The American Book Center, online and in store, is a one-stop shop for English-speaking readers in the Netherlands. As the team celebrates its 50th anniversary, let’s look back at how it all began.
In the course of 50 years, a few things have remained the same in the Netherlands. For example, 1970s Amsterdam was full of Dutch people with fluent English and internationals with limited Dutch. But the lack of English language reading material at the time was a business opportunity waiting to be discovered.
American entrepreneurs Sam Boltansky and Mitch Crossfield began shipping leftover books and pornography from the United States, opening the American Discount Book Center on Kalverstraat in 1972 and gradually expanding their selection to meet customer demand.
Now known as The American Book Center or ABC, the shop now occupies three floors of a Grade II listed building on Spui and regularly welcomes famous authors such as Stephen Fry and David Sedaris. A second branch in The Hague dates back to 1976, just in time for ABC’s 50th anniversaryth The shop opened in Leidschendam last year to mark its anniversary.
Meanwhile, in 1972, Lynn Buller was enjoying an extended vacation in the capital and was looking for a job to fund her reading habits. A bookstore seemed like the perfect fit, and being American herself, the new ABC store felt like a great destination.
“I went over there and basically held my own until they hired me to look for thieves,” she told viewers of a recent live stream on ABC’s YouTube channel. “I remember getting dressed that weekend thinking, this is going to be a short gig… And here we are almost 50 years later.”
However, no thieves were ever caught as Mitch soon found other chores for Lynn, and by day three the confused newcomer was given a quick introduction to using a register and asked to run the shop single-handedly. A decade later, Lynn took over co-owning of the store along with her sister Rachel and husband Avo. Years later, their two children, Nadine and Paul, were also lured into the herd.
In 1986, history repeated itself when 23-year-old Eritrean Giorgio Yared filled in for a friend who had an unofficial “security” role in the business. Still there 36 years later, Giorgio now runs the store’s magazine department.
Unlike Lynn, he saw plenty of action, chasing shoplifters down Kalverstraat who then had to do the Walk of Shame as they marched handcuffed through Amsterdam’s busiest shopping district. “When we were in the Kalverstraat, we were like a family,” he recalls. ‘If I ‘thief!’ called her [the local shopkeepers] would all go out!’
A small village
Nadine also fondly remembers the shops in the Kalverstraat – first number 158 and later, with books in her Volvo Station Wagon, a move to the more spacious 185, which is now part of the Nike store. As a baby, she was sometimes put in an open drawer in the office while she slept. Later, as a little girl, she remembers marveling at the popcorn machine in front of Madame Tussauds next door and getting flowers and helpings of chips from the local vendors. “It was like a small village,” she recalls.
“The times were different,” muses Giorgio, but everyone agrees that the spirit of the store has remained the same. There is still very little hierarchy. Associates are assigned to the sections that interest them most and are given a great deal of confidence and freedom by buying the titles they think will work best and shaping stocks based on customer preferences. “We just listened to what people are looking for, what they want,” says Nadine.
Innovation was encouraged, and sometimes good fortune came from unlikely sources. For example, a cheeky postcard from ABC on the subject of “window shopping” in the red light district sold millions and covered a year’s rent.
The arrival of the internet in the ’90s changed the playing field, recalls Klaartje ten Berge, who joined the team at the time as a salesperson and is now warehouse coordinator at ABC. “You have to be more interesting than the internet. That’s the personal touch we’re trying to convey,” she says.
Late openings, book signings, and an open podium have all helped get people through the doors, as has ABC’s ability to predict reading patterns and expand its selection accordingly. “We were early,” explains Klaartje. Gay novels, new age philosophy, manga or BookTok – the store’s shoppers tuned into the trends and raced to beat the internet.
In 2010, they splurged on the first automated direct-to-consumer bookmaking machine in Europe, affectionately known as “Betty” and a popular tool for clients looking to self-publish. But sometimes they were too far ahead of themselves. Nadine recalls a poorly attended in-store book signing when American writer James Patterson – now a household name – came to promote one of his earliest works.
Being early meant taking risks, and ABC’s talented PR Rick Lightstone, says Nadine, “always had these antennae for what would work.” He would convince Giorgio to make huge trips to European book fairs with him, the car stuffed with niche stocks that would sell easily in the emerging markets he identified. “He made us strong,” Giorgio recalls.
But one day in 2016, Rick didn’t show up for work. He had died suddenly from an aneurysm. This was undoubtedly ABC’s low point. The team is, says Nadine, “simply smashed”.
Rick’s death coincided with ABC Amsterdam’s 10th anniversary on historic Spui, where it still stands, with its magnificent blue awnings in a 19th-century building that served as a piano shop. Spui is an attractive tree-lined square with a Friday book market and is surrounded by bookshops and cafes. It’s popular with locals and tourists alike – and the giant blue letters on the front of the ABC have caught the eye of numerous celebrities, who have drifted along the cobblestones and browsed the shelves.
Lionel Richie, Dionne Warwick, REM, Brian May… They were all ABC browsers. The staff almost missed Pharrell were it not for his two rather large bodyguards. Herman Brood was a regular at the time, and actor Owen Wilson just recently joined.
The interior of the store is a mix of modern and monumental, with a friendly vibe that welcomes visitors. On the ground floor is Giorgio’s huge magazine department, the import of porn has long since stopped. A huge tree trunk connects the first and second floors – a nod to the origin of the books.
Teenagers crowd around the fantasy board games; Customers relax in the café, sipping coffee and browsing through their latest purchases; and staff circulate eagerly to make recommendations. Nadine describes life between the books and magazines as “great perks.” “You make people happy,” she says. “That’s what I really love.”
On April 16, 2022, the American Book Center will celebrate its 50th anniversaryth Anniversary with a birthday party at all three locations. There will be music, small treats and children’s activities. There is a 10-20% discount on all books.
Thank you for your donation to DutchNews.nl
The DutchNews.nl team would like to thank all the generous readers who have donated over the last few weeks. Your financial support has helped us extend our coverage of the coronavirus crisis into the evenings and weekends and keep you up to date with the latest developments.
DutchNews.nl has been free for 14 years, but without the financial support of our readers we wouldn’t be able to bring you fair and accurate news and features about all things Dutch. Your contributions make this possible.
If you haven’t donated yet, you’re welcome
You can do this via Ideal, Credit Card or Paypal.