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13.10
2015

Craig Walzer: A conversation with the owner of the world’s most beautiful bookstore

article's cover image (Craig Walzer: A conversation with the owner of the world’s most beautiful bookstore)

So, I came to take an interview of Craig Walzer, the owner of “one of the prettiest bookstores in the world” with “a very nice atmosphere” – as I heard a couple of tourists mentioning, while I was trying to persuade my feet to move, or else I would miss my flight back. However, I did not move, with the thought that this might be the last time that I set my eyes on Atlantis Books, since it might close down on the 20th of October for the price of one million euro.

During our conversation and while tourists were coming and going, I thought that every book in this place has its own story to tell.

Craig loves literature and cinema equally, he loves dogs and dislikes cats, which lounge about in his bookstore unasked, and therefore they coexist, he thinks that Vladimir Nabokov is so filth and seductive, that “Lolita” forms the “is a perfect exercise in the art of bullshit”, since he “seduce you into his world so well that it is an amazing intellectual exercise”.

What he hates most about Santorini is its dysfunctional bureaucracy, which he characterizes as “a jungle”, since he finally managed to acquire his security documents only recently. He was paying his insurance carrier for seven years, without being able to use the medical security services, because of bureaucracy problems! He is troubled every day by misunderstandings, never-ending paperwork that he sends to responsible sectors and Departments without getting a response, daily visits in banks, lawyers and bailiffs without getting a result, in the midst, of course, of the capital controls.

article's image (Craig Walzer: A conversation with the owner of the world’s most beautiful bookstore)

However, he thinks “it’s an amazing place to live

I love coming here in the winter and taking the dog for a walk in the vast fields and having plenty of space and time, watering the plants and picking some fruits and vegetables from the side of the road and going to the beaches and just having the time to sit and do whatever I want. The best gift that Santorini gave me and brought me here, apart from the bookshop, is a big bottle of wine, some tomatoes and olive oil, a couple of friends and a few good books and that’s the definition of happiness for me. I am a simple man with simple pleasures. And this is a good place for that. And I like the light.

As he says, he is very tired for emotions. “I don't have any emotions, I am too tired to have emotions. This is a time for action. So, I am trying as hard as I can, as you see, ten things at a time, to figure something out. To at least try the best we can. And if the market decides and if the reality decides that there is no space for us, then at least we have tried”. 

As I was leaving and walking up hills and down hills in the central road of Oia towards the “entrance” of the village, a crowd of people was doing the same, but towards the opposite direction… In the direction of Oia’s castle to watch the fabled sunset, bearing their selfie – sticks. The sunset, that is admittedly stunning, but, as Craig mentioned:

F**k the sunset, it's a tourist trap. Everybody knows it's a nice sunset, but you can get a nice sunset anywhere. The castle at sunset, it's horrible. It's like Grand Central Station. The last time I went to watch the sunset was in April and when I go again it's going to be October. I will go and stand outside and enjoy it once in a while and, actually, the sunset is much better in the off season, which is the irony, because that's when the humidity rises, you can see clearer, you can see further, the light is more interesting. Any season is more interesting than summer, in the summer it’s just white. Everybody walks by the bookstore to ask "Where do I go to see the sunset? This is a place that is destined to give you vast space and time, so that you can feel small amidst the great landscape. And instead, we've narrowed down all the virtues of the island, as much as we could. Which is silly.

Our conversation started with the storytelling of a both funny and tragic story, while he was trying to explain to me the reason why I have to leave three hours earlier in order to catch my flight…

“You see these roads, there are too many people on these roads. The roads are not big enough, they are not safe, there are no sidewalks. We are driving to Fira at eleven o'clock in the morning, and it is crowded and there are tourists' buses all over the place. And there I am, at the narrowest part of the road, amongst the buses and the parked cars on the side and the local bus, and there is not enough room for both of us. The driver is coming and I speed up to go to a wider part of the road and wait aside. I've done this a thousand times before and this is how you drive in this country, on this island, in this place. Where there is not enough space and too many huge buses and if one of them gets close enough to you, you’re dead. So, you get the hell out of the way! And I got out of the way, but not fast enough for him because he stopped leaving me stuck in the corner there, with twenty cars behind me and twenty more behind him. And he comes out with a white box in his hand and walks to my door and starts yelling "Stop!!!"(in Greek) like basically "are you expecting me to stop?" And I just looked at him and with my thickest American accent I just go "WHAT?" And he yells at me again. And there he is, slaming the door in my face and then taking two eggs out of his box and throwing them at my windshield. He is prepared with a box of eggs, you see, exactly for situations like that.

