Small Business Month: Globally-Recognized Bookshop Relies On More Than Its Books To Profit

Small Business Month: Globally-Recognized Bookshop Relies On More Than Its Books To Profit

Leadership | Posted by YouInc.com - October 2, 2018 at 12:30 am
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American Craig Walzer was 21-years-old when he traveled to Santorini in 2002 for vacation. When he ran out of books to read and couldn’t find a single shop on the island, he left with an idea to start a bookshop. Walzer, now 37, stills lives on the island and manages the bookshop he started with a group of friends, Atlantis Books—the shop is among the top 10 bookstores by National Geographic. As Walzer tells me on a recent phone call, “I’m probably a terrible example for anyone doing this.”  

While he’s quick to diminish 16 years of business in a single thought, for all the ideas that people have and don’t follow through on, Walzer’s story is quite intriguing and one of immense willpower and perseverance: his shop is on the cliff of a volcanic caldera, in a country that’s only recently come out of bankruptcy, in a remote location where moving books isn’t easy. Atlantis Books only turned a profit about five years ago, after a decade in business. 

Walzer recalls his first pitch presentation at Harvard Business School. He was in his senior year of college at Brown University. He walked into the room with an idea, wearing sandals with trousers and a button-down shirt. “That’s me,” said Walzer, which as I discovered after visiting his shop on a sweltering day this past August, is still his mainstay outfit. 

We didn’t have an 18-year plan, other than let’s just survive for 18 years. 

While everyone else pitched for millions in venture capital, Walzer put up a few photographs and said, “So, I’m Craig. I went to this island for a couple of years. I’ve got some friends, and we’re young and we have nothing else to do. We think we can do this for $50,000: I’ve got a couple of jobs lined up, so I think I can get to $35,000 this summer. So, if anyone has $15,000 they can loan for a couple of years….we’re going to bring books to the best place in the world to read; it’s going to be nice and quiet.” “Everyone started laughing hysterically. It’s a good dose of comic relief and don’t try this at home,” said Walzer. 

People come up with ideas every day, but those who push through tough days, months, and years, have a story to tell. Walzer shares with YouInc the daily goings of the shop and how he’s survived 16 years of business: 

YouInc: Did you ever think you’d make it this far?

Craig Walzer: No, in the sense that we never thought that much period. We were really not thinking much more than, “can we get through the first season and then see what happens?” There was always the joke: we have to hold out for 18 years, so someone can have a kid and legally take it over. We didn’t have an 18-year plan, other than let’s just survive for 18 years. 

We had no idea what we were doing. It was low stakes; we were young and privileged to have the opportunity to even try something like this. It’s a bit of freedom—we did it on the super cheap, and we were able to amass a bit of savings. I lived with my folks for a while, worked three jobs, and put together a pittance enough to get us here and start the show. 

YI: What’s kept you going?

CW: Well, it’s been fun. It turns out that we kind of like what we’re doing: we thought something was there and people believed in us—members of the community, our friends and family, and the customers who have come into the shop are encouraging. 

Then at some point it became, “okay, we’ve come this far. Books are heavy, so it would be a pain in the ass, if we had to schlepp them away, because we had to close or move; we might as well stick it out.” 

Let’s see how far we can take this: can we be as awesome as we think, when we’re in a good mood and feeling optimistic?

It’s been a series of up-against-the-wall events that we’ve managed to wheedle our way out of every time. At some point, you've been doing it so long, and you’ve got this story, and you’ve got people that you know support you; it would be sad to lose the space that represents all of this history. 

Given it was kind of a joke, with a bunch of kids in their early 20s, with no experience, and no idea what we were doing, and by the grace of God, we made a million mistakes and still managed to survive. Now that we’ve come this far, it’s like, “let’s see how far we can take this: can we be as awesome as we think, when we’re in a good mood and feeling optimistic?” 

YI: How did you decide which books to start with? 

CW: I took a van over from Britain, with a couple of boxes of books in the trunk that we got from state sales and library sales in England. When we got here we knew we were going to need some new book distributors, so we went to Athens and spoke to a distribution agency that mostly sold to newspaper and airport kiosks. There was a warehouse full of Danielle Steel paperbacks and celebrity magazines, and we tried to pull out the few copies of whatever was worth salvaging. 

