Atlantis Books has a strange relationship with its customers. Most people involved with the shop will refer to it as a project rather than a business. It is a creative space and a collection of outstanding books first, a bookselling business a very distant second. The space is sustained by the business aspect, but that is all. So sometimes the customers can feel like an inconvenience, or at best a necessary evil.
Yet one of the real pleasures of staying in the shop is discovering how broad and how shared a passion for books is. When you study books (or even undertake to write your own) snobbery is inevitable. You feel like you have a monopoly on literary love. Surely it isn’t possible to have a meaningful relationship with books until you have at least a BA behind your name.
Not true, of course. People love books, and they love bookshops. Admittedly the sample I’m exposed to is somewhat self selecting. Our steep set of steps acts as a handy filter, sifting out the gawkers and moneyflashers who will wander into any shop with easy access and plenty of tat to spend your cash on. If you can’t be bothered to go down a few steps to get to a bookshop, we probably aren’t interested in selling to you. There are hundreds of people (mostly the thrice be-damned cruisers) who stroll on by without giving the shop a second glance. There are a ridiculous number that stop to pose for photos in front of the shop, or even come partway down the steps to get the better shot, then walk on down the street without entering the shop. This baffles me. Why would you think a shop was interesting enough to photograph, but not to enter?
But for those who do come in, the wonder on people’s faces is always pure delight to see. Better yet, it reminds you afresh of the amazing and inventive space we live and work in. Instantly, you have a common connection, though you have said nothing to each other and may have very little in common otherwise. You are both there because you are in love with books.
What is most humbling is how much better read than me most people who come into the shop seem to be. It is often simply a matter of age. Most of the people who come into the shop probably don’t take their reading as seriously as I do, but they have had twenty or thirty more years to get it done. They know more and have read more than I have. Being well read is about time and dedication – a lifetime’s task to get a worthy knowledge of literature.
The customers come in innumerable different guises. There are the Second Handers, drawn irresistibly to cracked spines, foxed pages, and old library stamps on the inside front cover. There are The Hordes, packs of American exchange students on break, who come in chattering and bustling in a constant stream of upturned intonations. The Shorts and Sandals crowd wouldn’t know a good piece of literary fiction if it got up and slapped them round the face, but they are suckers for cookbooks and handsome coffee table books. The English Grad self consciously seeks out a challenging and worthy title to work through and feel superior whilst reading, and lays it down on the till with all the silent smugness of a poker player revealing a winning hand.
My favourites are the Intoxicated Bibliophiles, the ones who love books as beautiful possessions. The ones who linger in front of the Faber and Faber shelf, drinking the elegant simplicity of the design, or hover by our shelf of old leather bound books and orange Penguin classics. The ones, in other words, like me, who adore books not merely for the contents inside or the kudos it will bring them to own it, but as a little object of complete aesthetic and mental pleasure.
Working in the shop has given me yet another way of interacting with books. I have approached them as a delighted child, a voracious adult, a semi-studious undergraduate, and as a wannabe writer. Now I am a merchant of books. This should perhaps be a corrupting relationship, but within the distinctly non-capitalist ethos of Atlantis, it becomes one of the purest ways of sharing the thing that you love.