Lynn Buller, owner of the American Book Center in Amsterdam, first arrived in the Netherlands in 1972. She did not plan on staying for very long, but after stopping in the English-language bookstore, she instantly felt at home. Her first job there was to watch for thieves in the cellar; now, 42 years later, she and her family own the original Amsterdam store and its smaller counterpart in The Hague.
"My job has changed since then," remarked Buller, drily. Once thought of as the "book mother," she's stepped into a role that is more supervisory--rather than micro-manage the staff, she gives them the space and resources to do what they need to do and sets the store's long-term strategy and goals. "I've tried to hand things over. I'm pulling back, but still involved with strategic choices."
The American Book Center was opened in 1972 by Sam Boltansky and Mitch Crossfield, who were from the U.S. At first, they sold just remainders and magazines. But eventually customers began asking for other books, and Boltansky and Crossfield started ordering new books and expanding the inventory. New Age literature, gay literature, and SF and fantasy, all genres of books that were only rarely being translated into Dutch, were crucial in the store's early days.
|The front room at American Book Center
"Sci-fi and fantasy are huge for us," Buller explained. "They got us started."
In 1974, Boltansky and Crossfield opened a second store in The Hague. At various times over the years, there were also ABC stores in Groningen and Eindhoven, and another store in Leuven, Belgium, but they are no longer in operation. In 2006, the flagship store moved from its second location on the pricy pedestrian shopping street to a smaller location on the Spui, a square in Amsterdam's city center that is ringed by bookshops and hosts an open-air book market every Friday.
"I think of it like having a bigger purse--you'll put more stuff in it than you might actually need," said Karin van Eck, the company's marketing director, on the move to a smaller location. Van Eck has worked at the American Book Center for two decades and has held many positions there over the years, beginning as the store's science fiction buyer before becoming something of a general manager and eventually moving to marketing. "With a smaller store, we have to be smarter about what we carry."
Today, the Amsterdam store stocks over 80,000 books and magazines across more than 4,300 square feet of space. Sci-fi remains a vital part of the business, but the inventory has expanded across all genres. The fiction section is on the American Book Center's top floor, with art and design books and magazines on the bottom floor. The reason for that, van Eck explained, was that people often know what they want in advance when it comes to novels. By having the novels on the topmost floor, customers browse going up to the fiction section and coming back down.
The store's inventory is world-renowned. Earlier this year, in naming the American Book Center "best bookshop in the world," international lifestyle magazine Monocle said that the store's philosophy is "to ask regular customers what they want to read and then fill the shelves accordingly. Over the years the selection has become an eclectic assortment where literary classics sit side by side with manga and new-age poetry."
|A tree grows in the American Book Center
The interior of the store, van Eck related, was inspired in part by the Guggenheim Museum in New York City. The space is modern, elegant and open, but with natural touches like tree trunks stretching from floor to floor. The building itself, though, has existed since at least the 19th century; in 1932 it became a music store, and from 1997 until 2006, it was a Ypma Piano showcase. "You would think that pianos are much heavier than books," remarked van Eck. "But the whole building had to be reinforced when we moved in--books are way heavier."
The Hague store, meanwhile, carries some 45,000 books and magazines in approximately 2,100 square feet. Both ABC stores have their own off-site event spaces, called the Treehouse in Amsterdam and the Treehut in The Hague (both spaces can be rented out by community members). Not including workshops by renters in the Treehouse and Treehut, or selling books at third-party events such as gallery exhibitions and book fairs (a program that the store calls ABC in the Wild), the American Book Center puts on approximately 75 events each year: 60 in Amsterdam and 15 in The Hague.
Among the most popular of the store's events is the monthly program Meet My Book, in which three or four local writers--sometimes unknown self-published authors, sometimes well-known authors with traditional book deals--present their work. Another recurring favorite is called Pitch Your Book Idea to a Professional Publisher, in which aspiring writers take turns pitching their ideas to Oscar van Gelderen from the Dutch publishing house Lebowski Publishing (Van Gelderen is perhaps best known for bringing John Williams's novels Stoner and Butcher's Crossing to the Netherlands, where they have been perpetual bestsellers).
Both ABC stores have Espresso Book Machines (two of only a handful in Europe), and sell books printed on their EBMs on consignment, along with homemade magazines and other self-published titles. And for €12.50 (about $15.50), the American Book Center will do three rounds of corrections on self-published novels and manuscripts. The store also has an extensive reader review program called You Review.
"We do all this to support writers. People outside the business don't understand the value of that yet," said Buller. "We believe that all writers are readers and all readers are writers." --Alex Mutter