SANTORINI, Greece On a wall above rare first editions, old maps of this volcanic island and a stained linen lampshade, a painted timeline traces the evolution of Atlantis Books from a wine-drenched notion in 2002 into one of Europes most enchanting bookstores.
A terrace overlooks the Aegean Sea. Bookshelves swing back to reveal hidden, lofted beds where the shops workers can sleep.
Somewhere along the way, word spread that visiting writers too could spend summer nights scribbling and snoozing there, and the owner began receiving emails requesting a bunk at earths most stunning writers colony, on an island Plato believed was the lost Atlantis.
But the writer-in-residence program was also a Greek myth.
The idea was not to come here to write the great American novel, it was to sling books, Craig Walzer, the stores owner, said. You are here for the bookshop first.
Over the last 15 years, as cruise-ship hordes and souvenir schlock have overrun the village of Oia on Santorinis northern tip, Atlantis Books has become an unlikely oasis of authenticity and cultural sanity.
Yellowed pages and shelves fashioned from driftwood give off a musty smell. The soundtrack on a recent visit shifted from Beck to the BBCs commentary of the Wimbledon mens final. Customers sidestepped the shop dog, Billie Holiday, to peruse just-so offerings (Plato: Cool as a Cucumber) from the stores own press of classics.
Have you read Rilke in Paris? Sarah Nasar, a veteran of Shakespeare and Company, asked one customer as Mr. Walzer steered a skeptical boy away from The Little Gray Donkey to a childrens version of the Iliad.
Boys being boys, Mr. Walzer described the plot of Homers epic.
Bibliophiles around them leafed through a lovingly curated collection of fiction, poetry, essays and rarities. A first edition of F. Scott Fitzgeralds The Great Gatsby, minus one of the rare-book worlds most sought-after dust jackets, was on sale for 6,000 euros beneath a label reading I must have you, a nod to the novels opening epigraph. Behind the register sat a 1935 edition of James Joyces Ulysses, illustrated by Matisse, and an exceedingly rare first edition of Charles Dickenss A Christmas Carol. It was listed at 17,500 euros.
Thats a big boys book, Mr. Walzer said.
Expensive rare books sell well here, Mr. Walzer explained, partly because the island has become a popular destination for people who have way too much money, but also because honeymooners and other visitors often want to take home something more meaningful and less common than a diamond bracelet, say. Books offer tourists something tangible and not digital, he added; theyre not just another posed photo in front of the sunset.
Right on cue a customer interrupted to ask whether pictures were allowed in the store: Its so cool.
Sure, Mr. Walzer said.
Almost despite itself, the shop has become a tourist attraction. That is especially strange for Mr. Walzer, who for years called the cozy place home. He alternated beds. One is hidden behind shelves now displaying copies of Homers Odyssey and the Harry Potter series in ancient Greek. The other one (the master bedroom, Mr. Walzer called it) sits above the German section. That spot is now occupied by one of the stores employees, Katie Berry, a 22-year-old graduate in English from Harvard (Surprise, she deadpanned) who was spending her third summer sleeping amid the stacks.
This is clearly where the visiting-writer legend began, and Mr. Walzer, who moved to a neighboring town in 2017, wanted to clear up some other misconceptions.
The shop is run by him, a 38-year-old Memphis native who keeps barbecue sauce in the back fridge and who affectionately uses the words chief and dude, not by a twee old British man whom many tourists ask to meet. Atlantis is not the oldest and smallest bookstore in Europe. Harry Potter was not set here. Ernest Hemingway did not write here.
And yet, the story of Atlantis is not without its mythic elements.
It has a muse-inspired (O.K., booze-inspired) origin. Mr. Walzer and a friend came up with the idea during a visit to the island during a break from Oxford in 2002. It has a great journey: a van ride with fellow founders from Britain to Santorini, during which Mr. Walzer read John Steinbecks East of Eden, the tattered copy of which is kept in the back like a talisman near a signed, plastic-wrapped galley of Infinite Jest, by David Foster Wallace.
It has no shortage of twists and turns. An original location below the ramparts of a 13th-century castle built by Venetians closed, and the founders were forced to rebuild the shop in a ruined captains house. Love interests came and went. (Love Stories, for Suckers reads the label in the stores romance section.) One of Mr. Walzers drinking buddies, the author Jeremy Mercer, injected a dose of deus ex machina in 2005, when The Guardian asked him for his favorite bookstores and he topped his list with Atlantis.
We had no business being on that list, Mr. Walzer said. Now I think we do.
And Mr. Walzer himself stands in as the tortured hero. He left the island in 2005, enrolled and dropped out of Harvards Kennedy School and its law school, then went underground essentially in New Orleans. He found his way, and returned to Santorini and his bookshop for good in 2011. Survival led to success, but as the shop flourished the real estate fates descended. In 2015, landlords threatened eviction unless Mr. Walzer came up with a million euros to counter an apparent offer on the building.
But since international coverage at the time raised the alarm that Atlantis could be lost again, Mr. Walzer hasnt heard back from the dreaded landlords. He said he is still operating without a lease.
One day the bell will toll, he said. But not today, because its Sunday afternoon.
And it was a lovely one. As he sat on the stores terrace, with the shimmering Aegean filling the Caldera on one side and tourists flowing like lava down Oias narrow sunset boulevard on the other, Mr. Walzer rolled a cigarette. He looked with contentment at the sea and the people scanning a blue shelf of used books.
The challenge used to be selling books. Now its finding the books to sell, he said. We figured it out.
Moments later, his phone buzzed. Billie Holiday had vomited by the Bs in the fiction section. He excused himself to help clean up. It took a lot, he noted, to make this mythical place.
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On a Greek Island, a Bookstore With Some Mythology of Its Own - The New York Times