What makes a bookstore more than a source for books? Over four decades, American expat Lynn Kaplanian-Buller and her husband have transformed Amsterdam's American Book Center, or ABC, into a buzzing cultural hive for English-speaking locals, expats and tourists. Like a department store for readers, the meticulously organized shop offers a prime collection of books, newspapers and magazines in English on Spui, one of the city's busiest squares.
A full calendar of author presentations, book signings, literary events, writing workshops, book discussions, Open Mike performances, and even yoga courses further engages the community. Such iconic authors as David Baldacci, Stephen Fry and David Sedaris have appeared at the Amsterdam ABC, many before their books earned them literary fame.
Today's ABC offers few hints about its humble beginnings in 1971, when visiting American Mitch Crossfield identified a strong market for English language books in Amsterdam. “Everyone speaks English here,” he told his buddy Sam Boltansky, back on America's east coast with stacks of English books in his Baltimore, MD apartment. What began as an informal import-export partnership became an official book retailer in 1972 when The American Discount Book, Magazine, Poster Retail and Distribution Center B.V., nicknamed American Discount, debuted as a source for affordable books in English in a former jewelry store on Kalverstraat, the major shopping street that bisects Amsterdam's historic center.
Shortly after it opened, a rebellious, 20-something Lynn strolled in looking for cheap magazines to read on a road trip to India with an ex-beau. With no clue she'd not only remain in Amsterdam, but also own an independent, family-run bookstore a decade later, she progressed from weekend security work to administration and keeping a struggling bookstore afloat through sales of staff-designed postcards depicting the city's Red Light District. After the store moved to larger quarters on Kalverstraat, staff changed its name to The American Book Center to reflect the discontinuation of discount books. A second ABC opened in The Hague in 1976. In 1983, the Kaplanian-Bullers bought the stores with Lynn's sister.
Fast-forward 35 years and Amsterdam's ABC is often listed as one of the 10 Most Beautiful Bookshops in the World. Since 2006, it's been housed in a 160-year-old building that was once a gentlemen’s cultural club, later a luxury jewelry store, then a grand piano store—a dream-come-true not only for ABC, but also for the Protestant Church Diocese that owns the historic structure. After numerous tenants, the church has realized its vision of a bookstore on its prime Amsterdam property, adjacent to the Begijnhof entrance on Spui.
ABC's current location on one of Amsterdam's central pedestrian squares draws a fair share of tourists. But in a city with the highest English-proficiency in the world, where English is spoken nearly as much as Dutch, the store's local market is comprised of Amsterdammers and expats looking for affordable books by authors who write in English. “Most of our local customers would rather buy a paperback published in an author's native English than wait 18 months for a translation that costs twice as much,” Lynn confirms.
With an intimacy that belies its ample size and an inventory distinctly different from its high-brow neighbor, the Athenaeum bookstore specializing in foreign and academic tomes across Nieuwezijds Voorburgwal, Amsterdam's ABC draws customers into an airy interior defined by sweeping walls of periodicals from the US and UK. Whether you're looking for the newest issue of Time, the latest Hollywood gossip in People, or an international lifestyle magazine, you've come to the right place. Also on the ground floor, a wide selection of niche art and design books, greeting cards, diaries, notebooks, games, sale merchandise, and specialty items selected by staff for their appeal to people who love ideas and quirky concepts are big draws for browsers.
Like the diverse books and e-books it sells, Amsterdam's ABC incorporates drama, playfulness, action, historic setting, and inspired characters. A towering book wall stocked with new publications, staff favorites and travel guides rises two stories to the first floor, where a cozy corner café offers drinks, sweets, and sunny spots for reading. Via stairs, ramps and a rear elevator, the interior spirals up three floors, to shelves stocked with everything from sci-fi and mysteries to romance, manga, children's and YA books, and volumes on animation, crafts, hobbies, gardening, cooking and erotica. The top floor houses literature, history, psychology, and American business books.
All inventory is curated by a 40+ staff of avid readers with 700+ years of collective bookselling experience, who select and sell the merchandise with ample customer input. Like librarians, each is responsible for specific genres. Favorite staff reads and recommendations add a personal touch to the ABC blog on the store's website.
Pieces of a large tree trunk from Osdorp, NL, installed around the Amsterdam ABC's central steel column, add whimsey that reflects Lynn's childhood fascination with tree houses as special places where children can ponder deep questions, express themselves, bond with friends and keep secrets from grown-ups. “The tree theme reminds us that books originally came from them,” she explains, adding, “We do have an environmentally-friendly roof on the building now.” Under that “green” roof, the building's original rafters are visible on the Amsterdam bookstore's upper level.
ABC added Europe's first Betty the Bookmaking Machines in 2010 to enable readers who are also writers to publish and sell their own books in its shops in Amsterdam and The Hague. Since 2015, it has played a key role in helping Dutch schools choose English books for their students.
Looking ahead, Lynn sees the ABC evolving into a home away from home for expats, students, long-term visitors and idea-lovers with myriad interests. “A bookstore can serve as a safe place away from home and work, where people can hang out, browse the shelves and be inspired,” she elaborates.
For the once-rebellious,socially-engaged hippie from Minnesota, the journey from ABC employee to clueless retailer, then owner/manager of a human-run bookstore with a vision for the future has included chapters of challenge, serendipity and ultimate success. From 12-hour shifts on Kalverstraat to surviving the digital revolution and competition from corporate-owned chains, ABC bookstores have overcome obstacles by making people a priority. On a personal level, Lynn became an author in 2005 with the publication of Passing on the Comfort: The War, the Quilts, and the Women Who Made a Difference, a memoir of two women brought together by a collection of quilts and the stories they tell.
Her advice for bookstore owners? “Invest in people,” Lynn says. “Because ultimately, a bookstore is about readers, not widgets, diamonds or shoes. Those may be fine things to sell, but our goal is to create a community of people who care about ideas.” In other words, a bookstore that's more than a source for books.