We had no idea how to organize. We had no credit rating. We had to build up our credit rating over years. It was really, “what can we put together on short notice with a few boxes and sweet talking? We kept it small, because we didn’t want to bring in any crap books.

It was almost a decade before we could buy books and before we had to worry about affording them. It was only not so long ago, that we could buy books on credit in advance, and not have to worry about how we’re going to be able to pay for them. Once we hit that critical mass, then it flowed much easier. Then you know you can get whatever you want; you have the liquidity and the space to move and be creative and not hum and haw over every title. That’s been recent. To this day, I still have huge issues ordering books from Italy or France. It’s been finance and logistics and know how. I don’t know if it’s the industry or us; it was a slow learning curve. 

YI: At some point you started creating your own merchandise in order to turn a profit. 

CW: Yeah. We needed to do some things that were creative and different, because we weren’t doing so well; things were getting tight. We wanted to give people a piece of us, so many of the books we have here are conventional, large publishing-house paperbacks, that you can get cheaper on Amazon. Everyone knows it. We can’t compete with it. 

We are here. We are making our own thing. We are in some ways, slightly more than just a vending machine

One of the things that would frustrate us is that people would say they’d love to buy something from us—they have no problem buying a bracelet down the road for $250 euros, but a nine-year-old paperback was an issue; they couldn’t afford the space in their suitcases because of luggage restrictions. That’s when we said, “okay fine. We’re going to make books that take zero space in your suitcase, which means we’re going to take little short stories, essays, and poems that we like and format them in a way that fits in an envelope; you can write a little letter on the first page and mail if off from here.” 

We made it. You’re not going to find it on Amazon, and the one thing that is incorruptible about that is it can’t be replicated by a Kindle or replicated by a delivery service.

YI: How much of this service has contributed to your bottom line? 

CW: There were times, when it was a significant amount of our sales. It’s less significant now, but the important thing to qualify is its externality—it gives us a presence: a brand identity. It gives people an immediate idea that we are bespoke. We are here. We are making our own thing. We are in some ways, slightly more than just a vending machine. That’s a tough thing to  quantify with just sales; it goes to the overall experience that people get when they come here.

YI: How did you decide to carry first editions? 

CW: We bought a bunch of books from a guy in England. He was selling second-hand paperbacks and hardcovers, and some really random stuff came through. 

We trusted him on what  he’d send: hits and misses. It was W.B. Yeats or the Collected Works of W.B. Yeats...a book from 1930 that was in good condition. We looked online and copies were selling for 50 euros. We were like, “we’ve never sold anything above €50. Let’s package this nicely and put it on display and sell it for €100.” It sold. 

People seek us, because they’re avid readers. Lucky for us, it’s become some kind of destination, or an institution, or at least an attraction.

People were totally into it. It keeps us busy because it’s a whole new game. We did some cool shit. We’re excited about it and then other people  got excited about it. On a day when someone wants to take one home, it turns a good day of business into an excellent day of business. It was really kind of a coincidence, then we seized it. I'll try anything once.

YI: Do you have a business model that hums along? 

CW: We know how to make money. We know how to make enough money for what we want right now. We know this is extremely tenuous, because we don’t have any security in the building. We should've been priced out of this street long ago. We’re foreigners in a country that’s famously idiosyncractic in its bureaucracy and its business dealings. Plus, we’re on the cliffside of a volcanic island, so security isn’t really what you’re going for here.
 
YI: Who are your customers?

CW: Let’s be honest: it’s largely wealthy people. If you’re here on holiday, chances are you have means of some amount. There’s a small percentage that we sell to locals—we order for them and give them a special price. But that’s a very small part of our business, because we’re in a tourist neck. 

Our customers are not the customers of a conventional community bookshop or an urban book shop, where people come through consistently. Most customers we see, we’ll see once, and never see again. Most customers cover a huge diversity of languages and huge diversity of reading experience. People seek us, because they’re avid readers, and they’ve heard about this place. Lucky for us, it’s become some kind of destination, or an institution, or at least an attraction.

