Born out of youthful ideology – and folly – rather than financial acumen, it comes as little surprise that Atlantis Books in Oia, Santorini, is different to what you would expect from a typical business. Curiously, the quirky Hobbit-hole has worked its way to the best of the best as far as inspiring bookshops are concerned. More recently, it made its way to the number 1 spot of the Top 10 list of the World’s most interesting bookstores in National Geographic’s latest edition of Destinations of a Lifetime.
Craig Walzer, one of the original founders of the iconic bookstore, chuckles.
“We don’t take these lists too seriously. It’s nice to be up there, though,” he says. “We welcome all the help we can get but it’s all rather funny.” And indeed, he has plenty of reasons to be amused bearing in mind the fact that most “lists” rank Atlantic Books higher than Nobel laureate Alice Munro’s own Munro’s Books in Canada or lavish El Ateneo Grand Splendid in Argentina, once an ornate performing arts center that has lost little of its opulence.
“We try to ride on the crest of our good fortune and make the book store as beautiful as the lists portray it,” he says regarding the plugs in the Lonely Planet guides, the store’s ranking as number 1 shopping spot on Tripadvisor and its ranking as the best bookstore in Jeremy Mercer’s top 10 for the Guardian.
How it all began…
The story goes that in 2002, Walzer and fellow-Oxford student, Oliver, gazed over the stunning caldera after they’d both run out of books but couldn’t find a bookstore anywhere in Oia. Without books to read, they spent the night drinking and wondering – “What if…?” Two years later, the hypothetical bookstore they visualized that night took root thanks to the help of friends from Cyprus, England and the United States.
Housed in a gorgeous home overlooking the water, there are crammed shelves full of literary masterpieces but not a “Fifty Shades of Grey” in sight. Books are stacked on the floor and there is a bunker at the back because, yes, someone actually lives here!
“The fact that it is someone’s living quarters indelibly adds to the environment’s 3D experience. I guess it makes it more personable,” says Walzer, though there’s also a cat and a dog that share the space, making it all that more homey, adding to the ambience.
There are also the little thought-provoking scribbles on the wall, including a time line of the store’s history chartered on the ceiling to document its development from conceptualization to its crisis-ridden broke-to-book crowd-funding venture in 2011 when the shop risked closure. “We’ve made a few changes and are in better shape now,” says Walzer, adding that there is no need to minimize quality in order to be commercially viable.
Forget that view…
Asked if the facility’s idyllic location has helped catapult it to international bookshop stardom, Walzer says that he’d be “shocked if it didn’t”. Still, he’s putting the theory to the test with another bookstore – Desperate Literature – slap-bang in the middle of urban Madrid.
“This time round, it’s less sexy,” says Walzer. “I’m no longer 22 years old, and the new venture is more deliberate and quiet.” The spontaneity of Santorini has been replaced with the maturity of Madrid as far as business decisions are concerned. “Regardless of location, at the end of the day, if the books aren’t awesome then the store would just be another pretty face,” he says.
Walzer is passionate about literature – obviously – and he travels the world seeking the best that the written word has to offer. He has probably ploughed through every carefully handpicked book on the shelves. As a result, even without the breathtaking view, the bookstore is a delight for any voracious reader interested in engaging in meaningful conversation with other book lovers while scouring nooks and crannies to find those hidden finds carefully tucked away.
If there’s a rare first edition to be had, it’s probably buried somewhere in this hermit cave of a bookstore that reeks of the aroma of freshly-ground coffee, the sizzling essence of Palo Santo that permeates the mouldy smell of forgotten masterpieces. Only these days, Walzer is no hermit. He’s crazy in love with a PhD student in France and drags himself away from his bookstores in Greece and Spain to be with his love. “I’m afraid my girlfriend will dump me if I’m away too long,” he says.
Atlantis Books has survived financial problems caused by the Greek crisis to gain international acclaim along the way, but will it survive the rush of love? To be continued.
INFO | Atlantis Books is located at Oia, Santorini. Tel (0030)2286.072.346
National Geographic’s full list of bookstores in Destinations of a Lifetime:
1. Atlantis Books, Santorini, Greece
2. Cafebreria el Pendulo, Mexico City, Mexico
3. Munro’s Books, Victoria, Canada
4. El Ateneo Grand Splendid, Buenos Aires, Argentina
5. Powell’s City of Books, Portland, Oregon
6. Prairie Lights, Iowa City, Iowa
7. Shakespeare and Company, Paris, France
8. Gertrude & Alice, Sydney, Australia
9. Librairie Avant-Garde, Nanjing, China
10. Cook & Book, Brussels, Belgium