So, he did that and I went to the bus station. I laughed cause it was hilarious, and it was exciting and it was dramatic. He drove off and of course I wrote down his number plate. And after I finished my job at Fira, my gift to myself was to go to KTEL, to the bus station. I said:

" Hi, you know me, I am the idiot from the bookshop in Oia, the 'kryokolos' who doesn't speak Greek".

"Yeah, we know you".

"I just wanted to let you know that the driver of the bus with the number plate I had written down, that was coming from Oia at eleven o' five, stopped me and threw two eggs at my windshield and here are my witnesses, who was that?"

"Oh, that's Vasilis".

"Vasilis what?"

"I don't know, just Vasilis".

"Ok. I just want you to let him know that I want an apology. I just think he was rude. I don't need anything else, I just need an apology, so he can come to the bookshop whenever he wants and just apologize for throwing eggs at my windshield. Because I was just trying to avoid the bus and not get killed”.

And so I continue going to the bus station until I get an apology. And that's why I stay here, cause that's kind of fun. And now I am watching out when I hear the bus go by, I want to find this guy. That's the funny part. What's not funny is that one day either some tourist is going to get hit by one of those buses or one of those buses is going to fall over the cliff. Because they drive too fast on roads that are not safe for this with standing people packed in and it's not good, it's not safe and it's definitely not legal. But around here there are no laws. So, that's why I would like you to be on time at the bus station!

How captivating can an experience in Atlantis bookshop be? I just read this phrase in the journal of your site and I memorized it…

That's the most captivating thing that happened to me this week.

What was the most captivating thing that happened to you those ten years?

It's too many things. We've had births in this store, we've had deaths in this store, we've had weddings, we've had a bird dying in the store, six dogs, including ours, got poisoned outside of the store with rat poison. I've met beautiful people; I have made good friends and sold some good books. And we had parties, we had the festival last week, David Sedaris was selling books at this desk, which was awesome. That was captivating. 

In the beginning it was me and my friends, Oliver and Art. Oliver works for the mayor's office in New Orleans and he came back last year for the festival. Chris and Maria, two of the other six that built the store, just had a baby together; they got married on our terrace last summer. And Will, who was also one of the original fellas, still works on the press stuff. He works on various things and designs the posters and all that. He secretly just got married himself. So everybody else has babies and wives and real lives and Art and I are still here, like a couple of idiots. But there will be more people. And they will come back. They always come back when they can.

Among all the places in the world why did you choose to stay and open your bookstore in Santorini?

It was a good place and there was no bookstore. It started as a joke. We were 21 years old when we visited and we were here in April and it was quiet and green. Imagine, 2002 in April, so it was quiet and empty and beautiful. And there was time and space and we were in Imerovigli. In 2002 it was crowded but not like this. We just came because we saw it, we knew it on the map, we had heard somebody talking about it, so we were, like, just let's go explore it. We were reading our books (I read “Lolita” here) and we ran out of books and there was no bookstore and we needed some books. So, we couldn't have any and we were playing chess and drinking a lot and then one night we were like "Let's open a bookstore here". It was a joke, complete joke, and then our friends all said "Let's try it." This is a great place and we had nothing to do, we were fresh out of the University, so we went home and worked for six months and raised some money. We came out here with a few dollars in our pockets and we were living in the shop, sleeping and living like goats and homeless people basically, no running water, no electricity. All of this is built from garbage; it’s all stuff that the hotels threw out. So we built the store with garbage. We just thought we would do it for a year and then it would close down. 

article's image (Craig Walzer: A conversation with the owner of the world’s most beautiful bookstore)

I see the first or second and rare editions and just looking at them thrills me. How did you find them?

