For five decades a Nicosia bookshop has been a monument to everything Cypriot in print. THEO PANAYIDES meets its founder
The first time I walk into MAM bookshop in Nicosia, to arrange a time for the interview with Mikis Michaelides, one elderly gentleman (with a slightly younger woman in tow) is talking to another. The first man is a local author, the second Mikis himself. The author is looking for a copy of his first published book – presumably, there have been others – to show to the lady. Mikis waves a hand in the general direction of the shelves and the other man roots around eagerly, with an air of long-time familiarity with the place.
It makes sense that the author should’ve come to MAM to track down his debut. The narrow, tube-shaped room is full of books: books on shelves, books piled high on tables, books overflowing from cardboard boxes blocking the passageways. “I buy all the books,” explains Mikis. “Whoever publishes a book, I buy it.”
Books about Cyprus?
“Could be literature,” he replies with a hint of impatience. “Poetry, whatever. Whatever comes out in Cyprus, I buy it.” This is not a bookshop, more of a book repository. There are volumes here that you can’t imagine many (or any) punters wanting to purchase: issues of the government gazette, Parliamentary minutes of meeting. If you want an official listing of Cypriot Antiquities in Dublin, it’s here. If you want a tattered paperback – obviously pre-dating the invasion – titled Bellapais Abbey: A Guide, it’s here. If you want the official Church calendar for 1995, it’s here – albeit downstairs in the basement, which is just as large as the upstairs and almost as cluttered. There are more books elsewhere, Mikis tells me, an entire warehouse housing the collection from the Phaneromeni Library building, which he used to rent for two decades and once dreamed of turning into a five-storey cultural centre.
The tale of that long-ago project gets recounted in detail – the facilities he envisioned (a bookshop, a library, a projection room, a hall for events and exhibitions), the designs drawn up by the late Pefkios Georgiades, the way his dream finally foundered on the rocks of civil-servant inertia when he sought government funding. Not that he has anything against civil servants – he was one himself, working at the Foreign Ministry for many years – but most of the stories he tells aren’t exactly complimentary, which is why he begs me not to share them. Mikis has a lot of stories, not necessarily related to books, and quite a few aren’t for public consumption. “I know things which –” he begins, then breaks off (a recurring motif in our conversation). “I know something about Makarios too, something important. Someday I’ll tell it. Someday with God’s help I’ll tell it.”
MAM is a special place, but Mikis himself is the main attraction – a restless 84-year-old with rheumy eyes, long thin fingers, a halo of snowy-white hair and more tufts of hair poking out from his ears and nostrils. He talks breathlessly, often in fragments of sentences, chops the air with his hands, cranes to hear my questions barking “Eh? Eh?”, and occasionally gets incoherent – though not in the dreamy rambling way one associates with older people, more in the way of a man who has too much to say, and increasingly less time in which to say it. I can see how he might seem impatient; at one point, a customer comes in and Mikis sends her away with a gruff “I’m busy now”. (To be fair, she probably wasn’t a customer but another of his regulars, like that local author looking for a copy of his book.) He founded MAM in 1965 and has run it ever since, mostly with the help of his late wife Thelma, never taking a salary or (apparently) making much of a profit.
“Everything I’ve done, I did for the sake of my country, Cyprus,” is the first thing he tells me. Thereby hangs a tale, also implied in the big ‘OXI’ (‘NO’) sticker still stuck to the front door of his shop, a remnant of the 2004 referendum. Mikis’ politics might be defined as far-right, at least as far as the Cyprus problem is concerned; his political party of choice was the now-defunct New Horizons, the radical fringe group opposed to a federal solution. His electronic ‘signature’, which he attaches to the end of all his emails (MAM has a surprisingly slick website, mam.com.cy), begins as follows:
“The Cypriot people have no need for any ‘solution’ whatsoever. Rather, they demand that the international community jointly work for the immediate departure of the Turkish occupying forces, the safe return of all refugees to their homes and fortunes (in accordance with the unanimous decision 3212 of the United Nations’ full General Assembly), the departure of all settlers, finding out the fates of all those ‘missing’, and economic restitution from the Turkish state compensating for all damages caused from the invasion, occupation and settlements”. (It goes on like that for a couple more sentences.) His outlook on the current talks is predictably pessimistic. Will there be a solution? “No solution. Any solution will be catastrophic. They’ll drive us out of Cyprus, do you even doubt that?”
Some will disagree, of course. Some may conclude that MAM is a brilliant initiative taken for all the wrong reasons, founded to promote Cypriot history and culture at a time when Mikis felt the country was “going from bad to worse” (a feeling he’s continued to have in the five decades since). When it comes to militant patriotism, he has form, having occupied what he calls “one of the leading positions” in EOKA as a young man – not actually in the field but in PEKA, the Political Council. He worked as a liaison between regional cells and the area commander, and knew he was in trouble when one of the cell leaders was arrested by the British. When he heard the news, “I didn’t go home,” he recalls, assuming that the man would name names; the next morning, his cousin reported that the police had indeed come around looking for him. Mikis spent three years as a wanted fugitive, hiding out in safe houses and continuing to work for the “struggle”.
