The Best Bookstore in the World

More than just a place where one can find something to read, Oia’s Atlantis Books is the heart of an ever-growing international community of book and art lovers. Its cofounder gives us the inside story.


On a bright July morning, Oia’s main pedestrian thoroughfare is so busy with honeymooners, sightseers and camera-wielding cruise-ship emissaries that to join its course and inch along its flow is to experience first-hand the most vexing of all the Greek labyrinths (and, by the way, Borges’ favorite): the labyrinth that is a single, straight line – virtually unnavigable.

Things weren’t always this way. In the spring of 2002, Oliver Wise and I spent a week in Santorini during our mid-term break. We were struck dumb by the natural beauty of the landscape and by the serenity of our surroundings. We spent the first few days devouring the handful of books we’d brought with us as hungrily as we took in the breathtaking view before us. When we ran out of reading material and discovered there was no bookshop on the island, we decided, over a glass of wine, to open one of our own. Oliver christened it Atlantis Books, and the wheels of aspiration were set in motion.

The next 18 months saw us go about the necessary business of graduating from university, saving money and assembling a group of dynamic, energetic and creative individuals to make the bookshop a reality. On New Year’s Day in 2004, Chris, Maria, Will, Tim, Oliver and I, together with “Danny” (our blue van), set off on the long trek from Cambridge, England to Oia, Santorini. We found an absolute hallucination of a building located beneath the ruins of a Venetian castle, signed a lease, drank our whisky, and quickly came to realize that we had no idea what we were doing.

To evoke the glory of that first summer would require all the bright, elegiac artistry of Evelyn Waugh, Dorothy Parker and F. Scott Fitzgerald combined, so let’s just say it was wonderful and leave it at that. At the end of the year, the lease ran out on our beautiful structure under the castle and it was returned to the landlord to convert to presidential suites. We were left with no bookshop, no palatable alternative and an increasingly insistent declarative question: It’s time we left Santorini, isn’t it?

“When we ran out of reading material and discovered there was no bookshop on the island, we decided, over a glass of wine, to open one of our own.”

But we didn’t leave. We gritted our teeth and started over, this time in the heart of the village, using flotsam and driftwood to construct a bookshop every bit as beautiful as the original. Before you could say “the folly of youth!”, we were up and running again, thanks in no small part to the generous support and encouragement of the local community. In the decade since then, as our bookshop has become exponentially better and more widely renowned, we’ve slowly learned how to sell books, how to meet our customers halfway and how to run a business empathically.

While we may not stock Ayn Rand, Paulo Coelho or Fifty Shades of Grey, we try to have something for everyone, regardless of budget, language, reading experience, or the arcane troughs and elations of personal preference. What we wish to suggest, and what we hope our selection evidences, is that from literary fiction to beach-reads to good erotica (we’ve devoted a whole shelf to “Sexy Books”), we’ve managed to maintain our sense of identity without turning the project into an exclusionary practice. Then there’s the matter of Paravion Press. Because we were frustrated that so many potential customers wanted to take home a piece of our shop but were afraid of the looming luggage restrictions on their flights home, we decided to design and produce small editions of our favorite short works tailored specifically to be sent by mail. We launched our first series in 2010, and today we have more than 20 titles in print, including works by Katherine Mansfield, Mark Twain, Emily Dickinson and Walter Benjamin, as well as a special edition of James Joyce’s beautiful Christmas story, The Dead.

Of course, Paravion Press could not help but fly away one day itself. In one of several bookshop marriages (more on that later!), cofounder Will Brady married Oliver’s cousin’s dear friend Libby, and moved to New York. In our usual circuitous fashion, the new headquarters of Paravion Press has followed him there. Now we can print our new editions on a Monday, fly them over the Atlantic and have them in Greece and on our shelves a week later. This year, we’re working on a special Henry David Thoreau volume, a bilingual Poe/Baudelaire, and a very special book by our favorite Greek children’s author (whose name we can’t reveal just yet). We also produce beautiful handmade journals and limited edition art prints by our friends who have illustrated our publications.

“We also produce beautiful handmade journals and limited edition art prints by our friends who have illustrated our publications.”

