Category Archives: Travel

Letters From Santorini: Painting Roofs and Pricing Books

April in Oia. Every shopkeeper  is getting ready for the high season. Shipments arrive from Fira and the mainland each day, and everyone is painting roofs, making signs, organising stock and planning sales tactics for the coming months. There are a few tourists about, and once every few days a cruise ship disgorges a hoard that fills the streets for a few hours in the morning.

But this is the time to prepare. Just like every other business on the island, Atlantis Books is kept alive by the summer – in a few months, we have to make enough money to keep the place afloat through the long slow season of the late autumn, winter and early spring. We have to get everything in order before Easter and the summer when the real business is done.

At Atlantis Books, bringing the bud of the bookshop to ripe fruition means two things – painting and stock management. My first few days were spent on the roof, painting doors, windows, and the roof terrace. Hot, sweaty work, but painting on a roof terrace in the blazing sun to the sound of melodic German techno and pop rock, with cold beer and a beautiful sunset to wind down the day is probably some of the most fun you can have with your clothes on.

We aren’t finished yet, but we’ve broken the back of it – the roof gleams a brilliant, blinding white, complimented perfectly by the deep sea blue of the doors and windows. Just don’t look at the frames or the floor of the terrace yet – they’ll be ready in time. Fingers crossed.

Painting has been put on hold because the shipment arrived a few days ago – over 2000 books from Random House, Faber and Faber, Penguin, and various other sources. This is the good shit, the best books in the shop, our premium sellers in English fiction, non-fiction, plays, poetry and Greek interest. Every new box opens up fresh treasures – excellently selected books in the very best editions. A flotilla of Faber and Faber poetry books, an armada of Penguin Modern Classics, and a battalion of beautiful Vintage Classics from Random House are amongst the highlights.

This is a shipment that has been put together by people who know and love their books, though in certain cases, the literary loves of the shop organisers has clouded their commercial judgement – we have more Raymond Carver, J.D. Salinger and John Fowles than we know what to do with. Such are the perils of a love affair with books – the desire to hoard rather than to sell.

There are a lot of boxes to get through. We were up until 4 in the morning after the shipment arrived; pricing, cataloguing, stocking, and so on and so forth. We got about a third of the way through. Ho-hum. Many days of slogging ahead before the shelves and stock are even vaguely in order (and there is an entirely new, experimental stock system to try out and perfect.)

But the shop is slowly taking shape, is becoming the beautiful temple of books that it is meant to be. It’s a lovely time to be here. The island is waking up from its winter hibernation, and is ready to burst brilliantly into light, colour and life in the coming months.

2 Comments

Filed under Letters from Santorini, Travel

Letters From Santorini: The Books

I now live in a world of books.

On the many driftwood shelves of the store, there are books in Greek, French, Spanish, German, Italian, and English (though fortunately for me, English dominates.) The selection is comprehensive and diverse – what has sprung out of  an improvised set up by some enthusiastic amateurs five years ago has evolved into a stock collection that puts many a professional bookshop to shame. Cookery, coffee table books, fiction, non-fiction, Greek interest, contemporary Greek authors in all languages, classics, poetry, philosophy (in the philosophy tower)…all is represented.

We have a library of our own behind the till (mostly consisting of poetry, high faultin’ fiction, Greek language books and chess books), alongside a set of beautiful old Penguin classics and leather bound books. Ostensibly on sale, we massively overprice them in order to keep them in the shop.

Living in a bookshop, I am surrounded by literary temptation, but there are limits to how far I can indulge myself. It is general policy that we don’t read the new books, but that the second hand books are fair game. Like Tantalus in the underworld, there are countless books that I crave to pull down and read, but professional duty obliges me to resist. I hunt through the shelves, looking for the creased spine, peeled away corners and yellowed, misshapen pages that mean it is ripe for plucking.

There are so many books (and they are so essentially involved in the design of the shop) that you begin to feel like a book yourself after some time  – skin turns to paper, blood to ink, and perhaps you can even feel the reading creases of your life when you run your hand down your spine.

What kind of a book would I be? Not a Faber and Faber poetry book, which is what I’d like to be, for I am, alas, not beautiful enough for that. Perhaps a Penguin Modern Classic – tasteful black and white cover, silver backing and white lettering. Not as noble as the Penguin Classic, nor as heart warming as the old orange paperbacks, but it has a charm of its own. A slightly knackered copy that has floated around in backpacks and on dusty bookshelves for many years. Perhaps it has been dropped in the bath once, and the pages have that stiff and crooked character of paper wetted and dried in the sun, but a book that is still intact, respectable, not showy but inviting to read.

The first book I sold? East/West by Salman Rushdie.

