As part of my quest to understand why bookstores still exist in the age of Amazon, my next stop involved a quick detour to the island of Santorini in Greece. Curation must be taken to epic levels when your store footprint is tiny, or, in the case of Atlantis Books, more like that of a generously-sized broom closet.
Santorini, of course, is famous for its clifftop towns built into the sides of the rock face—white-washed with splashes of blue to make the churches really pop. Visiting the island takes you back to a simpler life with donkeys instead of cars, simple good food and drink, and the warmth of azure skies.
But did you know that there is also a buried village on the island? Located on the route between Europe and the Middle East, the settlement—now commonly referred to as Akrotiri—flourished in trade to become a prosperous city with multistory houses, running water, and proper toilets that predated any previously-known technology of the kind. The advanced civilisation was completely buried by the eruption that transformed the island’s landscape more than 3,000 years ago, lost until its rediscovery by excavators in 1967. It’s no wonder that Santorini is also believed by some to be the location of the lost city of Atlantis. In other words, neither retail nor technology is new here and it is somewhat fitting that the bookshop founded here in 2004 is called Atlantis Books.
Atlantis Books first started in the old sea captain’s house located beneath a castle in the small town of Oia. Two travellers, Oliver and Craig, found the lack of bookstores on the island both a shock and an opportunity. Over a few wines they made a pact to open one on the tiny island, never returning home and instead spending their days searching for amazing texts to fill their limited shelves and hosting literature-lovers from all around the globe. Almost 20 years later, Craig remains at the helm—not in the captain’s house anymore but in a small basement store just off of the main square of Oia.
It was the end of the summer season when I visited, and the island was very much entering its winter shutdown mode, where restaurants and stores board up their doors and windows and start to hibernate. I very much hoped I hadn’t missed my opportunity to visit the store, as it too perhaps hibernated with a nice book or 500 to read over the quiet winter months. I arrived at the store at noon to see a small handwritten sign out front. “Closed, will open at 3pm.” A very respectable hour. I returned at 3:30pm but still the sign was out. An hour later, life was beginning to stir around the store.
The store is difficult to describe. For starters, there is not much to see from the outside. It’s mostly situated underground, with only a small collection of books on display in the open air. Beside them is a sign advertising a rent-a-cat service for 5 euros, and sprawled out beneath the sign is a real cat sleeping in the sun. Next to the sign, a small staircase — one that can only entertain a single direction of travel at a time — leads you down into the store itself.
Entering the store, you are met with an amazing view. Every angle, every direction, every inch of the subterranean store is covered with the spines and covers of books. Real books. They are all divided into carefully considered sections like “the funny shelf” and the “really sexy section,” which actually didn’t contain much in the way of trashy romance at all. Instead, it was the home for big mind-altering deep-thinking texts. Not ‘literally’ sexy but ‘literaturely’ sexy.
Every part of the store has been carefully designed to make the most of the scant space. The result is mesmerising, enticing you to explore every square inch and find every hidden delight. Everything from first edition prints of the Little Prince to local guides on Santorini, the best Greek cookbooks, and books on Atlantis history, translated into numerous languages from wherever you might be coming from.
Then there are the delightful handwritten notes on display in the store: little love notes from Craig and others who have worked there, sharing their favourite books and quotes.
“With freedom, books, flowers, and the moon, who could not be happy?” says Oscar Wilde. It’s hard to argue with that.
The note on one particular shelf reads, “Representing a shelf of thoughts of which might percolate in this interesting year and for the
four eight many years to come. Good luck!”
Some more polite notes are attached to the first editions asking you to please not touch. At a price tag of 10,000 euros, it’s easy to understand that request.
“Are the first editions art or are they for sale?” I ask Craig, who is trying to take up as little space as possible behind the counter.
“No, everything is for sale,” Craig cheerfully responds, “I am unashamedly a capitalist.”
“But do people buy them?”
“Ohh yeah, people who travel through here have more money than they know what to do with sometimes.”
The store is very much a destination in itself. It offers an experience, and you are sure to find something that catches your attention and compels you to buy it. I have a particular interest in the Haruki Murakami collection, one of my all time favourite authors. I hand Craig a Murakami book over the counter.
“What’s your favourite book of Murakami?” Craig asks.
“Hard Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World is my favourite, probably because it was the first one I read.”
“Have you read the Wind-up Bird Chronicle?”
“Ahh, you know what you are doing then,” he quips. He then points out another Murakami book.
“You will need to smoke a cigarette after reading that one,” he says, and I find myself adding it to my pile. In a store as beautiful as Atlantis Books, you feel that the entrance fee into this emporium is to buy something. He asks me if I want him to stamp the books with their store stamp inside the cover.
“That will double the resale value of the books,” I suggest.
“Or halve it!” he cracks.
He was talking down the value of their brand somewhat. As I stand in his tiny store more and more people are coming in, and it is starting to get crowded. If this is the off season, I wonder how busy it gets in the summer.
“Oh this is 5% of how busy we are in the summer. People will line up outside to get in during the real busy peak season.”
Clearly something is bringing people from far away to visit the store. It makes the top ten bookstores to visit list in the Lonely Planet and Fodor’s travel guides, and has also received glowing write ups in the New York Times. The Instagrammable nature of the store extends its reach into the social sphere, and why wouldn’t you want to share this discovery with all your followers? It’s a beautiful store with a beautiful story of a couple of book-loving travellers who left the rat race to open a shop on a Greek Isle. Visiting is a real experience—so much so that Craig is sometimes engaged as a consultant to other bookstores to help them with their business and strategy. Well-known bookstores in Porto, Portugal; Venice, Italy; and Los Angeles, USA have sought out his advice on how to make an experience out of their store.
“How do you market yourself online?” I ask.
“We don’t. I mean we have a website, but people just find us.”
And find them they do. I mean you could just order some books from their website and admire the beauty of the store via their Instagram feed, but why wouldn’t you go and visit instead?
Word of mouth is powerful and something that works for Atlantis Books. Since my visit, I’ve told many people about the cool little bookstore and suggested they check it out—you know, if they’re in the neighbourhood. Even if it is a little off the beaten track, in Greece, on an island, at the far end, that you get to by donkey, down a few lanes, in a basement, which may or may not be open when you decide to visit. And the amazing thing is that a few of the people I told did just that. The mystique about the store was too much to resist.
While their website does sell the same books, tell the same story, and provide a number of beautiful Instagram-worthy photos, that’s the thing about retail. The online version is just not enough. Nothing beats experience.
If you want the hilarious backstory, as told by Craig himself, he has a TEDx talk.
But even that you can get in real life too. Just visit the store, and Craig will be there behind the desk waiting to sell you some awesome books and perhaps have a chat. If the store is not too busy that is.
About Vaughan Fergusson
Vaughan is the Founder of Vend. An entrepreneur and technologist, Vaughan's goal is to make retailers' lives easier. When he's not leading the team, Vaughan is working on his charitable foundation and raising his kids.