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Craig Walzer owns the only bookstore in Santorini
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Craig Walzer owns the only bookstore in Santorini
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Craig Walzer owns the only bookstore in Santorini
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As my friend Chris likes to say, 'the headline for the book review should be "Local Jew steals other people's stories"
Conversations
1 October 2008

Craig Walzer owns the only bookstore in Santorini

Interview by Kate Bezar
Photography by Will Brady

Kate Bezar on Craig Walzer

Craig Walzer is one of the founders of Atlantis Books, a bookstore on the island of Santorini, Greece, which has been named one of the best in the world (by people who know these things). We all have outlandish ideas sometimes, but not many of us follow through on them. Craig and his friends did.

Their idea was to create a bookshop that would provide them with a reason to get together, and a bed for when they did. Craig, originally from America, has also lived, worked and studied in Paris, England and Africa. In Africa he spent time in a legal clinic in Cairo working with refugees and, most recently, was engaged by Dave Eggers at McSweeneys Publishing to collate the stories of the people of Sudan into a book titled ‘Out of Exile.

This story originally ran in issue #19 of Dumbo Feather

Discussed in this Story

KATE BEZAR: So what are you doing back in Greece?

CRAIG WALZER: I’m running the bookstore for the month. I’m just here for a little while checking in and signing some paperwork so everything’s in order.

Have you been back many times since the initial stint opening it in 2002?

I come back often enough, once or twice a year, generally in the late autumn or the winter. The winters are nicest here, when the humidity has risen off the sea and you can see all the way to Crete on a clear day. This is actually the first time I’ve been here in high summer since our first season.

What took you to Greece in the first place? Were you just on holiday?

Yeah, I was with a friend of mine, Oliver. We were studying in Oxford for the year and they have this term system where you basically have eight weeks on and six weeks off. I think his mother’s co-worker’s mother-in-law or something had an apartment and house in Athens and said could we go use it for a couple of weeks for study. We decided to come down to see the islands for a few days in the midst of it and the first ferry out was to Santorini, so we figured we’d come here. And when we did there was no bookstore.

This story originally ran in issue #19 of Dumbo Feather

This story originally ran in issue #19 of Dumbo Feather

When did you hatch the plan to open the bookstore?

One of those nights when we were pretty drunk, actually. We were walking back home at the end of the night, and I looked over at Oliver and I said, “We should open a bookstore.” Oliver looked at me and said, “Atlantis Books”, and we said, “Excellent!” Then in the morning I was like, “So we’re opening a bookstore, right?” and Oliver was like, “We’re sober now.” I was like “No, no, no, no, we’re gonna do this; it’s gonna be great.” So when we got back to Athens we went into the American embassy and asked the people from the commerce bureau, “How do you open a business in Greece?”, and that was the beginning of it. That was the spring of 2002.

Were they encouraging or did they say, “Look, it’s going to be pretty tough”?

They were totally encouraging and totally inaccurate. Four and a half years later we eventually finished the paperwork so we’re legally running the place. It was pretty brutal; it was a real search through a lot of bureaucracy to make it work, especially because of the way we run it. It’s a group of us and we want different people to be able to have administrative powers at different times. It’s also American citizens and EU citizens together … We certainly didn’t make it easy on ourselves. It was a little bit like living in one of those computer-simulated video games. You remember that old game ‘Myst’ that they had years and years ago that you just had to pop up and sort-of look around, pull the levers and see what worked and what didn’t? Well it was four and a half years of that.

Where did your vision for the bookstore come from?

Well, it never really crystallised in advance to be honest. I mean we knew that we wanted to do something that was a home and a shop together. Some of us knew each other from Paris where of course there’s this famous bookstore called Shakespeare & Company that we had known. What we took from there was the idea that people can live and work in a bookstore together; it’s a conducive atmosphere for something like that.

The basic idea was to create some sort of vortex

so that friends of mine from different stints in different cities around the world would have a place to come to, to visit. That way, people that I would just never see otherwise would have a reason to come, and hang out, and do something together again. In terms of what the shop would look like, or what we would do with it … At the beginning we felt that we’d do everything that we could and wait for people to tell us “no” or wait for people to shut us down. That was as far as we got to a master plan.

