“You’re late,” is my greeting as I arrive at the Shaman Bookshop at exactly 2pm. “We didn’t agree on a time,” I answered, surprised. I thought he was joking, but I would soon discover that he was referencing the length and wealth of stories he knew he would be divulging to me over the course of our interview. There was a lot to unpack in his story, so best to have more time to get to it.
Leo Kallogeropoulos of Shaman Bookshop in Chiang Mai’s old city has been peddling a uniquely wide array of books for the better part of a decade. I use the word unique since the selections offered are clearly an extension of Leo himself. This is an observation that becomes completely apparent if he sparks up a conversation with you, and chances are he will.
Sporting shoulder length grey hair with a tidy beard, rectangular spectacles, a dour yet inviting expression and a soft, slightly cracked voice, Leo welcomes one and all to his bookshop, where he tends to spark a lively conversation with you based on what kind of books you pick off the shelf.
Leo has a limitless desire to seek out books; and not necessarily for his shop. He insists that he couldn’t care less about money, but instead has a general thirst for the written word that has driven him to many a corner and alleyway around the globe. Seeing himself more of a book man rather than a businessman, one who focuses on the harvest of literature instead of profiting from them, he is always ready to talk books…at length.
“I don’t like the idea of selling at all. I don’t like the idea of profit. What I do is trick myself, pretend that my customers are actually ‘visitors’ whom I can chat with and on occasion may even take a book for some money in exchange,” said Leo in his soft crackle.
The name ‘Shaman’ comes from his affinity for cats. That the bookshop was home to 10 cats was made categorically important to me. Leo doesn’t call them pets, but “as the ones who walk among us,” explaining to me that, “In history, there has always been a connection between books and cats and in my shamanic experiences I had a strong affinity with felines, so I need to have cats around me.”
Amongst the 35,000 books housed in the two-storey establishment are collections of rarities and favourites tackling various life journeys, the perils of global capitalism, alternative if not fringe takes on world history and featuring heroes of modern day political struggles. These are all subjects Leo is proficient in and happy to talk about.
Ruffling through large piles and lengthy columns of books, it’s easy to uncover treasures forgotten and editions unseen. Soon I was swept up in the hunt and with his help I found a couple of books that I’d been scouting for a while, including former Black Panther Eldridge Cleaver’s Soul on Ice and some elusive Graham Greene titles.
In between foraging for books, Leo told me about his life’s journey. Born post-war to a Greek mother and Italian father, Leo says he never agreed with his mother’s decision to have a baby with a member of the invading forces; protesting his very own existence on sheer principle.
It doesn’t take long to get into a discussion about Leo’s political convictions against imperialism, injustice and social inequalities; his country’s as well as others’. Now in his late sixties, Leo diverged from the well trodden path at a youthful 14 years old, when he immersed himself in Italy’s radical social movements during the so-called ‘Years of Lead’. These radical social movements were marked by widespread unrest against the post-Mussolini right-wing government. Leo was among the youth who organised labour unions in his home town of Genoa. This was the start of his political awakening and voracious appetite for literature.Leo strove to understand more about the geo-politics he found himself embroiled in, all of which would one day see him wax political literature in his bookshop here in Chiang Mai.
Following a series of mishaps and misfortunes, which culminated in an intense crackdown on activists and the resulting disillusionment which was shared by many of his peers, Leo felt that that particular fight was lost. He turned to his other great love, literature, and chartered a course across the globe in his quest for words and the conditions of history which birthed them. Leo roamed Latin and North America, Southeast Asia and India, about which he recounts lovingly as the best place for a bookman to wander.
He reminded me of what a less gregarious Hunter S. Thompson might be like if I had met him in person. Thompson was a bustling Gonzo journalist brimming with stories spanning decades and different political experiences. It didn’t surprise me then that a ragged shelf set near the entrance of the shop held the biggest selection of Thompson’s books I’d seen. Had I more cash on hand, I would have probably bought one. I settled for the Motorcycle Diaries by Che Guevarra, a cheaper, more revolutionary alternative yet still in the vein of a travelling militant like Thompson.
India boasts one of the largest markets for English books in the world, and at bargain prices to boot. One time in Northeast India, he chanced upon a man selling books on the street. He bought a few and asked where he could find more. The man pointed him to a town in the west and Leo soon set out on his search. “I kept going west, following a trail of books. It was the best way to see the country,” said Leo. “My ‘job’ in each town was to spend an hour every day finding a place where I could get a few books.”
“The time I spent in the Indian subcontinent helped me to get out of the orientalistic/westernised view of a world which did/does not exist. I remember that I was surprised to find a few copies of the Quiet American (Graham Greene) in a small town and one about the escape of the Dalai Lama from Tibet, written by an Indian diplomat.”
Fondly, he also recalls visiting Vietnam and finding lost stacks of leterature from the time of the French and American occupations. Books by Jean Paul-Sartre, Jack Kerouac and the rest of the beat generation which represented an underlying influence of western counterculture in the country’s youth during the 50s and 60s. In India and Southeast Asia, he hauled away boxes of literary treasures that were printed only in this or that particular nation, each book telling a story, not just with words, but through its very own existence.
Much of his travels were funded by a series of mystery short stories he sold to a magazine in Italy. By the mid-90s he found himself having to rent an extra apartment in Bangkok just to house his books.
He decided to put his collection up for sale on the street, each bearing his own notes, comments and critiques on the writing, good or bad, all honest. A bookstore in Bangkok would soon follow and by 2000, a Chiang Mai branch. Due to a number of disputes with city planning, Leo eventually closed up shop in Bangkok and moved his entire operation to Chiang Mai.
“I like to engage people. I’d tell a Dutch person about the colonising past of their country, an Israeli about the conflicting politics in the Middle East or a Chinese person about the zigzagged history they’ve been through. I also learn something in these encounters. Most take it well, some of them not so much. I try my best not to be so confrontational because I generally just like meeting interesting people.”
His somewhat dour personality does not mean to offend, only to absorb you into what might be one of the more eye-opening conversations you’d have. “Maybe I lose more customers than I gain. But there are people who just come here and like to talk. I enjoy that, talking. It’s happened many times, someone comes in looking for a book, staying to talk losing track of time than having to leave in a rush. Didn’t buy a book.”
Visit the bookshop, buy a book…or not. Talk to him…or not. Just go. See if the place itself speaks to you. You’d be surprised to find yourself debating the intricacies and complexities of today’s or the greater hardship for humankind. Leo’s selection of books, in fact Leo himself, offers a bleak view of the future, but you are guaranteed some good banter.
Whichever the case, know that Shaman Bookshop provides a collection of books encompassing politics, social upheaval, allegories of a travelling history and a faltering world system. It also tells the story of a man devoted to them, unimpressed at times by the human condition they convey and yet always at home with them.