Interview with the founders of Atlantis

by HRM on November 21, 2011

by Rosa Rankin-Gee and Harriet Alida Lye

There is something about Atlantis Books – hidden, handmade, nooks and crannies; the way it flirts with the imaginary – that makes it like a secret den. Perhaps this is fitting: the founders were just boys (23, 24) when they opened in 2004. Seven years later, they are still known by the Oian locals as ta paidia, “the kids”.

We first met under blue skies in November 2011, on the first day of their inaugural literary festival (read our full article on that HERE). In this interview, they tell us about how the bud of an idea became a bookshop, and how they plundered beaches and junkyards to build it; their relationship with the Greek community, terrace-top wine, and the strangest (book) requests they’ve ever had.

Craig Walzer, one of the founders of Atlantis Books

Craig Walzer, one of the founders of Atlantis Books

How did the bookshop go from an idea to a real thing?
Craig [Editor’s note: these answers were written by Craig] and Oliver were studying in England and went to Greece during the spring holiday in 2001. They ran out of books so they went out for a walk and a drink and concluded that they should be the ones to solve the island’s book shortage. They stopped at the American embassy on their way out of Greece and inquired as to how two Americans go about starting a business in Greece. The Embassy said it would be really easy. This was false but we were oblivious and so we left Greece feeling emboldened, and with a plan.

The team that founded the shop just smoothly hypostatized from that seed. As Craig and Oliver continued their university courses, we talked with friends about the idea and soon had a crew of six that wanted to commit to building the place in the winter of 2004 – Craig’s best friend Chris from back in the States, friends Tim and Will we’d first met in Paris, and Maria – a Greek-Cypriot friend-of-a-friend – who signed onto the project having never even met most of us in person. We were damn lucky there, because Maria was our lifeline to the Greek community and our shepherd keeping us in good social graces and out of prison.

After graduating from university, Craig and Chris went home to live with our parents and worked multiple jobs to save up cash for six months. We wrote a business plan and found an investor to help put us over the top. We bought an old Ford Transit Van, met in Cambridge, England on December 30, 2003, and drove across the continent. Five days later on Craig’s 23rd birthday, we landed on Santorini with a vague idea of what was required, but confident because the Embassy said it would be easy, after all.

The months that followed were a continual grind against the bureaucratic granite of Greece. But we managed to form a legal business, rent a space and order some books. We rented a beautiful empty shell of a building and built ourselves shelves and beds and desks and kitchen cabinets, all using materials we found in beaches and junkyards, or given to us by generous locals. When we opened our doors in the 2004 Easter season we invited our friends to come and visit and help us make the shop better. After months on an winter island, it was stunning and a bit disorienting when our friends started to actually make the trek and visit – but when we got the chance to welcome them into our bookshop and home was probably the point where it became a real thing.

Photo by Harriet Alida Lye

Photo by Harriet Alida Lye

How do you think that Oia has changed since you founded Atlantis Books? Have your endeavours affected the community in any way?
Oia’s a tourist town – there’s a small population of year-round locals that swim in a sea of touristic shops and hotels. This provides for lots of charms and quirks, frustrations and familiarities. No big changes there and probably none on the horizon – the only real change we’ve seen in our years is that the once-frenzied pace of expansion, inflation and glitzification has slowed to a trickle.

We’ve tried to provide a social and cultural meeting point that’s welcome to all – the town elders and tourists alike. There wasn’t a public spot in town that specialized in books or consistently hosted cultural events. We’ve done our best to provide that venue.
We’ve done bookmaking and storytelling events with the local primary school, hosted readings and concerts, and geology lectures overlooking the local volcano. The town council has been involved with helping plan events like the Super8 Film Festivals we’ve put on, and individual shop owners have come together to help us in any way that they can, from organizational help to materials to tips on how to get things done faster. Overall, the community has embraced us and even though we founders are 30 we’re still known in Greek as ta paidia, the kids.

What do you see is your role as booksellers?
After eight years as booksellers in this community, we’re the outsiders on the inside. We’re offering more than just book recs – we give people advice on tours, where to eat, and how to take advantage of the best hidden parts of the island. Understandably, people in the village were suspect about a group of strangers coming in and taking over, but we managed to fill a niche without stepping on anyone else’s toes, so we’ve build up a great community of friends and supporters in town. And speaking more far-flung, after all these years of hosting friends and friends of friends and a few lovely strangers too, we’re happy to maintain a place they can return to for a glass of wine and a terrace with a view and a book.

What’s the strangest book request you’ve ever had?
We do get a disproportionate number of requests for the Book of Mormon. People seem to either forget to bring theirs or lose it along the way.
Someone asked if we had any books about hydraulic engineering, written in Mandarin (not Cantonese).
Someone asked for special books about the paranormal topics, which seemed redundant.
The day after the festival someone came in and asked if all the books are the same price;
Lots of people come in and ask if any of the books are for sale;
but then there’s the lady that came in a couple of years ago, walked straight to the till and said to Craig, “I’d like to see your books, please.”

Atlantis Books photo by Claire Kelley

Atlantis Books, photo by Claire Kelley

How do you select the stories you publish with Paravion?
We are benevolent dictators, so it’s basically stories and essays we like and things we think are conducive to sharing. We package them with tailored envelopes and leave pages at the beginning to write a letter – we figure it’s better than any old postcard. The stories and essays capture an archetypal sentimental scene, or they’re a launching point for a conversation with someone you might not have talked with in too long. We’ve got two new editions in the works that we’re really excited about, for example – a deluxe letterpressed, gift-wrapped, newly illustrated, super-special Christmas edition of James Joyce’s The Dead, and a German-English parallel text of Walter Benjamin’s Unpacking my Library – a new translation and introduction and new illustrations too. So we like the romantic, the snarky, the playful and the existential. We try to stay away from anything involving murder, incest, mutilation, so on. But next Halloween anything is possible.

(In celebration of the 2011 winter holiday season, Paravion Press presents James Joyce’s Christmas story with specially commissioned illustrations by William Bock. This limited edition of 500 copies features a hand-set letterpress broadside and tailored wrapping paper so the book can be shared, perhaps by mail. Buy that, and their gorgeous whole series, from their site.)

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