So it was more a focus-point for a community of friends and potential friends than a money-making venture?

It was never … I mean, book-selling has got to be the least profitable enterprise out there right now, aside from …

… Writing the books?

We just wanted it to be self-sustaining, literally, and that’s essentially what it is. None of us take any profit from it; we just put the money back into the shop and it’s enough to keep it going and to serve the occasional meal and buy a bottle of wine.

So the folk who run it now are just people from around the world who’ve put their hand up and said, “Hey, my turn.” Is that how it works?

Yeah, it’s mostly old friends, but now that this is our fifth year we’ve gotten siblings involved. It’s people that we know, people that we meet, people that we trust. We’ve had brothers and sisters and cousins, old college roommates, kindergarten classmates, and anything like that really. At this point it still kind of works. Those of us who started it up come back here when we can, when we want to, but we’re all kind of, well some more than others, doing adult things.

Have you met some great people through it?

Sure, absolutely, that’s one of the best parts. Some of the folk who are now the most vital parts of our team are guys and girls we met when they just happened to walk in and looked around and said, “This is pretty cool. Could I come back and help out some time?” A lot of old friendships have been rekindled through this thing and every day there is always good conversation to be had. It’s good fodder for conversation, a room full of books.

And Santorini is a pretty nice place to be doing it too. I was there in 2001 for two months and I would have loved your bookshop if it had been there.

How did you find out about us?

Through one of my readers who emailed and said, “Check this bookshop out. I’d love to know how they started it”. So often when you’re travelling, you’ve finished your book and would love something to replace it, but usually there are just no English bookshops around.

Yeah, well that’s sort of what we’re banking on. The one rule is, no bad books. We don’t carry shit books.

Have you always loved books?

Yeah, though I’m not a voracious reader. A couple of the guys here definitely pick up the slack on that. I like books and the environment definitely pushes me to read more. I have my couple of hundred books around the shop that I like to pull out and push onto customers. So, I got my sales pitch for Nabokov and John Steinbeck and Kapuscinski … The stock kind of changes depending on who’s around too. When Chris is around you’re gonna have a lot of Murakami going off the shelves and for the Australians in the audience, I can sell Peter Carey pretty well.

I imagine it’s the kind of environment where you’re constantly absorbing stuff from the books around you for inspiration. I can’t think of a better place to spend a couple of months to think about where to go next in your life.

Yeah, there are good walks, you go swimming in the sea,

it’s pretty rhythmic round here. No weekends or weekdays or anything

like that. You don’t really have to deal with clocks because the sun tells you what to do …

Have you become friendly with many locals?

We wouldn’t have been able to do this if it weren’t for the generosity of the people in the village. They really showed us what was what. When we built the shop we didn’t pay for materials, we didn’t pay for labour, we built it ourselves and learned carpentry and electrics on the fly … learned what an electric shock is on the fly. Not only did the people around here help us out by telling us which buildings would be nice places to rent, they also donated all the materials in the shop. Nikos, the photographer, let us borrow his sander, and every time our drill broke he would fix it for us … Other people donated old pieces of furniture, or told us which beaches to go to for driftwood, which junkyards for old doors and things to sand up and fix. Everything in the shop is recycled, is cleaned up from old used stuff. It’s easy here because the tourist industry has to have a new thing every year and just chucks out the old things. It’s like a big Hollywood set. In the first couple of years everyone was talking us up, which also got people in the doors. They’re still just great. Really, really lovely folks around here. They cook for us and take care of us and still call us ‘the kids’ around the town. Everybody knows ‘the kids’ are there and need to be nurtured. We gracefully accept it.

Do you class yourself as one of the kids who’s now doing adult things?

Well I was until May this year. I was in university studying Law and Government. I’m actually on leave from that right now and I’m not sure when I’m going back. So yeah, I was on the adult track there for about two and a half years.

