What the Marché du Livre or Marché Georges-Brassens is to Paris, the Oudemanhuispoort is to Amsterdam.
In 1602 a care home called Oud Man Huis (Old Man’s House) was built to house approximately 100 poor elderly men and women. Initially, it was a home for men hence the name, but for centuries women made up most of its occupants. The entrance to this former care home is off an alleyway built at a later stage called Oudemanhuispoort, the literal English translation being Old Man’s House Gate. It runs between the Kloverniersburgwal and Oudezijds Achterburgwal, an area located in the historic part of Amsterdam.
Above the arched entrances are gables made from sandstone. Sandstone is porous and although initially white in color, it takes on a black appearance when exposed to damp air. Above the entrance to what was the care home the Oudezijds Achterburgwal, the figure of an old man can be seen, carved out of the sandstone gable in acknowledgment of the name – Old Man’s House.
Between 1754 and 1757 the alley was redesigned and fitted with display cabinets touting goods like jewels, precious metals, and books. In 1876 the city council relocated Amsterdam's daily book market from the Botermarkt (today's Rembrandtplein) to the Poort (the local abbreviation of Oudemanhuispoort) and the bookselling continues to this day. At the same time the University of Amsterdam’s Law Faculty started up and its entrance is located on the Oudemanhuispoort.
Every day and night these cabinets open and close selling mostly (second-hand) books, prints sheet music and postcards in an alley drenched in history. The city of Amsterdam has been given the go-ahead to repaint the doors of these cabinets from canal green back to the original red hue.
I interviewed one cabinet owner who sells books in the following languages; French, Dutch English and specializing in Literature, Philosophy, and History. For example, the Grim Brothers, Jane Austen, Possessions, The Secret Garden, Lord of the Rings, Wind in the Willows, Slaughter House Five, all priced at a favorable €4. On average the price ranges between €4 and €100 but mostly between €10 and €15.
A friendly man, the owner lives in the Old West of Amsterdam and has been touting his books for the past 20 years having studied Law and Economics at Leiden University. He comes from a different generation, one familiar with letter writing rather than emailing. Needless to say, he handles cash only, change given from nicotine-stained fingers (despite the no smoking signs but this is Amsterdam). He is open winter and summer from 11:30 am – 6:00 pm most days. A brave man, as the alleyway is draughty and the cement-brick walls and floors are unforgivingly cold in winter.
He told me a funny story about two middle-aged ladies who sat down at his book display table, moved his stock to one side and suddenly produced two fold-out chairs from nowhere. To his complete astonishment, they produced tea and cake and proceeded to enjoy their afternoon refreshment. The ladies looked perplexed when he insisted that their tea was to be consumed elsewhere!
I noticed with surprise how busy the alley was, a constant flow of tourists coming in one entrance and out another, following the tour leaders with the EU Flag at the top of a pole. The young guy wearing a backpack and buying architecture books for €21 with a joint between his lips (for those Anglo-Saxon readers we are referring to marijuana, not beef) and the Dutch guy who specializes in books on Amsterdam buying De Geschiedenis der Verlichting Van Amsterdam (The History of the Enlightenment in Amsterdam) €10.
In fact, it was not only a book market but from 1877 until the early ’70s there were professional blade sharpeners for scissors, knives and ice-skates.
If you wish to become a bookseller then will need patience, as all the cabinets are rented out and there is a long waiting list. The University of Amsterdam will be your landlord and they require that you open a minimum of 4 times per week. In return, however, you will be signing a rental agreement favorable to the tenant for an indefinite period of time.
So dear reader, the next time you switch on your computer and go to your favorite book-ordering site it might be an idea for you (that is if you are lucky enough to be living here) to jump on your bike and peddle to the Oudmanhuispoort. Come with no expectations and leave delighted!