Irish woman lands dream job in the Maldives: My life as ‘barefoot bookseller’
‘After four flights, two buses and a stressful late-night journey by speedboat, I arrive on the island’
Aimée Johnston hard at work. Photograph: Julia Neeson
I finish reading Rosita Boland’s Elsewhere as I stand in Malé airport. Our flight time to Dharavandhoo comes and goes, its name disappears from the boarding screen and is replaced with others.
People begin to fill the queue in front of me, where I should be. They’re heading to different islands, for different adventures. We’re all in the same room, but they’re going elsewhere. Elsewhere. The word has taken on a certain magic.
The strangest sensation comes over me when I close my book. I immediately long for it. It’s in my hand, yet I miss it. Rosita writes about “fernweh”, a longing for far-off places.
To me, some books feel like that. They feel like far-off places I have once been and now yearn for. Some books feel like home. I wonder if there is a word for that too, the longing for places reading has brought you. I only just realise that my flight is over an hour late, and I have no way of letting my connection know. I was busy. I was with Rosita in Bali.
Books have brought me, quite literally, to Kunfunadhoo, the luxury island in the Maldives’ Baa Atoll and my home for the next three months. In the dog days of August last year Ultimate Library and Soneva Fushi advertised their now viral, once-in-a-lifetime position. They were opening a pop-up bookshop to promote reading for leisure on the resort, and they needed a Barefoot Bookseller. In news I still can’t quite believe, that bookseller happens to be me.
After four flights, two bus rides and a rather stressful late-night journey in a speedboat, I arrive on the island. 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.
Although it’s undoubtedly the most exotic, the Maldives isn’t the first place reading has led me. The first was the little drive outside my house, where the library van pulled up once every two weeks when I was a child. My Mum got in touch with Libraries NI and they went out of their way to add us, living on the shores of Lough Neagh, to their route. It was, and is, an amazing service. They brought with them a choice of worlds for me to borrow, to visit, to live in. I discovered then that books were doors to other places, and after that I was hooked.
As a maths-fearing adolescent, my love for reading grew. In school, I had incredibly passionate English teachers. They spoke about fiction with such fervour, they spoke about made-up places and made-up people as if they were real, as if they mattered. They taught me that they did. They introduced me to Wide Sargasso Sea and the writing of Jean Rhys. It was the first time I considered the importance of writing, of voices and landscapes and lives different to my own. Rhys was writing in response, writing to tell the world they couldn’t define who she was. At 17, nothing had struck me as more powerful, and I wanted to tell as many people about it as I could. Evidently, I still do.
At the risk of sounding utterly insufferable, I had already found my dream job. In late 2015, I was lucky enough to be given a role in Penguin Random House Ireland’s publicity department. I laughed in disbelief when I found out. I would be reading books and telling people about them. I would be a little part of the path that would lead someone to somewhere new, take them somewhere else. In the days that followed, I remember bursting into the same dizzying laughter in my Mum’s car, slapping the dashboard with can’t-believe-it-glee. My Mum said she was very happy for me but I was to leave her car alone. I’m delighted I can continue my dream with them when the Maldives moves from my now to my memory, when it becomes a far-off place that I have been.
The Barefoot Bookshop has quickly become something of a literary haven in Soneva Fushi. Guests come to peruse the shelves and then stay for hours. They tell me about their favourite 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. Once, a guest returned with a book for me, one he had brought with him. “I thought you might like this,” he said. I did. The writing reminded me of Rhys.
A friend comes to see me in the bookshop. She takes the seat across from mine, and begins to tell me about the journeys she has made, the places she has been. Recently, she’s felt the urge to write about them, to fill as many pages as she can with memories of another her, in another time, another place. She just doesn’t know where to begin. My eyes widen. I immediately feel for the book in my bag. “This,” I tell her, “is exactly what you need to read”, and I press my proof copy of Elsewhere into her hands.
Follow Aimée’s journey as Ultimate Library’s Barefoot Bookseller at barefootbookseller.com and on Instagram @barefootbookseller