Being fairly sensible.

Fairly sensible, my parents were very proud of it when they were at the golf club, it was something for them to brag about. I don’t know. I’m gonna sort some stuff out and go forth from here and see what happens.

Why have you taken indefinite leave from your studies?

Well, the work that I was doing was sort of more in human rights, civil rights, law and policy issues – which is what I’m interested in. I think the easiest way to say it is that arguing brings out the worst in me, and going down that path would potentially be a life of arguing. There are people out there, bless them for doing what they do, who are steadfast and determined and much harder-working and more intelligent than I am, and are able to get up every morning and bash their heads against that wall. That culture is not one that I thrive on. I realised that it would not be the best for me, for the people around me, or for the cause, if that was the way that I approached things.

Did you enjoy writing Out of Exile?

The book, yeah. ‘Writing’ is an overly generous word for what I did. I was just really collecting … As my friend Chris likes to say, “The headline for the book review should be ‘Local Jew Steals other People’s Stories’.” I was travelling around North East Africa interviewing Sudanese refugees and former slaves. I was basically sitting down with them with a recorder and putting a microphone in front of them and asking, “So where were you born?” We went through their whole lives from there. I lucked-out with the opportunity to do it and, in retrospect, now that all the building of the book is done, it was a really good experience. No question.

Was it something you were commissioned to do or did you just take it upon yourself to start collecting these stories?

At university I met Dave Eggers who’s a writer in San Francisco. He runs a publishing house called McSweeney’s and they have a division called the Voice of Witness Project. They’ve published volumes on exonerated prisoners in the United States, on people who’ve been wrongfully convicted of crimes, on people who were in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina and on undocumented workers in the United States. Out of Exile is the fourth book in the series. But yeah, when I met Dave just by chance I had been working in Sudan the summer before for a couple of months. He had been there and had just written this sort of fictional autobiography about one of the lost boys of Sudan, a child refugee who’d gone from Sudan to the States. We were talking and within 20 minutes he asked, “Do you want to edit this book?”

I reminded him that I am in no way qualified to do this and he said, “That’s okay.”

I was doing some clinical work during the day while I was there for a refugee law clinic in Cairo and then in Khartoum, and in the evenings and weekends I would be able to go out and find these folks to interview. I had some ins with the communities there so I could find people who were willing to talk and tell a good story.

How long did it take?

I guess I was in Egypt, Sudan, and Kenya for a total of about three months. I interviewed about 35 or 40 people but I think in the final book there are only 16 interviews.

If that wasn’t your first trip to Sudan, what took you there the first time?

It was sort of by chance. A friend of mine had a friend, a journalist, who was doing some research for a newspaper article and I did some background research for her. This piece was on Sudan and the ICC, the International Criminal Court. She said, “Hey, if you want to go to Sudan I know this nice guy who runs an NGO there.” So I said ok and we got in touch. It wasn’t some deeper, you know, drive, or anything like that. I just wanted and needed to get out, see something and get some experience so that I could be of use.

I’m sure most of your cohort at school were going to law firms in New York, were they not?

It was definitely swimming a little bit against the current. The current just slowly drifts you towards wood-panelled offices and blonde secretaries.

What pulled you against the current a little into that humanitarian work?

I don’t have a good answer for you on that one. It wasn’t like the first time I held a starving baby in my hands that I realised the value of human dignity or anything like that. I think, to be honest, as much as anything, it might have been process of elimination, of looking at the alternatives and saying, “That’s definitely not for me, and that’s definitely not for me.”

I grew up in an upper-middle class, suburban family in a house with TVs, lawns and bottled water, but there was always this pretty keen awareness that

I was lucky to be born into the most privileged sliver of humanity that has ever existed

So of course you’ve gotta make use of it. I don’t like syringes so I wasn’t going to be a doctor, and the move towards social justice just kinda kept going. I’m an excellent bullshitter – as you’re finding out right now – so all this came easily to me. I just kept going, and the next step opened up, and the next, and the next, and the next.