He organised EOKA’s student arm, showing a knack for significant detail: if, for instance, a third-former was in the same high-school cell as a sixth-former, that cell was dismantled – because, explains Mikis breathlessly, how could a third-form boy keep meeting with a much older boy, visiting his home and so forth, without arousing suspicion? Later he took charge of government departments, “I had my man in each one”. Later still, he infiltrated the Post Office – and suddenly gets up to find a pencil, so he can show me how to roll open a sealed envelope without tearing it. That’s how EOKA used to check the correspondence of the Chief of Police, arranging to have it stuffed in the post-box belonging to the Pancyprian Gymnasium Alumni Association (of which Mikis was the founder) then delivered to our fugitive hero to open and inspect, before being passed on to its intended recipient. They sniffed out a few traitors that way, he recalls.
One story leads to another: years later, so he tells me, Polycarpos Yiorkadjis – the feared Minister of the Interior – offered the job of Chief of Police to Mikis himself, meaning he’d be following in the footsteps of the Brit he’d bamboozled years before. A few months’ training will do the trick, shrugged Yiorkadjis when Mikis protested he had no experience – but he still turned the offer down, reckoning (no doubt correctly) that he’d just be a puppet. It’s a story very much of its time, showing how far connections and a good EOKA background could get you in the heady first few years of the Republic. In much the same fashion, he was made cryptographer at the Foreign Ministry on the strength of some rudimentary coding he’d done for the Cause – a civil-servant sinecure that allowed him a comfortable life, though he’d never asked for such a non-job and indeed did much outside working hours, from becoming Secretary of the Cyprus Youth Council to founding MAM. “I’m not the kind of man to sit around,” he says emphatically.
That’s certainly true nowadays, when, despite his advancing years, sitting around simply isn’t an option. It’s not entirely clear how he can afford to buy so many books – his pension presumably helps, though the main sources of income seem to be his long-standing relationships with foreign institutional book-buyers like the Library of Congress in the US – but sorting and arranging them is a full-time job in itself. He’s usually in the shop till around 10pm, he tells me; his only other pastime is some early-morning gardening, which he does for exercise more than anything.
His wife Thelma – she died in 2015 – seems to have been his rock, a devoted partner in all things MAM (they have two children, Alexandros and Fryni). “I was surprised,” he recalls of her last years, “her sight was starting to fade but she’d find the books straight away, just by colour and their place on the shelf. She found all the books for me, I’d say ‘We have an order for such-and-such’ and she’d bring them straight away. I almost had to force her to go to Greece, to see if she could be cured – but the problem with the eyes turned to cancer, and she suffered a lot before she died”. Mikis’ energy seems momentarily stilled, his own eyes momentarily more watery. “I couldn’t bear to watch her… And she worked so hard for this place. Nobody knows about that”. His own contribution has been recognised, however, the past few years bringing a flurry of awards – starting in 2006 when the Association of Publishers of Cypriot Books honoured “the untiring Mr Mikis Michaelides, who for decades has offered his services to Cypriot books, both in Cyprus and abroad”.
It’s true, he has offered his services. Some may find the whole enterprise a bit quixotic; some may wonder why Mikis even bothers, since the Nicosia Public Library is literally across the road from MAM – though he insists his selection is much wider (“I have periodicals which even their own publishers don’t have!”). It should also be said – and he says it, more than once – that the bookshop business has ruined him financially, due to an ill-advised effort to open a branch of MAM in Athens in the late 90s. He’s in debt, and the crisis hasn’t made things any easier; full-time employees have been laid off, while his regular bulletin of new releases is down to a single page. Yet he’s done so much over the years, hawked our local output at book fairs from Frankfurt to Japan, published a catalogue of Cypriot books, put out magazines, organised exhibitions and book bazaars. “I believe I’ve done good work,” he says simply as the interview winds down, “and I continue to carry out that work”.
There’s just one thing missing. Despite being surrounded by books since 1965 – boxes and piles of them, religious tracts and kids’ picture books, coffee-table books and slim volumes of poetry – Mikis Michaelides still hasn’t written a book of his own. He’d like to, indeed that’s his plan, but he can’t find the time. He could write about EOKA, a subject – he insists – that still hasn’t been honestly documented. He could write down his more outlandish political theories (“Was the invasion carried out by Turkey alone? I ask you, since you’re a journalist. Three countries took part, officially!”), and divulge the things he knows which no-one has ever admitted. He could write about his years in the book trade, and his patriotic duty in preserving our published heritage. And then his book could join all the other books, to be catalogued by whoever runs the shop after he’s gone – he’s waiting for his son’s children to finish their studies, he admits, hoping to pass on the torch – another pebble in the wall of Cypriot literature, propped up on the shelves, or still in boxes, or awaiting rediscovery in the dusty cluttered basement of MAM bookshop.