 Obviously, we realize what a privileged position we occupy. The whole world comes to our doorstep. Being the only bookshop in a town full of visitors eager for new experiences – often people who would never even think to enter a bookshop at home – means the seduction process is partly done for us by the magnificent Greek caldera. On top of that, we’re just different. Against a backdrop largely composed of restaurants and jewelry stores, our bookshop stands out like a dramatic pause. We offer a haven for bibliophiles, an adventure for inquisitive travelers, and, we hope, a curious and beguiling spectacle for everyone else.

Apart from our location, we’ve also been fortunate with our hosts and neighbors. As the village continues to flow and overflow with more and more visitors, just knowing we can always stop by for a beer with Dimitri Kouliassis, the icon painter, or herbal tea and a game of chess with Nikos Rigopoulos, a local photographer, becomes a source of enormous consolation. Lina and Iris across the road are never short on smiles, despite the long days they put in, and Panos at Candouni and Jean-Luc at Kyprida are friends for life (and the patron saints of our bellies). The more people that visit the island, the more close-knit and interdependent the consistent local community has become.

The core bookshop community has grown closer, too. Oliver met Ryan when she walked into the bookshop that first year, fell in love and went home and got married. On the fourth of January 2012, eight years to the day we had arrived in Santorini, they gave birth to Annie. Two of the other founders, Chris and Maria, got married on our terrace in July 2014, just in time to inaugurate the 3rd Annual Caldera Arts and Literature Festival. Now they’re returning to the shop in July with their baby boy Jonah in tow. We’ve brought in Art from Ireland, Jorge from Spain, Viviana from Greece, Elisa from Italy, Edwin from Sweden, Nick and Caroline from England, and the mysterious Silent K, who’s currently in Zambia, allegedly.

Our network of friends, partners and colleagues continues to ripple out from our perch on the cliffside and it’s these new integral people that keep the shop alive because, more than anything, we are a living, breathing venture that continues to evolve. When people come in and ask “How long did it take you to build this place?”, we like to say, “Twelve years so far, and we’re not finished yet.”

“Against a backdrop largely composed of restaurants and jewelry stores, our bookshop stands out like a dramatic pause.”

On any given day at the bookshop in the high season, you’re guaranteed to meet at least one fascinating person before you close up for the evening. Our time here has been illuminated by an extraordinarily entertaining and memorable cast of characters, including the Canadian septuagenarian with the bionic eye and the gruff habit of muttering “Jesus Murphy” at every opportunity, whose penchant for idle shit-stirring caused minor offence to at least half the people in the shop that morning. Our favorite, though, remains the mysterious Italian wayfarer who took so much pleasure in our “Rent-a-Cat” sign that he stopped dead in the street, alone, in the early hours of the morning, laughed loudly and then shouted “Fantastico!” before sprinting off to we know not where.

As Santorini’s economy continues to develop and grow, an independent bookshop might be expected to burn up like a love-letter in a house-fire. We take great pride in the fact that a creative endeavor like ours can hold its own in a place where terms like ‘throng’ begin to seem touchingly inadequate for the legions who descend on Oia every summer. The island gets stranger and stranger, but this just focuses our minds and motivates us to be all the more interesting ourselves. We are still holding on to that first impression when we fell in love with the landscape, while also reminding those lost in the labyrinth that Santorini is not an amusement park or a human entertainment factory – it’s a haven, a harbor, a majestic spot made full by wonderful, breathing (and reading) people.

Folks come into the bookshop and say that working here must be a dream. Trust us when we tell you that it’s not. We work absurdly long hours, never take a day off after March, and from June to August can’t even find time for a gentleman’s game of boules in the car park. But as far as real life goes, life in our little bookshop – hosted graciously by a little island that has been hospitable to us for over a decade – beats the hell out of just about any alternative we could dream up. We love giving our visitors a taste of our world. And every time we watch a ferry leave the port and escape out of the mouth of the caldera, we’re always grateful that we, Atlantis Books, get to stay a little bit longer. That’s all we’ve ever wanted.

“Against a backdrop largely composed of restaurants and jewelry stores, our bookshop stands out like a dramatic pause.”


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