But, if you’re going the right way the doors will open up for you. But it does seem like you’ve had to make some choices along the way, and I think you’ve made some pretty interesting ones.

Well, they’ve all been pretty easy; fancy shmancy schools, cushy existences … Even coming here to Greece and to be able to go home and raise money for something like this without having to worry about … You know, you can only put something like this together if you’re given the safety net of privilege. Well, not only … I take that back, it’s not that you can only do it, but the reason that it wasn’t so difficult for me, or particularly audacious, was because there was no …The worst that was gonna happen was that I was gonna close up the shop here, and go home. I’d like to think that I’m kind of keenly aware of that or at least aware of it. That’s why you figure out a way to do your part without sucking up too much more of the resources around …

And without having to argue your way towards something …

Right, because then I just get nasty and frustrated and I’m not patient or graceful. There are patient, graceful people to do things like that, with a good work ethic who wake up early in the morning and jog and shower daily.

Ah, I don’t think you’re giving yourself enough credit.

If you could only smell me now.

[Laughing] I know you’ve been doing hand-washing, that’s very impressive.

I can do hand-washing, yeah, the question is, how successful is my hand-washing?

Practice makes perfect. So, given your experiences in Sudan and Egypt, are you drawn to go back? Is it the kind of place that gets under your skin?

I am interested to do more. I’m not sure how at this point. How I would be most useful, or of any use. Let’s be frank, you’re catching me at a moment where I am deliberately taking a long time to think about those sorts of questions and answer them. I’ve never really been in a place before where I can think about those things for more than a long afternoon at a time. I would be lying if I had an answer to that question right now.

I think it’s great that you’re giving yourself that time. Again, it’s a privilege to be able to do it, but it’s vital I think. We just seem to barrel on through without really sitting back and going: Am I enjoying this? Am I good at it? Is this the best use of the resources I’ve been given?

This is the first time in my life where I’ve not been tied to an institution. Even when I was here doing the bookstore deferring, I had Law School waiting for me. This is the first time ever where that’s not looming or cushioning me in any way, and so we’re gonna see how this goes, see what happens from here.

Is there one thing you’ve done that you think has shaped you the most as a person? What would it be?

No. I mean I would say I’m much more of a product of what I’ve been exposed to, of what’s been done for me, or to me rather than … There hasn’t been very much that I’ve taken huge initiative with.

Let me rephrase it then, what has happened to you or that you’ve been exposed to that you think has shaped you the most as a person?

On that front I think it’s the exposure that I’ve had to four different worlds; growing up in the suburban segregated provincial South, private schools and nuclear families and SUVs, fast food and all of that; I’ve also lived in the Ivy League, and in Europe, and I’ve spent some time in Africa. I think that combination and doing things that range from sitting in cushy ivory towers to sneaking into refugee camps, to hanging out with artists in squats in Paris and living out on an island in the middle of the Mediterranean, gives you four different wings … This is the sort of thing that I’m thinking about a lot these days. I’m trying to figure out where I stand in the midst of all of these fantastic, exotic and different places that have motivated me and affected me in different ways. I don’t know, I’m still kind of waiting … I feel it’s about time that I do something super-assertive that’s not so easy. Something that’s a little bit more ‘me’.

Yeah, I see, although I don’t think that everything has to be hard. You know, just because it’s all felt like it’s flowed quite naturally isn’t necessarily a bad thing, it just means that the world’s working with you to help you do what you’ve done.

Well again, it’s this privilege thing. I’ve just had so much that’s been offered to me. You know, I’ve just had the chance to say, “Well, that looks good, let’s try that,” and “That, that looks good, let’s try that,” and on and on and on.

But you know, there are a lot of people of privilege who don’t use those opportunities.

Sure.

So we have choices to make, and most of us in the Western world are bloody lucky. Whether it’s ‘Ivy League’, or just having a roof over our heads. The question is how you use that opportunity. You know, to live a ‘good’ life you don’t necessarily have to go to Sudan and sneak into refugee camps, but you can do your own bit. Was it scary sneaking into a refugee camp?