It's hunting, it's a lot of work, it keeps me busy. Everybody else goes on holiday in the winter, I get back to work. That's when I do the hunting, in the winter. Everywhere, America, friends, the U.S., I get good deals, I might look like an idiot, but I am a good negotiator. The bookshop as you see is not dying! We are actually doing really well regarding what we need. We don't need a lot, we just need enough and we have enough and after ten years it's finally working. If he would just let us renew the contract.

And do you think he won't let you?

I think it's a bad business decision for him to continue renting it. Because even if pay him three times the rent that I’m paying now, it can't compare to what he could get if he sells the building.

So, you think that the best thing for him is to sell the building.

Yes, absolutely. It's a buyers' market. There might be another volcanic explosion and this could dissolve into the ocean tomorrow.

You have already informed them you are interested in another building that would not be a bookstore, in the village nearby, Foinikia of Santorini.

That's not intended for a bookstore. I want this to be a quiet place for writers and artists to work and create. We want to have a house and an exhibition space and an atelier. We will bring the writers and artists with one deal. While they are here they can do whatever they want and they can live for free, BUT they have to do one thing for the village, one thing for the island, one thing for the school children, because they don't have enough here and it would be nice to do something with an educational character, and one thing for the place. I believe that we can build a nice community of artists and writers, which would be a good change for this island.

Could you tell me a few things about the festival?

It was great! Nobody died (laughs), it was very good, everyone seemed happy, the writers were fantastic. We didn't deserve to have such good writers in a little store like this.

article's image (Craig Walzer: A conversation with the owner of the world’s most beautiful bookstore)

You might have a small space, but you have gained big and international fame.

You keep saying that but either way, the point is we were very lucky to get these people to come. They are very busy and usually appear in front of thousands of people and we were really lucky to have them come, David Sedaris and Billy Collins? I was thinking, if I could have two people, who in the world would they be? Cause I hate book readings. They are f***g boring. Everyone is there talking about their books and all this stuff and they are very serious, discussing about loneliness and despair and so on. I can't deal with that stuff. I want to have a beer and I want to listen to somebody who brings the words to life and makes me laugh. I can do the sad stuff on my own. And these are the two guys in the world that I thought could do that really well. And they both came, so did Ross Daly, the musician, and he was great, the food was great, the village was very gracious and helpful, the neighbors allowed us to make a mess and to fill the streets with chairs, so everyone could listen. People were super helpful. I think people had fun, I don't remember cause I was too busy running around and making sure everybody had their beers, but it worked out really well, I think.

How did your relationship with the books start?

I like to read, I started reading when I was a kid, I liked reading, and I kept reading. My parents read very little, they were more of TV-watchers. I like bookshops as much as I like books, because it's a safe place for the people, especially for travelers, when they are coming and see books in their own language. This makes them feel safe and they can start a conversation cause the room is filled with ideas and communication and that's a good thing to get started with. This is a good place to read a book and I don't like reading all the time but I like reading in a good place.

Top writers…

I have a bunch; I like Joan Didion, whose book was just purchased by the last customer. I can tell you about the books I sold today, like, Richard Brautigan is great, Anna Kerchy is great, John Steinbeck is of course one of my very favorites and Oscar Wilde is amazing. As for the Greek writers, I like Amanda Mihalopoulou, she is very sweet and I think she has an interesting voice, from what I 've read of her in English. I like Panos Karnezis and I like some of Kazantzakis. I really like "The last temptation". Kavafis is my favorite poet, that's easy. It's a conventional choice, but he deserves it.

I read that the first book that you sold was "The notes from a small island". How many books have you sold since that day?

If we did the numbers, I think I would probably say that in an average day I sell about one hundred books a day in the summer. It's probably safe to say that, if I had to bet and we had written down all of the logs of everything that has ever been sold - some day when I am really bored maybe I will go back and actually count - but I think somewhere in the past year, we might have sold our one hundred thousandth book.

article's image (Craig Walzer: A conversation with the owner of the world’s most beautiful bookstore)

Have you ever thought of writing a book?

I've written a book, well I didn't really write a book, I stole other people's stories and collected them into a non-fiction book. So, I didn't write a book, I collected a book. I've thought about it and we always made jokes about it, like, when this is finished, because we never thought this is going to work, so when this is over, we would write the story, sell the story and the movie rights and then use the money from that, to build another shop somewhere else. So, some day if I have the time and if this is over, I will finally write that book. But I don't think it will be very good and, besides, a guy came in and he looked around and, being a professional in the field, he looked at our story up and along and he said "it's more like a graphic novel to me". I don't do graphic novels so, we'll see. Maybe somebody can do the drawings because I can't draw a straight line and I can do the story telling, maybe we will collaborate, maybe some day. 

