On a Santorini lane, so narrow you jostle with strangers for for elbow room, I pass Atlantis Books, a cave of treasures below street level. Greece’s clifftop town of Oia has many more obvious attractions of course, and the tide of tourists is heading up tiny alleyways towards the best vantage points to drink the local wine and photograph the sunset – one of the things you do on one of the most beautiful islands in the world.
But I never could resist a bookshop, so I turn against the human wave and walk down a steep flight of steps and into a world of words, created in the subterranean level of a typical island house partially carved into the volcanic cliffs. The vertiginous and rocky geography (although some of the island is almost flat) must be a challenge for building anything.
Inside the shop you can negotiate an even steeper flight of steps up to the shop’s roof, and that’s the view (pictured above). Atlantis has books in multiple languages: English, Greek, German, French, Italian and Spanish. The contents of the floor to ceiling shelves include fiction, philosophy, biography, travel, poetry, drama, with authors ranging from Cavafy to Wodehouse. Contemporary Greek authors translated into English always sell well, particularly Nikos Kazantzakis.
Owner Craig Walzer opened Atlantis Books 10 years ago with fellow American Oliver Wise when they were travellers in their mid-20s looking for a good book to read while holidaying on Santorini. Supported by a collective of writers and artists, it’s done well, although now, like most other independent booksellers worldwide, it faces the tyranny of the Amazon factor. That and the persistent melancholic state of the Greek economy which kept traveller numbers down for several years. This year is a lot brighter in terms of visiting numbers, at least.
Donations are welcome
There’s a pre-loved section for 5 euros a book. A couple of coin buckets are strategically placed, for donations to help keep the shop open, and feed and care for the island’s many stray animals. I give the young woman behind the counter 5 euros, telling her there’s a litter of kittens, with no mother cat in sight, in a rear garden of an abandoned house up the street. The next day I pop in again and give euros to Craig as well, and he promises to alert the veterinarian.
“We’re the poorest shop in town, and the Greek economic crisis hasn’t helped, but we’re hanging on,” Craig says. “We always have somebody here and we’re open all year round.”
Atlantis Books held the 2nd Annual Caldera Arts and Literature festival in June. This year 100 people turned up which filled the tiny shop already densely populated with titles. Events included movie screenings, readings by authors, a workshop on the art of hand-binding books from in-house Paravion Press, and even a chess tournament which pitted visitors against the brightest minds of the Assos Santorini Chess Team, aged under 14. I wonder who won?
The book I read while on the island is Atlantis Never Lost: The Story of Santorini by George Koukoulas who is the air traffic safety electronic engineer at Santorini Airport. He’s an unlikely novelist – born in Athens, he studied electronic engineering at university and went on to do post-grad studies in communications and data networks in the UK. The book moves between the present and Santorini’s tumultuous past, when ancient volcanic eruptions destroyed a civilization. While the English translation is plodding at times, it’s still a fascinating read into the island’s history and how it holds the attention of archaeologists today. Atlantis Never Lost is available at Atlantis Books, naturally. Price: 15 euros.
If you’re visiting Santorini, don’t walk past, and do drop a few coins into the donation buckets. Or just buy something. I’d hate to see Atlantis Books get lost.