No, no. They don’t hurt white people, they only hurt black people.

Right, so you were never worried about your position or anything like that?

No, I wasn’t taken hostage or anything like that. They just … I mean, maybe I only say that because I just didn’t know any better, but it was never a real problem. These camps are huge, they’re cities, and it’s about as difficult to sneak into somewhere like that as it is to sneak into the city of New York. It’s not so bad. There’s one in North Kenya that’s been there for about 26 years I guess, and there are more than 100,000 people there.

I wonder at what point, if any, it becomes not a refugee camp but a settlement in its own right. I guess as long as people want to go home, it’s always a refugee camp.

Well, it’s all dependent on humanitarian aid, that’s the thing. Yes, you can walk down paths where there are markets set up, and there are even enterprising folk who have set up bars where you can watch CNN on satellite television, they have gardens, and plants and taxi services and cell phone chargers and things like that too. But, it’s all dependent on the humanitarian industry to prop it up. It’s warehousing; it’s not sustainable living in any way.

Did it feel hopeless to you?

The world they’re in is so far removed from anything that I have ever experienced, or would even have a way to comprehend, that I tend to reserve judgement and my opinion when it comes to words like ‘hope’. I think all of those words are hopelessly inadequate. It’s almost demeaning. I’m very hesitant to say, “Look at the poor suffering Africans, but see how noble they are with their hope and their faith and all of that.” It’s like, yes, they want to get out, and they want to do something better. If you look at the facts on the ground and how fucked up the situation is there, there’s no reason to be particularly hopeful. I mean, yeah, some people do amazingly; they do it with grace and a smile, and they keep plugging away, and they try, and they work … Then some folks just are kind of swimming, just flailing and going through every day as every other day, and they don’t have a plan on how to get out, and they’re intelligent, they would do it if they could, but there’s no … They can’t go back to Sudan and here’s no way that the United States, or Australia, or the EU is gonna accept them as refugees, and there’s nothing for them in Cairo, and so they’re gonna keep going and just gonna keep doing what they’re doing. So, they have daily lives, and they tell stories, and they joke, and they go out for drinks, but I don’t know how to define hope with something like that.

No. How did you find it interviewing them for the book? Was it hard without having that frame of reference and being able to truly relate?

Well, like I said, I’d never done anything like this before, but it was probably a good thing that I’d never done anything like this before because I had no expectations going in on what it should look like or how it was supposed to look. Luckily I had worked there before and so I spoke a bit of pigeon Arabic and I knew the cultural references. The people I was speaking to were very happy to know somebody who had been to Khartoum. I could talk about their neighbourhoods and stuff like that with them. That’s kind of nice for them to see a white kid who’s there and who knows where they’re coming from, at least on that level. I also had my contacts from previous years who introduced me to the folks so they were like, “This guy’s with us, he’s cool,” and then they were willing to talk for the most part. For the interviews themselves, I needed to get the facts and the facts in most cases are harrowing enough. I’d just let people talk. Most people have never been asked, or if they have ever been asked these stories before, it would have been in a 20-minute interview with a United Nations staffer whose first option is to find a way to reject this person from care. To understand what is really going on you need seven or eight hours, and cups of tea, and bars of chocolate, to get through. Everyone that I spoke to made it much easier for me. I didn’t have to do anything except sit there and ask questions, and I was interested. I’m just fascinated with stories, I’m not easily emotionally shocked or … I’d read about all this stuff before, seen it all before. It’s how the other half live. The big realisation is that this makes perfect sense. The reason we are able to live as we live is because this is happening.

It’s like finally looking under the hood of the shiny Ferrari and seeing the grimy parts of the engine and saying, Aha!

In a sick way, it was almost affirming to me; like I knew that there was something else going on, and there it was. Telling their stories was the least I could do. Literally, the least I could do.

Kate Bezar

Kate Bezar started Dumbo Feather—and is a living legend, simple as that. Read all about her and the kernel of an idea that became a magazine.

Photography by Will Brady

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