The first book I read? I found a very handsome copy of Fitzgerald’s majestic translation of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, one of my favourite pieces of poetry. Still in a daze, I read it to still my mind, and those rhyming quatrains, dedicated to wine, love, pleasure in the moment and the acceptance of entropy and change, seems to capture something of the spirit of the bookshop…

Come, fill the cup, and in the fire of Spring
The Winter garment of repentance fling,
For the Bird of Time has but a little way
to fly – and lo! the Bird is on the wing!

2 Comments

Filed under Letters from Santorini, Travel

Venice and Farewells

“But in vain I set out to visit the city: forced to remain motionless and always the same, in order to be more easily remembered, [Venice] has languished, disintegrated, disappeared. The earth has forgotten her.” Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities

On first coming to Venice, one does not want to leave. The beguiling streets and endless canal vistas call out to be explored for months, or even years.

Yet over time, Venice reveals absences – not in itself, but in those who travel there. Any loss or void in your life is magnified by the city until it becomes unbearable. Lack of love, lack of purpose, lack of contentment, lack of knowledge. Perhaps only the perfectly happy can be content in Venice. Perhaps even they are shown the critical flaws in their own perfection.

Whatever it is you are missing, you have to find it outside of the city. Venice is a place where love, like the ending of a story or anything else, is often lost but never found.

One more note – you also know you are ready to leave the city if, even for an instant, you treat it like  your home. Even a single instant of normality (in my case, becoming absorbed in a newspaper whilst drinking coffee besides the Grand Canal) is enough to shatter the illusion, to let you know the bewitching spell of the city is ending and that it is time to move on.

Leave a comment

Filed under Travel, Writing

Venice and the Secret People

It is strange how easy it is to lose people in Venice. The main streets and sights crawl with people, but take two turnings and you are alone in a canal street or small square as beautiful as San Marco or the Rialto.

It is as though the people exist only through your will and imagination – they disappear at the whim of your mind. That is why it is best to come to Venice on your own. Travelling alone, you lose only strangers. Come with one you love, and you could lose her forever in the shifting streets if you close your eyes, become distracted by music playing, or forget for an instant what it as you loved about them.

Leave a comment

Filed under Travel, Writing

Venice and Stories

I am deafened by stories in Venice.

At each opening window, fragments of an opening dialogue can be heard (even by those like me who speak no Italian). A father lectures a flirtatious daughter who will inevitably disobey him. An old widow is lost in memory, and tells her guest (a reluctantly dutiful nephew, perhaps) a story of when she was young and beautiful. Or a moustachioed officer with the touch of grey at his temples discusses a duel he fought with the son of the man he killed.

Just around the corner of each deserted alleyway is a crucial character who must be followed – a girl with long flowing hair in a backless top, an old merchant who cheated me from my fortune many years before, the friend I left for dead long ago on a distant battlefield. Everytime I sit down, the view in front of me becomes the first few pages of a novel, the first thousand words of a short story.

But there are no endings to be found here. Venice is a city where stories begin and do not end.

1 Comment

Filed under Travel, Writing

Venice and the Thieves’ Magician

Once, long ago, Venice was plagued by a gang of thieves who had in their employ a magician. Each night he would wander the city, scattering his spells into every alleyway and backstreet.

He charmed these streets to draw in passersby, irresistibly drawn in by the siren song of cracked plaster and overflowing drains. These curious travellers would be met by the thieves, their throats and purses opened by quick razors and gold rings cut from their fingers, their corpses discarded in some quiet canal.

Today, the thieves are gone. The carabinieri hunted them down years ago, the last one a senile old man bedecked in gold and jewellery from his glory days, but insensible to the world. However, the spells still remain in place, despite numerous expensive efforts by the Venetian government to exorcise them. (Indeed, two mayors have lost their jobs after very public failures to counteract the magic.)

So, when people wander through the city today, they find their feet rotating to point down battered, silent alleys, their legs conspiring to propel them to their doom. Travellers are compelled to wander the backstreets of Venice forever, waiting for an end that will not come.

Leave a comment

Filed under Travel, Writing

Venice and the Cats

Cats are the forgotten princes of Venice. The skulk in the shadows and sidestreets, licking up rainwater from discarded plastic tubs and empty trays of food.

They were deposed many years before, and now scrape a living as beggars and pigeon hunters. Each one dreams as he dozes during the day (for they stay awake all night to have the city for themselves) of the time when they will rise again, storm the Basilica and take back their city, driving the tourists and the Venetians alike to drown in the canals.

Their numbers have dwindled, yet they have the advantage. Over the roofs, through the streets, under the canals, there is no passage through the city that they do not know. Only they know the hidden paths of Venice.

Leave a comment

Filed under Travel, Writing