Βιβλίο Συνεντεύξεις

An interview at lost Atlantis

από Β. Δ.

A delightful conversationalist -in the most Woody Allen-esque way possible- and a heavy smoker, Craig Walzer, one of the founders of Atlantis Books, answered to some of our questions. What is Atlantis Books? It seems that one day, before ten years or so, some friends decided to leave U.K. and U.S.A. behind, chosing to drive a van named Danny all the way from England to Santorini and found a small yet miraculous bookshop in the village of Oia, in Santorini island. This is not exactly an interview; it is rather the outcome of a discussion between two book lovers, one of which "happened" to have travelled across the planet in order to open a bookshop in a corner of the Aegean. Needless to say that we asked him which whiskey did they drink upon this decision...


Craig, before we begin, I must admit it: just going down the stairs to “Αtlantis” was enough to dislodge Hatchards in Piccadilly from being my #1 favourite bookstore. Yet apparently I am not the first one to ever feel overwhelmed by the atmosphere of this place… Let me ask you, is the name of your bookstore a pure matter of taste or rather an inner wish to stay true to the myth of rediscovering, rather than creating, a lost place filled with wisdom, as the Atlantis of old Plato’s Timaeus and Critias?

Hmm, it does a little bit. I never liked the name, when we first had the idea for the shop I said to my friend, Oliver, we should open a bookshop. He looked at me and he said, "The first thing we have to thing about is the name", 'cause that's the glamorous part of the project. Hmm, what do we know about Santorini, we have been here for like three days. We know Plato, he talked about Atlantis, Atlantis is here, we will call it Atlantis Books". I told him I really didn't like that name, we should find another one later on, and we finally never found a better one. So, that was the extent of it!

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One morning you drove a van named Danny all the way from England to Santorini, and after drinking some whiskey, you signed the lease of the empty build ing which would lodge Atlantis. Please tell me, was choosing this particular spot in Oia purely a matter of choice or of coincidence?

The first year we ran a different spot. Have you been to the castle down there? So we were just beneath the castle. And there was this building that was there which was three stories. We had photos of it, what it used to look like, it was an old, old building and it was empty. We met the owner and he said "You can have it for one year but next year I am going to develop this into presedential suits... I'm going to put a jakuzzi here, and another jakuzzi there" and we thought he might do it or not, either way, we had to take it for one year. So we took it, we paid too much for the first year, it was unbelievable, and sure enough by the end of the year, he was like "You got to go". So now it's a very different looking building, let's say to be diplomatic, and fancy, fancy, fancy honeymoon suits and all of that, and at the end of the year we needed to find another place because we wanted to stay!

with the help of a little whiskey you know, to get creative...

And it was good, I hadn't even realise this place existed, the first year I was here I walked past it a hundred times and never saw it and when we looked in the winter we saw it and it was good because it brought us to the centre of the village and we felt a little bit more a part of the community rather than being on the outside, at the edge - which was nice it its own hallucinogenic way. So it was really the best place available. We were looking for the best possible place to do it and when we saw it at first it was like ok, it's underground, this is goint to be difficult, maybe it's a stupid place to do it. But it ended up working because at time like this, in August, i actually thank God that we are underground so that I don't have to watch all of this and I can just kind of hybernate underground for a month and then come back in late September - because it's insane! And now, ten years later, we are in the same situation because the landlord here is trying to sell the building, you didn't know this?


So we are going to be kicked out in the end of the year, and this is maybe the end of the bookstore. There is someone that offered the landlord one million euros to build a jewellery store here for his daughter, that's the story we heard, and we have to come up with a million euros by the end of the season or else... we are finished.

…and, for educational purposes, which whiskey was the one you drank?

So to be honest the night we had the idea we were drinking wine. But when we were building the shop we were alternating between Johnny Walker -which is actually nice in Greece because it's less sweet I find, and back then we could find a bottle of Johnny Walker for like 13 euros and when we were really poor we would drink Old Smuggler which was terrible... but the other one that we were drinking was Teacher's whiskey and you can find a video, somewhere in the bottom of YouTube, when we made a fake advertisement: i was dressed up like a little boy and with my buddy we were sneaking a bottle in our room to drink it and then you just see a man with a belt going craaack! and then you see the advertisment, "Teacher's Whiskey: Smooth enough for a boy, but strong enough for a man!". Those were our three liquors of choice at the time, yeah.

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For everyone interested in books, it is well known that owning and running a small bookshop in Greece, especially during those troubled times, might be really harsh. Which is –or has ever been- your major difficulty, being booksellers here? What do you thing about the current developments due to the new governmental decisions and the fixed book price agreement in Greece?

