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John Benditt in conversation with Nancy Pearl - University Bookstore Wednesday, February 25th, 7:00pm
I woke up at dawn with a cat on my chest. But you don’t have any pets, mumbled my brain. Careful not to disturb kitty, I craned my neck and took in my surroundings. Books stacked everywhere. Shelves. Wooden ladders. Antlers crowning an arched doorway. Across the room, morning light spilled onto the curving sides of what appeared to be an open-air tubular skylight onto which someone had painted lines of text:
Imagine if each day a man must try to kill the moon, he thought. The moon runs away. But imagine if a man each day should have to try to kill the sun? We were born lucky, he thought.
And above that: Vague as fog and looked for like mail / Farther off than Australia…
Hemingway. Plath. The world came into focus.
The cat was Sylvie. And this was Atlantis Books, on Santorini, a Greek island twelve lurching ferry-hours from Athens. A bookstore where, like Paris’ Shakespeare & Company, the employees live and sleep among the books. Had I planned my vacation around visiting a bookstore? Hell yes. Did I mention it’s in a cave on a cliff in Greece?
By the time I arrived, after the ferry and a couple local buses, I felt like a kid who’d been playing Zelda and stumbled onto a remote area of the map. Surely there was a treasure hidden here. My heart containers would be filled, I’d find the master sword in an old trunk. Or maybe the cat flopped across the front desk was my one true love reincarnated and all I had to do was scratch its ears the right way and then we’d be frolicking in the black sand beach down the road….
Instead of the master sword I found Chris, one of the founders, a guy so low-key you think at first he doesn’t like you. “If the hostel’s shit, you can crash here,” he offered. He gestured to the next room of the book-cave, visible through an indoor window. Under the hand-painted “Italian” sign and opposite the Philosophy Tower was a couchish spot hemmed in by books.
A good bookstore feels more like a home than a retail space. It’s a meeting place. It’s that one friend’s house where everyone went after school, where you felt comfortable enough to hang out even if Billy or Shannon or Hubert wasn’t there. In this sense, book lovers, writers and adventurers all have a home in the postcard-perfect town of Oia.
Atlantis Books opened in 2004. It’s an inspiring place for many reasons—the location, the view, the books and what they contain. But taken alone, none of these is enough. A good bookstore is made of people. It is ambition and passion embodied. So as my hours in Atlantis passed, the question rang louder in my mind: how the hell did they do this? The answer, of course: by going all-in. In 2004, the founders—some American, some European—invested their personal savings and borrowed money from family and friends to rent and build the place. (You can read the story of how Atlantis came to be in detail here.) And when taxes went up—again—in 2010 and tourism tanked due to the European economic crisis, they launched an IndieGoGo campaign that raised over forty grand. Atlantis has also launched a unique press, Paravion, that issues enchanting postcard-sized mini-books of classic stories. The idea is to read it, write a note inside, and mail it on.
And this year they threw a literary festival so successful they’re making it annual. Another idea thrown around while I was there was a Shakespeare sock puppet theater on the roof terrace.
So often, places retain the energy and spirit in which they were built. Turning a cave-house into a bookshop, in a foreign country, with limited resources, must have been crazy stressful; there must have been arguments over design and cash and personal stuff; there must have been, and still be, an immense pressure to survive after all that’s been invested. But the vibe inside Atlantis Books is mellow, welcoming, somehow trusting. It’s charming and cozy but not in a, say, McSweeney’s Pirate Store kind of way. It’s less calculated than that, more eccentric. The employees are travelers themselves who come and run the till for a few months before moving on; they don’t seem to feel much more like insiders than anyone else who wanders in. Spiraling around the domed ceiling are the names of everyone who’s worked there. And there’s plenty of room for more.
The place is stuffed with books, but don’t show up with your heart set on a particular title. I asked for The Magus but all their copies had sold. Like, months ago. Their first shipment of books came from an eBay mystery lot. Displayed in a place of honor over a door frame is a book from that initial batch, How To Mount Fish Trophies. (I wonder if a copy of this wonder has ever passed through.) Since then, used books have come from a book buyer in Oxford; new ones come straight from the publisher.
And this is fine. This is maybe preferable. People don’t come to shops like Atlantis because they carry a particular book. People go for the adventure; they go precisely because The Magus is long out of stock and the owners don’t care if it comes back. Because in its place you might find Kitchen by Banana Yoshimoto, or Sara Waters in French or a philosophy book you would’ve ignored on the shelves back in Indianapolis but somehow strikes you just right as you travel through Greece.
The night I spent there, locals and tourists wandered in and out while Chris plucked grooves on a cello he cradled like a guitar, his bare toes tapping the wood floor. Occasionally he’d get up and offer browsers some wine from a plastic half-liter bottle. Warm light filled the space, bouncing off the high curves of the ceiling. I had that childhood feeling again and thought, This is what it’d be like if Fraggle Rock had an independent bookseller. In the bunk above me, a German girl who’d been working there a couple months watched the Cosby Show on her laptop, laughing loudly as she listened through headphones.
This was last September, around the time scientists at CERN claimed they’d found evidence of particles traveling faster than the speed of light. Neutrinos. “What’s the hell’s a neutrino?” someone asked in response to the news. Another customer joined in: “So, e doesn’t equal mc squared anymore. Big deal. Einstein was wrong and time machines are totally possible. Sci-fi writers have known that for years.” A couple off-duty employees joined the conversation from their bunks hidden behind bookshelves. Stuff going faster than light—imagine the possibilities! Nevermind that CERN’s findings were questionable at best and remain unverified. Everyone wanted to believe in them because it gave us something to talk about with strangers—something we actually understood, like time travel.
A couple ladies from Boston came in, dressed in billowy blouses obviously purchased during their time in Greece. One of them asked Chris how they reached the books way up high, the ones pressing against the ceiling. “Oh, we have a ladder,” he told her. “But if you drink enough wine, you can hover.”
The women giggled. But I sort of believed him.
I fell asleep among the smell of paper and glue and wood. The wine had gone pleasantly to my head. I pretended I was a book, stacked among my peers. In many ways we are like books, especially when we travel; we present a cover and contain the stories of our days. A book one person couldn’t stand gets left at the hostel and devoured by another. It felt right to be shelved. Like these books, I had a place here. As does everyone who loves books and stories, who believes that we were born lucky.
Kelly Luce’s story collection received the San Francisco Foundation’s 2008 Jackson Award and was a finalist for the 2010 Bakeless Prize. Her work has appeared in The Southern Review, Crazyhorse, Kenyon Review Online, American Short Fiction, and other magazines. She keeps a hula hoop in her car.