Which is the best bookshop you have ever visited?

I've been to some great bookshops. I think there are people out there doing some amazing stuff. My buddy, Roman, has a beautiful bookshop in Berlin called 'Shakespeare And Sons'. He has done great job, he really knows his books and in terms of the quality of literature on the shelves, this is the man who is making a name for himself by selling books the right way. Hamburg has many beautiful old bookshops, like old school, really nice, simple, solid bookshops. In California, the Henry Miller Library, looks like a little cabin, an old house. There is also a great story, and I hope he doesn't get angry for telling this, in Thission, in Athens, the bookshop 'Erato'. I had a friend, Jorge, who was working there a couple of summers ago and when I visited it, I was buying a pile of nice, old Greek books. It was hard to get that stuff and the best place was Athens of course. So every time I would make the trip, I would buy a couple hundreds of books and he would give me a nice price. Jorge went in there and introduced himself to the owner. It was on older fellow with a big beard and he goes and says:

"Hi I am Jorge from Atlantis bookshop in Santorini" and the guy goes "Atlantis bookshop! The best bookstore in all of Greece! Bullshit!" And he's probably right. We get it because of publicity; the journalists come because it is a pretty picture and a funny story. The guy has a great bookstore, he has his nice old stuff. 

Could you name a book that you read over and over again without being bored?

The book that I turn back to is 'The Meditations By Marcus Aurelius'. I am not one who reads long stories over and over again, at all. It's been a long time since I've done that actually, I like the little things. I like articles by David Foster Wallace, I go back and read his journals once and a while, again and again, because he's so good. I read him more than once, definitely. 

Would you like to make a personal comment?

Without sounding like too much of a self promoter, people have been asking with all of this absurdity what is going on with the building, "What can be done?", like, what's our plan. And I have a million plans, once I get the information, because I am still waiting for the paperwork that proves that the building is going to be sold. And I can't go to the world and ask for money, unless I have the evidence that I need the money. And all that I have right now is words. And no offence to the beautiful people of Greece who I love very much, but we know that sometimes people don't tell the truth in Greece, especially when it comes to business and money. Just like everywhere else in the world. So, I have a story and everything that I've told you, the landlord said this, the estate agent told us this. I know all that know from what all these other people have told me and I know that the only information I have for sure is that my contract is expiring on the 20th of October. That's all the evidence I have right now. I want more, the first and only thing that I need right now is information and then I need ideas. So, anybody can help me to collect information and ideas or just spread the information and the ideas. I will talk to anybody as long as it takes. But right now I am in a bit of a purgatory because, yes, I might be closing this up and spending the winter taking all the shelves down, but I don't know yet. And right now I want to know, so that I can react. And that's the thing that kills me about this. It's not so much the yes or no or anything like that, it's the uncertainty. What will happen 'avrio'. The first word I learned in Greek, that is 'tomorrow'. It's the important word that you have to know and eleven years later, the only thing that's in my life right now. I can't plan my life, because I have to wait till tomorrow. Because even then, they're gonna tell me tomorrow, or maybe the day after tomorrow, or there's the elections, or my father is sick, or my phone isn't working, or the office was closed, so just give me one more day. And this has been going from the 26th of May, he came here and said you have two weeks or else we are going to send the lawyers who will have the necessary documents with the eviction order. It was the 26th of May and they said in two weeks they are going to sell the building. And now we are in the end of September and there is no tangible evidence that anything has changed except than coming and saying "We're selling the building." It's only words. We live by the words; we die by the words, man. Period. 

article's image (Craig Walzer: A conversation with the owner of the world’s most beautiful bookstore)

When I went in the rooftop, the only thing I saw was a cat that was hanging out… and a wonderful view! And I simply didn’t want to leave…

 

INTERVIEW: Eleni Mark

EDITING: Katerina Assimakopoulou

PHOTOGRAPHY: Eleni Mark

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