CULTURE

Compendium goes coastal

If brevity be the soul of wit, then bookseller Rick Schulein is its very incarnation. A man of deeds not words – unless they’re written, of course – he set his mark on the Athens bookstore scene in 1987 when he took over Compendium Bookstore on Nikis Street, in Syntagma, long a landmark for English language book-lovers. Distracting him from his work long enough to get him talking about it isn’t easy, but Kathimerini English Edition managed to corner him briefly at the grand opening party of Compendium’s new outlet in Glyfada on Saturday evening, where local book-lovers turned out to help him celebrate. Centrally located among Glyfada’s bars, tavernas and fast-food palaces, the new branch is a cheerful outlet on two levels, offering a selection in microcosm of the parent store’s stock, with the entire upper level dedicated to children’s books, videos and CDs. A natural step How did the idea of the new branch in Glyfada come about? I live in the area and for years people I know, and strangers as well, have been asking me to open a branch there. We have many customers in the area and it seemed a natural step. How does the Glyfada branch differ from the Syntagma branch? Do you find you have to cater to different tastes? The answer to the second question is: absolutely. The Glyfada branch differs in that it is more compact, with the exception of the children’s section. At the beginning, it mirrors each of the sections in the main store; any changes will be within the sections. At the main branch, for instance, we have to have a mix of serious, light, crime and fantasy fiction. That may change in Glyfada. The children’s section takes up the whole second floor of the new branch. Do you plan to organize special activities for children and, if so, what will they be? Absolutely. Activities will include children’s story hour, author visits, arts and crafts sessions, book fairs and other events. Will you have poetry readings at the new branch, as you do downtown? Yes, and we are currently looking for «southern» poets. We are also available to reading groups who need a place to meet. There is stiff competition in the field, especially from bookstore chains. What can small independent bookshops offer to attract and keep customers? The independent offers personal and efficient service, a connection to the neighborhood and, in our case, the stock of the downtown shop is at the disposal of the neighborhood customer. Is it fun to start out from scratch in a new place? It’s always fun to start from a blank slate. Of course it’s a lot of work; it takes away from the other work I do. We can’t take anything for granted. All kinds of fixtures and fittings and other details have to be organized before we can even start on stock. It takes a lot of time and effort. It’s interesting, but it’s very hard work. The conversation continued at the Syntagma branch, which was started in the early 1980s. A general bookstore which carries a wide range of books in English, it also has a strong English language teaching section, and a strong collection of books of all aspects of Greece. A secondhand book sale and exchange section adds to the casual feel of the store. When Schulein took over as manager and part-owner, he had a background in publishing and academic studies that included English literature. What did you change about the store when you took over? I changed the style, but I didn’t really change the mix, the stock. Before I bought it, I was a customer here; it suited me; I liked it as a shop. The atmosphere was relaxed; you could browse. I insisted it remain a place for the foreign customer, who has a different mentality. Rather than going into a store and asking about something they already know about, or being faced by a sales assistant who doesn’t want to leave them alone or who insists on helping, a foreigner doesn’t want to be helped in a bookshop. They want to find something in his or her own way. Browsing And now that I’ve been doing this for so many years, my Greek customers feel the same. Once my Greek clientele got used to browsing, they liked it. That has to do something with the fact that the Greek clientele has mostly spent time abroad. You said you changed the style. I put my own stamp on it. I put a huge emphasis on service. I tell all of my staff that as far as schoolbooks are concerned, we have the same books as all the other stores, and we have the same prices, so we have to be different by giving the best service possible. The previous owners had a newsletter, and they were the first to do things by computer; they had a computerized mailing list. Cultural events But I started cultural events, poetry readings, children’s story hours. I see you you’ve got a secondhand book section in the new branch too. Does it work? It works for those who use it. It’s on a money basis, but the deal is that if people bring in three books, they take out one; if the books they bring in come from Compendium and have the store’s stamp on them, they bring back two and get one. Other booksellers say: «How can you even touch secondhand books?» I’ve never hesitated about keeping that going.