Back in 2018, an advert for what seemed like the perfect job for book lovers went viral after Sonu Shivdasani, founder of Soneva luxury holiday resorts, and Philip Blackwell, c.e.o. of Ultimate Library—a company that creates bespoke book collections for hotels and private clients—came up with the idea to open a bookshop in the Maldives eco resort of Soneva Fushi.
Last year, two Barefoot Bookseller positions were created for the first time. Aislinn Shivakumar, a writer who has previously worked at HarperCollins and Waterstones, arrived on Soneva Fushi in mid-November to reopen the bookshop there for its third season. Meanwhile, Alice Spencer took a sabbatical from her role as senior press officer at Penguin Random House to head to Soneva Jani, a resort on an island further north in the Maldives, also owned by Shivdasani, at the end of November to set up and run a bookshop on the island. They were selected from 600-plus applicants to take up the rolling position, which sees them receive a monthly salary alongside free accommodation and board during their six-month stint.
Both women felt the opportunity came at the perfect time, given the pandemic restrictions in place in the UK. In fact, Shivakumar had been sick with coronavirus shortly before coming across the Barefoot Bookseller job advert. Only a few weeks after applying, both were on their way to their respective islands, which are currently Covid-free. The Barefoot booksellers note that despite day-to-day life being as normal (guests and staff are required to quarantine, and get tested on arrival, but thereafter face no restrictions), the make-up of where the resort’s guests come from has changed dramatically as a result of the pandemic, with fewer visitors from Europe and China. Another consequence is that they are not allowed to leave their islands;therefore, the pair have never met in person, though they work together closely via online communication.
They were hired together because of their complementary skillsets and career backgrounds. “Aislinn has amazing experience in bookselling and I have lots of experience in publishing and publicity and marketing, so as a team we merge together very well,” says Spencer. On the thinking behind opening a new bookshop, Shivakumar explains that there was such a positive reaction from guests to the first store that the resort’s owners wanted to expand. Spencer points out that, as well as bookselling, the Barefoot booksellers run a variety of experiences for the guests, including reading therapy, creative writing classes, tutoring, quizzes and digital detox sessions. “We are booksellers, we run activities, we run our social media channels, we write blogs... we are a really good string to their bow, and I think that’s why they wanted to double up this year.”
On a daily basis, the two open their respective shops in the morning and sometimes attend breakfasts to interact with guests, before closing briefly in the afternoon and then reopening for a few more hours in the evening. During their afternoon break, they may pursue other work projects or have time off (on the day I spoke to them, Spencer had just been windsurfing). Shivakumar says that the workload “depends day to day and month to month”. She reports that December in the Soneva Fushi bookshop was “incredibly busy”, while in January it was “relatively quiet, but we sold a very large number of books”. In February to date, there have not been many customers in-store, but Shivakumar has been spending several hours a week tutoring younger guests. In addition to her daily duties, she holds events in the bookshop, runs a weekly quiz with a fellow staff member, and hosts regular cinema nights for guests, with plans to introduce new events. She also says that being a Barefoot bookseller has given her time to work on her novel in progress.
Starting from scratch
On Soneva Jani, Spencer’s first task was to open the resort’s new bookshop, which she did in just a few weeks. “It’s been exciting for me to have the opportunity to open a shop. That’s a project I’ve never been faced with before: liaising with all the different departments, making the wheels turn and getting the outreach out there. It was not without its challenges, but it was really interesting,” she says. More recently, she has installed a library in another part of the resort. She feels that the social skills she uses in her job at Cornerstone have helped in her new role: “I discovered very quickly that pitching a book to a customer is very similar to pitching a book to a journalist, so my publicity skills transferred very well.” She has also found it beneficial to learn more about another area of the book business, saying that going forward she thinks she will “be able to have conversations with booksellers in a better way and understand their graft and their struggles more”.
Comparing her time as a bookseller at Waterstones Eastbourne and on Soneva Fushi, Shivakumar says the biggest contrast is how much quieter it is in the resort. She also describes it as “a great drama” to get books out to the islands, with shipments taking six to eight weeks, though Spencer credits the “logistical geniuses” in the London-based Ultimate Library team with ensuring that the Barefoot Bookseller shops are never low on stock. Ultimate Library’s expertise is also useful when deciding which books to stock, as is Shivakumar’s background as a bookseller. Both say that while they do not have a typical customer and their audience changes weekly, there are notable trends concerning which books sell well in their shops, with children’s, fiction and wellness titles proving most popular, and customers preferring to buy paperbacks that they can carry around easily. Currently, they only stock English-language titles, but Shivakumar says: “We are trying to expand into other languages— Russian, Chinese, Spanish, the popular languages of our guests—because you are barring a whole section of the resort if they feel that they can’t find something that they want to read. That will be one of the next big projects for Ultimate Library.”
On the horizon
Looking to the future of the Soneva bookshops, Shivakumar speculates that the owners may want to open another store on their Thailand resort Soneva Kiri eventu- ally, as the shops are “proving their worth” with growing sales. Both Barefoot booksellers are currently due to return to the UK in April, though Shivakumar is considering extending her posting. Considering what life back in the UK may bring, Spencer highlights the opportunities that the role can open up, citing the success of previous post-holders, including Head of Zeus’ former head of communications Chrissy Ryan, who has recently set up a bookshop and wine bar in Islington. In the meantime, they are making the most of their time in paradise, filling any leisure time with socialising with other staff members, discovering the local sealife, visiting the islands’ spas, or simply reading on the beach.
“It’s not a bad life!” Spencer jokes, but she is quick to add: “Don’t get us wrong—the resort catchphrase is ‘slow life’, but we work really hard. It’s not for the faint-hearted, but it’s an amazing opportunity and a brilliant job.”
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