helen, an overly excited young American outside the bookstore in a chilly September afternoon. “We have been married for six days now. It’s going OK so far”. She was particularly delighted because, out of the blue, as she was walking down the street, thousands of miles away from home, she had stumbled upon a hole in the ground, with her favourite author in it. “David Sedaris is here!”, she kept repeating. “We could have gone to Fira this evening and we would have missed him! Did I know that there was a literary festival taking place here? No! I didn’t even know there was a bookstore here”.
At that moment, David Sedaris was downstairs, inside the cave, and was manning the register. “I’ve never sold anything in my life” he said as the customers, some of which had no idea who he was, lined up in the cramped space. “This is the first time I’ve sold anything”. Sedaris would collect the money, write the amount on a ledger, give back correct change, stamp the first page of every book sold with the bookstore’s stamp (a reproduction of Hokusai’s wave), put the books in a bag and hand them over. While he was doing that, he would ask personal questions of his customers. “So, how is life in Thessaloniki?”. “How many cats do you have?”. “Where in Canada do you live?”. “Oh, wow,” he said, when Helen’s turn came. “How long have you known each other?”
David Sedaris was the main attraction of the 2015 Caldera Arts Festival, a weekend of music, poetry and prose that took place for the 4th time this September.
During the Festival, Greek writer Auguste Corteau had shared his experience at the Iowa Writers’ workshop, along with family stories of bipolar disorder and family issues. In their joint talk, writers Soti Triantafyllou and Amanda Michalopoulou had talked about friendship, forgiveness, extroversion in literary writing and why it is so hard for Greeks to be read abroad. World musician Ross Daly and pianist Julian Gargiulo had performed at a nearby events hall, owned by the local church. Here’s a snippet of Gargiulo’s performance:
On the next -and final- day of festivities, a group of poets would read Cavafy’s poems on one-on-one sessions with visitors -a concept I was quick to cynically dismiss as hilarious, but which in practice turned out to be a powerful and touching experience- and former Poet Laureate of the United States Billy Collins would read from his work.
But the main attraction, and the highlight of the weekend, would turn out to be Sedaris’ eighty-minute performance. When the time came, Atlantis co-founder Craig Walzer relieved Sedaris of his cash register duties, and escorted him to the roof, where the event was to take place.
Now, remember this roof, as it is important to this story. It’s the same roof you get to through that trap-door we talked about before, right? It has a wonderful view over the caldera below, which at that time was invisible because it was nighttime. The roof was filled with dozens of chairs, tightly arranged to hold as many merry Sedaris fans as possible. They weren’t nearly enough. People spilled over on to the street, took over nearby staircases, occupied balconies or just stood in the hole below, listening.
Sedaris read, among other things, snippets from his diaries, and a new, unreleased New Yorker story about the United States Supreme Court decision on gay marriage. It has since been released, and you can read it in its entirety here. It is hilarious, and to show you how hilarious it is, here’s a sample sentence:
“I thought about taking the penis home and mailing it to one of my sisters for Christmas but knew that the moment I put it in my knapsack I’d get hit by a car and killed”.
It read even funnier.
Afterwards, Sedaris would spend another hour and a half signing books on the street, as astonished or bewildered passers-by were trying to comprehend what was going on. I took the opportunity to explore the bookstore a little more, and talk to the merry -but exhausted- band of bohemians that were running the show.
The bookstore, they told me, is in trouble.
Running an independent bookstore is challenging everywhere, and the people of Atlantis have faced problems before. In 2011 they turned to crowdfunding to raise funds for renovations and other expenses, and they have since launched a small publishing house to expand their model and add revenue streams. They are also expanding their rare book offerings, selling first editions that cost thousands of euros to very fortunate collectors on holiday (you can see the latest offers on their Facebook page). The model has worked so far, and the bookstore gets by.
But now there is a new problem.
The owner of the building they rent has announced that a buyer had appeared, and he is willing to sell. The lease, that expires in a few months, will not be renewed, and the only way for Walzer and his cohorts to keep the bookstore would be to match the buyer’s offer, and buy the building outright.
Which, may I remind you, is a cave in the bottom of a hole in the ground.
The price is one million euros.
Yes, it is an insane amount of money, but this is Santorini. Oia is one of the most popular tourist destinations in the world, and real estate with a view at the Santorini caldera are among the most expensive properties on earth. Also, this particular building has a unique attribute that jacks up the price quite a bit. Since most buildings in Oia are very old, there are strict rules in place that limit what one can build, renovate or change. It is illegal to make even minute changes to most traditional houses. Now, remember that roof I talked about? The one the bookstore uses as event space? It lies so low compared to the roofs of adjacent buildings, because this one lacks a second floor. The owner of the building has the right to build an entire floor on top of the cave basement, and that is something very rare in Oia. Hence the million euros.
Which, now, the good people at the bookstore must somehow raise, as soon as possible. Because if they don’t, the bookstore is finished.
There are no other suitable spaces available in Oia. If they were to look somewhere else, away from the bustle of main street, they would get a lot less foot traffic, and orders of magnitude fewer serendipitous buyers (the best kind). Also, the owner, proprietor, and soul of the Atlantis project, Craig Walzer, probably doesn’t have the patience or the energy to restart the bookstore from scratch for the third time.
Walzer is an interesting case. We talked at the bookstore several times during the festival, and we also talked as he showed me a wonderful, labyrinthine house in Finikia, a quiet, traditional village right next to Oia, that he and the other Atlanteans plan to transform into a non-profit artists’ retreat. Here he is, talking about the bookstore in 2012:
Walzer explained to me that rebuilding the bookstore elsewhere would be almost impossible. The first generation of Atlantean bohemians that built that first bookstore overlooking the sunset in their twenties has moved on, most of them have families and kids somewhere out in the world, and Walzer is the only one still spending several months of every year in Oia running the place (he spends the rest of his time involved in projects in Paris and Madrid). Besides, a new generation would face much larger financial and organisational obstacles to start over now. Oia is not the quiet, artistic place it looked like at the turn of the century. It is now somewhere the well-to-do Chinese go to get married.
So they need to get that million -or, to be more precise, significantly more then that, because there are transaction and property taxes to take into account as well. They will need to sell many, many very rare books and get a record-breaking crowdfunding campaign underway very soon, in order to get that kind of money.
The question some may have is: Why?
Why should a bookstore like that be saved? What is the value of a place like this, in a remote island you might visit once, some day? And what is the value of a bookstore on a barge on a river in a faraway land, or a bookstore in a former church in a sterile European capital? What do they add to the world?
If you do ask yourself this, well, there are answers but, to be honest, I am a little concerned for you. Are you well? Do you find joy? Can you appreciate the value of serendipity in life?
In my opinion, places like Atlantis should not exist merely for reasons that have to do with culture, community, or other very well articulated arguments that are sound but can be received as elitist and moot in a troubled world.
I believe that they must exist for people like Helen.
These aren’t places, they are moments, little pockets of joy that can’t be purchased or scheduled. Bookstores like these, it doesn’t even matter if they sell books. We need them just to sit there, waiting for us, among the souvenir shops and the expensive boutiques, right where we least expect it, at the edge of an island, in a hole in the ground.