YI: Books should be accessible to everyone, regardless of wealth.

CW: Yes. I’m totally in agreement. I’m not saying we only cater to the elites. We want to have something for everyone who comes in. We're just as dedicated to the children of the folks, who are working here in the shops, the hotels, and the kitchens.

I’m invested in this. You grow into it and it becomes you, and here I am. 

Everyone who lives and works in this shop could not afford to take a vacation in Santorini in July or August. That’s the irony of it: We’re here. I'm here alone. The only reason I’m able to be here is because I’m busting my ass. Everyone else has been busting their ass the rest of the years, so they can [be here and not bust their ass].. It’s a weird dynamic.

There’s no reason we should be on this street. You look to our left, it’s a jewelry store.  You look to our right; it’s a restaurant and a jewelry store, then a jewelry store, then a jewelry store, then a mini market, then a restaurant, then a gold store, and then a painting store. I’m not exaggerating. We don’t fit here. It’s great for us because we commercially have people who will spend money; on the other hand, it’s very unnatural. 

YI: In a Vanity Fair magazine interview, you said people have come in and asked for Fifty Shades of Grey. 

CW: Not anymore. Every year, there’s a book that everyone has to have. That was 2012 and happened to be 50 Shades of Grey. We were like, “Ugh, seriously not going to start carrying that.” 

We thought: it can be done better. If you're reading 50 Shades of Grey, it means you want something that’s a bit juicy, seductive and indulgent—you can feel comfortable for the first time reading a book like that and not feel ashamed of it, even though it acknowledges the existence of dirty sex. But, it can be done dirtier. 

So, we made a shelf of sexy books: Anaïs Nin, Georges Vitaly, The Sexual Life of Katherine M., James Salter, even Colette—stuff that we thought would be good and raunchy, rather than, “I read a couple of pages of 50 Shades of Grey. Some people ask us for the book and we say “no,” and they walk out. That’s fine. They can find it at the kiosk at the bus station. That’s our style. 

YI: I’ve read that you’ve always wanted to pursue work that helps people. But, you’ve felt you’re not helping people through a bookshop. Do you still feel that way? 

CW: I don’t know. Sometimes yes. I know I’m helping some people...I’m less concerned about thinking about it and having an opinion, then doing what I’m doing. I don’t mean to be aloof—if I start thinking about it too much, it goes to dark places, and it’s not particularly useful. 

It’s where a passion is, that’s for sure. You’re always wondering if it's a self-fulfilling prophecy. The deeper I get into this, the more invested I am. In some ways what a business person or an economist would say is a sunk cost, and I’d like to put a emphatic turn on it and say I’m invested in this. You grow into it and it becomes you, and here I am. 

YI: How have you all survived as friends and founders?

CW: How many hours do you have? [laughs]

Oliver (co-founder) met a girl and was home after the first year. People went their own ways and had different experiences with the shop over time. The natural course of life took care of most of that and gave us some space. We were really in the crucible at the beginning—we were young, we had time, we had energy, we had patience; we didn’t care if we smelled like goats and we were living in a place without an oven or without running water, because we were happy to have this adventure. 

We are family. We had this moment. We still have this moment.

If we were all six of us living in these conditions, it’d be some serious Lord of the Flies shit. Now, in some ways that part of it works: the folks, the originals, are able to come and go as they please. They have family members who come in and say, “oh, my cousin is one of the founders,” and they can be proud.

Once you’ve worked with a friend, it’s going to change everything. But, we went into it, and we have this physical monument, and if nothing else, it’s a nice manifestation. We are this group of people. We are family. We had this moment. We still have this moment. That’s kind of cool. Even if it sounds awfully self-glorifying, I like these people, so i’m going to testify to them.

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Kristen Marano

Kristen Marano covers women and their work for publications around the world. She has interviewed some of the most influential business leaders in Canada and the most passionate change makers in towns and cities as isolated as Perth, Western Australia. Most recently she interviewed Canadian businesswoman Zita Cobb about reinvigorating the economy in Newfoundland through the arts. Kristen's work encourages women to share honest and open perspectives about the emotional challenges of their journeys.

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