The first thing is we have one big difficulty right now, which is we are in Oia where the property values are out of control. But we are not a failing bookstore; you read all those stories about bookstores that people aren't buying books and they can't pay the rent. We can pay the rent and if he doubled our rent, we could still pay it. So we have a reputation, we gor lucky, business is the best that has ever been and we are in a good place for that, obviously. The big problem here is, again, that you need to compete with jewellery, a lot of the traditional difficulties do not apply here - we have a lot of tourists which want to try something different, an international selection, it's different than having a bookshop in Athens.

Now, when we said that people don't want to fit staff in their suitcases we started making our own books that you can send in the mail which takes zero space, and that worked. All those troubles just force booksellers to be more creative. We have been able to do that time and time again with the help of a little whiskey you know, to get creative, and we keep figuring out new ways and that has worked for ten years and you can see it, it's fuckin' working!

...the best collection of rare and antiquarian books east of Berlin

As for the fixed prices, I think it's sort of shortsighted because someone who is getting books from Athens where almost all the publishers are there and you get the books in Athens, it may cost less due to the cost of shipping; and I say sometimes to people, if for example you can find a book in Athens costing 14 euros and we sell it for 15, that I have to bring that book here in Santorini for you, and people understand that. You don't have a fixed price on jewellery, you don't have a fixed price on beer, if that's how the trade has to be played, I stay out of that. Of course I don't know enough of that until I actually see the rules; I ask my accountant and he gives me the parametres and then I play tennis between the lines. Yeah, I am not the best person to ask, to be honest...

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During my stay in Santorini, and excluding the daily ships and planes constantly arriving, I must have counted more than 8-9 different cruise ships bringing tourists to the island. So, let me ask you, is that somehow reflected upon bookselling? Is your clientele mainly composed of passing visitors or permanent residents?

Yes. Ninety-five percent of our business, maybe more, are tourists. In the winter we stay open and we have one or two tourists a day. Some locals like sitting in the shop all day, and having the time to by books, but very few. Most of our clients are tourists. It doesn't affect me. First of all, because we are the only bookstore; if they don't like what I have, they can go to the other boostore which is not as good or the only other english bookstore is 500 miles away. You take what we have, or you go home, or watch YouTube. So I don't really care. I think we know what we like, and if people like the shop, they like our taste - I've never really given a shit about what anybody else likes. We don't only find the book we like, we also find the design, the cover, and that makes a difference and people respond to that. Tourists are human too, you have to think about it like that.

...they ask for 50 Shades of Gray and I have a whole section of good filthly books! Georges Bataille, Henry Miller, that kind of staff

But in terms of the actual inflow, the sheer numbers help us a little bit but days like today, which is one of the busiest days of the year, our business isn't better because of that. Most are people from cruise boats which spend almost four hours just to get to Oia and then is crowded and those folks maybe have one hour to spend in Oia, maybe two, they don't have time for bookstores - and so I don't have time for them. I can't try to sell more - some say, sell more postcards!- I cannot, I would drive myself crazy. I don't care. I will not make us a postcards shop, I am not going to sell snowglobes, I am not going to do any of that.

The people that do care, they are enough for us, they care because we care about books. Worrying about the cruiseboats is like worrying about the weather, you know: you can complain about that is not going to do anything. People come in from the cruiseboats and they ask for 50 Shades of Gray and I have a whole section of good filthly books! Georges Bataille, Henry Miller, that kind of staff, and they come and ask for 50 Shades of Gray and I say to the boyfriend, you will thank me when she reads this rather than 50 Shades because now she is going to have some real ideas and she lives happy, and he lives much happier, and everybody wins that way...

So I would say, insted of playing down to the cruise ships, you pull them up.

I noticed that, while presenting a relatively huge range of titles, you are rather sparing when it comes to Greek editions. Is that due to your international orientation or not? Would you like to share your opinion regarding contemporary Greek publishers in general?

 Ok, now this is my fault. I am a stupid lazy American and I still don't speak very good greek which is totally embarassing and it is mea culpa, like totally my fault, that I can't read in greek.

I can read "μύθος" (=myth), "πρίγκηπας" (=prince) very slowly in greek but that's the best that I can do. And it's terrible that I don't. In terms of the size of the section, it's actually kind of appropriate, it is the second biggest section that we have. I mean, it's mostly english because that's the language that most people read and buy, but you see the island is not exactly a greek island, that Santorini is not Greece: So I want to have that, and I also want to have a bookstore for the community; many people come and ask to get a book 2015-08-09 22for them, and we do so and give it to them.  But the greek section is not very large, and this is totally on my account.

