The American Book Center in Amsterdam: Bookstore interview

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Some years ago, burned out and feeling more than a little lost, I packed up my life in Canada and moved to Amsterdam. I had always dreamed of living in Europe and Amsterdam was the best chance I had of getting a visa and work.

It was the best decision I ever made because Amsterdam was a revelation. It is a vibrant city, Amsterdam winterwith friendly, welcoming people. English is spoken everywhere, but the written word is a little bit harder to find. There’s Waterstones, the UK store, of course, but The American Book Center had my heart. It was a little space of Amsterdam where I could go and see familiar covers and familiar titles and think I could have been at home in Sydney when the homesickness got bad. Books have always been a haven and so was this store.

Going inside… is I don’t know how to explain it. No matter how many times I went in, I always just stopped and stared around because I was always afraid I was going to miss some section or new display. It was always filled with people, sometimes reading books and something checking out the selection of magazines. No-one told anyone to leave or not to read anything. It felt comfortable, I think.

Lynn and Avo, co-owners of the store for 31 years, and Karin from marketing were generous and kind and wonderful enough to answer some questions for me.

Lynn and Avo, what captured your interest about the store in 1983 enough to buy it?

Lynn: I had worked in the store since two weeks after it opened in 1972, first in the bookkeeping, later as director. By 1982 the American owner wanted to sell, and we had always asked for first option. Avo as ready for a change from his previous job and my sister Rachel was working with us then as well, so the three of us agreed to give it a try. Rachel met her life’s love on an airplane and they moved to Colorado in 1985.

stairs booksThe Amsterdam store is now 42 years old, and you both have been running it for 31 years now. How have things changed for the store since you bought it? For instance, did many foreigners come to you in the early days and has that changed now?

The major change is that, in the beginning, we offered only English language remainder books, not new releases. These were bought in bulk in the US. Slowly we added newly released books from US as well as UK, then started to special order books for customers. We’ve become a community of bookselling experts – the sellers are still responsible for selecting which titles to buy in. It’s unusual, but we have some 40 book buyers among our 47 staff members.

I saw on your site that you have the Espresso Book Machine and a selection of self-published books for sale – can you tell readers what made you venture into self-publishing?ABCE3

We wanted to be able to fulfil our local customers’ wishes more quickly, not just for self-publishing but also print on demand titles. Because we import everything by air freight, any titles we can print right in the store eliminates freight cost and saves time. We were surprised that so many people wanted to use the machine to self-publish everything from novels, biographies, Ph.D dissertations, poetry, journals and blogs – it’s so inexpensive and quick to make as few as a single copy, then make corrections and print again. It’s really a boon to writers.

How is the book-selling world changing in Amsterdam? Have ebooks provided much competition at all?

Karin: Indies like the American book Center and our neighbour Athenaeum are still going strong but recently the biggest Dutch bookstore chain went bankrupt. The once independent bookstores in this now defunct chain are trying to buy back the stores through crowdfunding and some seem to be successful at it.  The Netherlands and in particular Amsterdam still has the most bookstores per person in the world. Let’s hope it stays that way. Book sales in general are down everywhere. One has to be creative in keeping customers interested.

Ebooks have not really taken off in the Netherlands yet but it is a growing market. Latest figures: 8 out of 10 ebooks are illegal downloads. Ebooks currently make up for about 5% of the total book sales.

ABC also sells ebooks on www.abc.nl as an extra service for our customers.

From all the activities and signings on your website, it seems like you have a great amount of interaction with readers – how did that get started and has it always been this way?  

We love to interact with our customers  on our blog through our You Review program, FScottFitzgerald windowcompetitions (book quote book mark), free film ticket promotions (always linking to a book). Social media like Facebook and Twitter are important and we put a lot of time and energy in organising events and promoting these through our event emailing and news emailing and social media. Our author tribute windows (F Scott Fitzgerald to the left) are often photographed or filmed. We also started a new event series: Meet my Book to help first time and self published authors to present themselves to the public.  Our customers have always been and will always be very important to us. Their (book) tips, opinions, their involvement with ABC help us to be better booksellers! Karin: We also meet our customers at various events outside of the store:  ABC in the Wild. Working together with others (other companies/organisations) is very important. (Pride and Prejudice and Zombies window to the right)realzombie window

Over the years, what event/book release sticks in your mind? Something that caused an unexpected frenzy, perhaps?

Karin: It seems that we are not so much a “fiction book store” when it comes to events.

We sell lots of fictionZiggy marley but it is hard to get our hands on good fiction authors as they are often brought to the Netherlands by their Dutch publishers who want to promote the Dutch edition and don’t want compete with the English edition most of the time.  We do very well with Art/Crafts/Local Interest/Design/Marketing/Social science. Lots of people lined up for REM (below), Kat von D,  Spike Lee, Stephen Fry, David Sedaris, Patti Smith, Tod Selby, and Ziggy Marley (above)……

What are your future plans for the store?REM

Karin: ABC is here to stay.  Lynn and Avo’s daughter Nadine and son Paul are now co-owners and together with a team of  very devoted book buyers and sellers we will keep on reinventing ourselves.  It will not be easy as the world around us is changing rapidly. We feel there will always be a place and time for (special) books, but our store(s) might look completely different 10 years from now. Maybe less books, but more experience oriented, interactive, social. We’ll see….

I miss this store. I truly do. It was always so welcoming and a lovely space just to get lost in for a few hours. Thank you so much guys! 

What do you think of it? Be sure to pay a visit if you’re there!

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