- A luxury resort chain in the Maldives seeks a new “Barefoot Bookseller” to run its bookshops every year.
- Aislinn Shivakumar and Alice Spencer both got the gig and left London behind for it.
- The two are living the dream without lockdown and COVID-19 worries.
- Visit Insider’s homepage for more stories.
In a time when many are on lockdown and limiting their interactions once again, Aislinn Shivakumar, 29, and Alice Spencer, 27, are living the dream – and sort of experiencing college life all over again. They’re living with all of their friends, meeting people from around the world, and not worrying about contracting the coronavirus.
Even better? They’re doing all this in a tropical island paradise – and getting paid for it.
Aislinn Shivakumar and Alice Spencer both left London behind to become ‘Barefoot Booksellers’ in the Maldives
The two, who each lived in London and have a background in publishing, were handpicked from hundreds of applicants to run pop-up bookshops at luxury resorts in South Asia.
Created by Ultimate Library for Soneva resorts, the first bookshop launched at the chain’s Soneva Fushi location in 2018. Every year, it looks for new people to run it, and the job listing usually goes viral.
Read more: A Maldives resort is looking for a ‘Barefoot Bookseller’ to run its island bookshop for 6 months
Spencer is on sabbatical from her job as senior press officer at Penguin Random House, while Shivakumar is a writer who has previously worked at HarperCollins as well as in a bookstore.
Both women escaped lockdown in London and arrived at different Soneva resorts in the Maldives in November: Spencer runs the brand-new shop at Soneva Jani, which opened in 2020, while Shivakumar runs the original one at Soneva Fushi. The resorts are about an hour apart, and the two have yet to meet.
Shivakumar and Spencer each contracted COVID-19 last year when they were back home in London
While it would be easy to be jealous of the two for bagging this dream job, it’s hard to begrudge them the opportunity: Both were infected with the coronavirus last year and say they’re grateful to be recovering on the beach, having escaped London’s increasing coronavirus numbers.
Shivakumar said that she looked at the job description, saw that she had all the required skills, and applied, figuring it would be a great place to recover.
“Five weeks after I applied I was on a plane out to the Maldives and it was kind of like, ‘Wait a second, what happened?'” she told Insider. “It was very fast-moving.”
Shivakumar said she was “flattened” by COVID-19 on February 21, 2020 – so early in the coronavirus spread that few people even knew what it was at the time – and “in bed for practically six months” with breathing problems, fevers, hallucinations, and barely enough energy to go downstairs.
Spencer said that after getting COVID-19 herself (though her case was “less dramatic than Aislinn’s”), she didn’t “particularly want to be in this country right now,” which is why she applied for a job outside of England.
Things happened so quickly once she got accepted – and so soon after her recovery from the coronavirus – that Spencer had to postpone her initial flight. To enter the Maldives, she had to present a negative PCR test taken within 96 hours of her flight’s departure, but found that the virus was still in her system when she first took it, causing it to be positive.
She changed her flight, waited another week, and was good to go.
Read more: What the COVID-19 vaccine could mean for the future of travel
Of course, dropping everything – even for a dream job – can be challenging
“Technically and logistically it was annoying and difficult. I had to sort out so many things in very little time whilst I had COVID,” Spencer said. “But emotionally and mentally, I was so ready to go. I didn’t have any qualms about leaving.”
Spencer described the Maldives as “COVID-free” since she said everyone needs to present a recent negative test result upon arrival, then gets tested again on arrival, and is asked to quarantine until those results are in. While guests at her resort usually get their results the day after arriving, thus quarantining for less than a day, she said staff quarantines for five days before taking yet another test.
“Imagine a COVID-haven – this is it,” she said.
Despite global lockdowns and travel restrictions, business at the Maldives resorts is booming
“We are lucky that we are a COVID-free island and with the Maldives being one of the few places in the world that our guests can travel to, our occupancy levels are quite high,” a representative of the Soneva resorts told Insider.
The Maldives reopened its borders to tourists of all nationalities on July 15, 2020, according to the Visit Maldives website, and currently has no incoming travel restrictions to the country.
Spencer estimates that her resort was almost at capacity over Christmas, though she added that many of the guests, while “a real mix,” are generally very wealthy and frequently arrive by private jet.
Shivakumar said her resort was also full over the holidays, and that many guests are now extending their stays.
“People just want to get away, and these people can afford to do it,” she said.
In terms of sales, the Barefoot Booksellers have already had their best year yet, according to Spencer.
Read more: The Maldives’ new travel incentive program plans to reward tourists for vacationing in paradise
Every day in the life of a Barefoot Bookseller is different
“Days actually can vary dramatically,” said Shivakumar about the job.
Besides manning the stores, they host creative-writing classes, author events, digital-detox consultations, and bibliotherapy sessions, do online marketing and admin, run various social media accounts, and organize quiz and cinema nights.
However, often enough much of the day is spent in the store, hoping people will come in and buy something.
“We definitely get busy days and quiet days; it’s very much like a bookshop in New York, in London, just on a real quiet level,” Shivakumar said.
Read more: 10 bookstores built in strange places around the world, from boats to bank vaults
The two describe their shops as very relaxing, inviting spaces, with sand-colored walls, soft lighting, and minimalist driftwood furniture
Spencer’s shop is on stilts in the ocean, over half a mile away from land.
“I can see sea life swimming by from my desk,” Spencer said. “Everyone, when they search me on maps says, ‘why are you in the middle of the sea?!'”
Their bookshops run the gamut in terms of titles, from self-help to history to science to fiction, but are generally very up-to-date with newer titles, as Spencer said they usually go off of what has sold well in previous years.
The job, which is six days a week, includes food and housing in the so-called “host village, which is hidden in the jungle” with the rest of the resorts’ staff, as well as a monthly salary and a small commission for each book sold.
Read more: 26 bookstores every book lover must visit in their lifetime
Like the rest of the staff, they have access to various events and activities and get discounts on scuba diving and spa treatments. They eat in a canteen, where they say the food is great.
“I have made such good friends on this island, I’m really going to miss them,” Shivakumar said.
“Every day I pinch myself and I’m like, ‘I cannot believe I live here, it’s so beautiful,'” said Spencer. “I feel supremely lucky to live in such a beautiful place and also to sell books, which is a dream job for a lot of people. I think together it’s pretty special.”
“It’s kind of like a Hollywood movie sometimes when you’re sort of like, ‘Is this really our life?'” Spencer said.
While Spencer said that working where you live took some adjusting, she now loves it.
“You’re just with your friends all the time,” she said. “And lots of people around the world don’t get to be with their friends and family right now. I feel very sad for everyone at home in the new UK lockdown, and my heart really goes out to them. And so I treasure every moment of just being free to socialize and enjoy myself fully.”
“It’s such a change from what we left in the UK,” echoed Shivakumar. “We have to sort of remember that this isn’t what the world is like.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warns that “travel increases your chance of getting and spreading COVID-19.”
At the time of writing, the Maldives saw 14,765 confirmed cases of the coronavirus, and 50 related deaths, according to the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center.
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