But you know what? Greek publishers are actually pretty good. Perhaps it is a little bit inefficient, but for a country that is that small as Greece and a language that nobody else speaks, there is a lot of stuff translated in greek. There are a lot of small publishers, there is the tradition of having a bookstore and publishing and that is great. And they have always been quite nice to us, and I think that greek editions are generally good. Bookstores are a bit expensive here compared, but it's Greece, it's not an english market. I think that as to what it's doing, greek publishing is darn good! I wish I knew more about it but there is the language barrier - which is my fault.

You are also publishers yourselves with an interesting, kaleidoscopic one might say, set of editions ranging from The Atlantis Books Guide to Santorini, to Twain’s On the Decay of the Art of Lying. How did you take this decision, and which are your relevant plans concerning your publishing activity?

Well, we are certainly not Patakis or anything like that. But a few years ago, with all the shit that was going on with the crisis, the thing that bugged me the most was laggage restrictions... Because people have no problem going into a jewellery store and spending 500 euros on a bracellet -because a bracellet is tiny- but then, they want to buy a book for 15 and they say "Ah, I cannot fit it in my suitcase, because if my suitcase is over 8 kilos, I will have to pay 40 euros!" and I was like, "Fuck this! Seriously?".

So we decided to make books that take zero space in your suitcase. And the other nice thing is that when you have a book that is meant to be shared in the mail, that is a nice ritual. You know, we don't do that anymore, to write a small letter and say "I read this and I thought of you", it is something you cannot replicate with a Kindle, with an electronic book, and it develops the personal sharing of books. So we started making them by hand in the back of the shop and it worked, and now we sell them to some other bookstores that we know around the world and we have done more and more complicated things with it.

Now you see a bookstore and they are also building their own books at the back of the shop. In America for example, you almost never see that, that whole tradition has been lost. So I like being able to do that, and people see that and have a connection with it, because they are in the shop and they see those books being made, so... it's working.

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I left your bookstore with two copies of your map guide to the island and a copy of the Legend of the Holy Drinker by Joseph Roth; but the truth is that, for about half an hour, I was merely drooling over the rare first editions of James Joyces’ Ulysses and Ian Fleming’s Casino Royal. Which is the rarest book you have ever sold? Does the existence of such rarities sign a turn towards the world of rare and antiquarian books on your behalf?

It started about four years ago, when a friend of mine from Paris came to visit and brought a suitcase with him filled with books -nice old copies, but nothing super fancy. They were mostly from the 1930's, 1940's, nice, old reading editions, I just were a gentleman to have in the shop... He said that I could sell them for up to sixty bucks and I told him, "Who is going to spend so much money on a book, you got to be crazy!".

But it worked, because people love a nice old copy of Hemingway, or Kazantzakis, as a gift. People have that connection with the object and it worked, one thing led to another and it's fun! You get to, like, hunt for some, and get to search, make connections in this whole other super-nerdy world of collectors! I think that now we have the best collection of rare and antiquarian books east of Berlin, basically...

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Finally, I would normally ask you about any sign of hope for Greece you wish to share with us. It so happened, however, that I recently discovered the cave of wonders of Sinbad the Sailor in the form of an amazing tiny bookstore in a corner of the Aegean and to me, such is the perfect omen. So let me ask you instead, claiming the cliché prize of the year: which is YOUR favourite book?

Ahm, well, I would never answer this question except that all the other ones were so good, so this is my charity for you (laughs). The easy answer for everyone in the bookshop is "East of Eaden" by Steinbeck, because when we came here, when we were taking the boat that was the book that I was reading and so I have this sentimental connection to it, plus it is an amazing book. But I finished it, and handed it to Chris, one of the other guys, and then he handed it to another and then we all read it at the same time and everyone going through it was like "Holy shit, can you believe what Cathy did?" and the others were like, "Yeah yeah, keep reading it"... I still have that old copy near my bed.

It looks like garbage now, as so many people have read through it, I think the last three pages are missing so you don't even know what happened in the end, but that is definitely the sentimental favourite. Steinbeck wrote it near the end of his career, he had already won every award, he was very successful and this was his last, big book so the publishers made fifteen hundred copies for him for private distribution and they gave it to their friends and he signed it and gave it to his friends, he signed every one of them, it doesn't seem like a normal book but a fancy sort of thing and I got one of those copies which is now behind the desk which shows an evolution, I mean maybe we've gotten bourgeois, whatever...

Anyway, it is a beautiful book which is about choice. At the end of the day, we remember that we were very lucky to be here, the greek people have welcomed us in yor country in their very unique way- it's a choice of everybody to do this, and we want to keep that alive.

Thank you, Craig.

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Β. Δ.

Kαφές χωρίς ζάχαρη, ουίσκι χωρίς πάγο, τζαζ χωρίς λόγια, εποχή χωρίς Βέρα, Πειραιάς χωρίς Αθήνα