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Friday
Mar292019

Barefoot Bookseller in Paradise

The bookshop itself, much like our little sandbank, is something of an apparition. Curved and clean, the shop is built on stilts above the sand, circled by heavy green and growing bush. It's a moment's walk from the beach. Its shelves are made from wood found on the island, its lights hang on sanded branches, and its ceiling is dotted with glowing stars. To see it is to doubt yourself. It's the book lover's haven, nestled away in everyone else's.

That's from a blog post by Aimée Johnston, the second person to take on the enviable position of Barefoot Bookseller at what was initially advertised last summer as "possibly the world's most remote bookshop, based in the luxury eco resort of Soneva Fushi in the Maldives." The ephemeral career lasts just three months, and then a new BB takes over. Johnston's turn at the luxury helm began March 1.

You may recall that when Philip Blackwell, CEO of Ultimate Library, announced the initiative in August 2018, he noted that "the pay is derisory but the fringe benefits unparalleled." The reaction internationally was immediate and enthusiastic, with thousands of inquiries pouring in.

Johnston made the cut. She has taken a three month leave from what she describes as her other "dream job" in Penguin Random House Ireland's publicity department.

"After four flights, two bus rides and a rather stressful late-night journey in a speedboat, I arrive on the island," she wrote in the Irish Times. "At the jetty I'm kindly asked to remove my shoes. It seems they were very serious about the being barefoot. I take them off, feel the sand beneath my feet, and let them lead me wherever it is I'm going next. I haven't seen shoes since. "

The Barefoot Bookshop "has quickly become something of a literary haven in Soneva Fushi," Johnston observed, adding that resort guests "come to peruse the shelves and then stay for hours. They tell me about their favorite writers, the best book they have ever read. Sometimes they take to the day bed that hugs the curved walls of the building, and there they read the afternoon away, lying underneath the lamps that hang from branches, and the stars that slowly fade in and out of being on our ceiling. Often guests will visit again and again."

What is her day like? "My day starts in the staff canteen where Anan, our resident host chef, makes the most amazing omelets. Honestly, they're incredible and so worth waking up early for," she told Image. "After that I'm in the bookshop, talking to guests, recommending books. There is nothing better than taking time with a reader, establishing their reading tastes and finding just the right book for them. I love knowing someone is leaving the shop with a book that they'll love. My day also includes the slightly more practical tasks of restocking shelves, unpacking boxes and then breaking them down. You can't escape those jobs, even in paradise!

"At lunchtime--and you're going to hate me for this, but my lunch time is three hours long--I go to the beach and swim. There are these hammocks hidden just a little way into the jungle and I'll lie there and read the afternoon away. Then it's back to the bookshop for the evening!"

In addition to her bookselling responsibilities, Johnston maintains the Barefoot Bookseller blog, as well as Twitter and Instagram accounts.

"When the bookshop has a breath, I can snatch some deliciously sedentary moments," she posted on the blog. "I'd like to think I use these moments wisely, that I do what any bookseller in any corner of the world would forgive me for. I avoid the mountain of boxes that need broken down in the store cupboard, and I read a book, as many pages as time will allow. I find myself inexhaustibly delighted with our titles. I peruse the shelves with the same pleasure of a new visitor, each and every time. I am far from home, and further from my habits. In this new pace, my reading horizons inch outward on either side. I reach for books I never would have before."

Yesterday morning I noticed this tweet: "Friends! It's just after 5 p.m. in sunny Soneva and I've opened the bookshop for the evening. I'm re-reading Normal People by Sally Rooney and, for reasons unknown even to myself, I'm listening to the Pina Colada song for the fourth time. If you, er, happen to be in the area, stop by!"

Winter in my part of the world is releasing its seasonal grip--if more in an "objects in the mirror are closer than they appear" than Spring is blooming everywhere manner--but the unseasonably cool temps and still impressive snowbank in my driveway are reasons enough to imagine alternatives.

Barefoot Bookseller? As Liz Lemon (Tina Fey) so eloquently put it, "I want to go to there."

--Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #3462

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