Last month, I posted a write-up by my friend and colleague Janet Potter about her adventures as a bookseller in Dublin, where she recently completed a degree in journalism. Janet has since been working at Atlantis Books on an island in Greece, where, as you’ll see, she’s having a really, REALLY rough time of it. (Lucky sot.)
One of the staples of a bookstore interview is when the manager says, “Now you know, working at bookstores is not just talking about Steinbeck and reading at the register, it’s actually a lot of work, some of it taxing.”
This scene is then mirrored every time you tell someone you work at a bookstore and they go glassy-eyed and say “oh cooool, I’ve always wanted to work at a bookstore,” and you get uppity and reply, “now you know, working at bookstores is not just talking about Steinbeck…” et cetera, et cetera.
Nevertheless, the fantasy remains that when you work at a bookstore you get to read all the books, sell nothing but your favorites, and spend most of the time chatting with your quirky coworkers (thanks for that, You’ve Got Mail). But we all know the reality is more along the lines of restocking the SAT test prep section and being expected to know all of James Patterson’s titles in order of publication; the ideal doesn’t exist.
Well, actually, after seven years of bookselling at five different stores – I found it. It’s called Atlantis Books, and it’s in a cave house on the island of Santorini in Greece. I’ve been working here for a month.
Many of you will be familiar with Shakespeare & Company – the legendary bookshop on the Seine in Paris. Atlantis Books was started in 2004 by a group of young people who had worked at or been involved with Shakespeare & Company, and runs on the same basic principles. The shop is staffed by an endless parade of volunteers who come to Santorini – for anything from a few weeks to the whole season – and live and work in the shop.
It’s all exactly as charming as it sounds, and after a month it still hasn’t quite worn off. One of us manages to get out of bed and open the shop by 10 or 11 in the morning, and all day we take turns sitting at the desk (reading, always reading), making each other coffee, going to the beach, and giving out restaurant recommendations. Every once in a while someone goes to the bakery and gets spinach and feta pie for everyone, and in the evening we cook together, transform the cookery display table (appropriately) into a dinner table and have a dinner party in the Greek fiction section. If customers happen to wander in while we’re eating, we usually offer them a glass of wine and get them to buy Zorba the Greek. Then we close up whenever a majority of us want to go to bed.
Needless to say, most people fall in love with us the moment they walk in the door. Santorini is pretty built up for tourism, so when – after an afternoon of perusing endless snow globe vendors and paying $10 for coffee – they walk into the shop and find someone who not only speaks English but would like nothing more than to discuss the career arc of Michael Chabon, they’re delighted.
On the other hand, sometimes you just don’t feel like being the offbeat part of someone’s vacation memories. After a while, when somebody walks in and says, “this store is so great,” you just grunt and go back to your book. No matter how much you love bookselling – and everybody who is willing to live in a bookshop is pretty sure of their feelings on the subject – your 14th straight hour of customer interactions starts to drag. In the past month I’ve shouted a book recommendation from my bed, been asked about the plot of a Fitzgerald novel upon leaving the shower, and been told – by a browsing customer – that they thought my lunch was burning.
I don’t know if it would be more descriptive for me to tell you to imagine that you slept in your store’s fiction section, or that your bedroom included a staff favorites shelf. Either way, it’s an encompassing lifestyle.
And there’s something both fascinating and completely liberating about zero percent customer retention. Every day we meet people from all over the world, talk to them about our favorite books, and usually sell them a few. However, unless they return next summer, they will probably never shop here again. We will never know if they liked our recommendations, and there’s no chance if they don’t – or they think we’re rude – they’ll take their business to the chain store down the street (the only thing down the street is a big cliff that will drop you into the Aegean). Handselling is so much more fun when it’s an end in itself. If you come in looking for The Kite Runner and find out we’re sold out (which we are, we only order books once a season) – we might just recommend that you buy Factotum instead, because what the hey – we’re the hipster bookstore in Greece and we think you could use some excitement.
[For this reason, among others, Steinbeck, Salinger, and Carver are our top sellers every year. Whether to impress us or to buy something appropriate to the atmosphere, mid-20th century American fiction is our frontlist.]
If nothing else, we enj
the fact that once our customers get back home and someone notes the presence of Bukowski on their shelf next to Picoult, Pamuk, and Marquez, they can say, “oh yeah, I got that at this crazy bookstore in Greece.”
My Grecian bookselling experience will be over in less than a week and I’ll be moving to Chicago**, and while I won’t miss telling the shop’s history and answering “How did you end up here?” 80 times a day, I will greatly miss having lived the elusive bookstore dream for a spell.
If you ever wind up on Santorini (which I recommend), and visit the shop (which I highly recommend), please – I beg you – don’t ask the person behind the counter if you can take their picture.
**Alison here: If you happen to work for a Chicago-area bookstore that’s looking for holiday help or year-round booksellers, contact Janet. She comes HIGHLY recommended (not just by me!), and she is currently looking for work. Her e-mail address is Janet DOT Potter AT Gmail DOT com.