When ABC Amsterdam opened the doors of its new store at Spui 12 in 2006, a new phase in the life of the company began: a professional outlook, in an exciting new store, housed in a beautiful building on the pretty, tree-lined Spui square – a paradise for book lovers, right in the heart of Amsterdam.
Customers browsing the shelves of The American Book Center’s new store, or of the recently spruced up Hague store will probably have little idea of how much the company has changed since it started in the 1970’s, or of how much it has remained the same.
Bargain Basement Beginnings
In 1972, two Americans, Sam and Mitch, opened up a bargain bookstore next to Madame Tussaud’s in Amsterdam. They sold remaindered books upstairs, and downstairs in the basement, customers could shop for soft porn magazines to the sounds from the horror show next door. Another store opened in The Hague in 1974. (There have also been stores in Groningen, Eindhoven and Leuven, in Belgium.)
The original owners began a long tradition of challenging the established rules by insisting that they be allowed to stay open seven days a week, from nine a.m. until eleven p.m. – the same as the sex shops – first without and later with a permit. ABC has kept long opening hours ever since.
A Broad Selection
Soon customers asked for titles which were not among the remainders. Sam and Mitch ordered them in, and so the stock grew, based on the wishes of the customers. These days we’ll also take suggestions from publishers, and gather ideas on the internet and in the trade magazines, but mostly, what we have on our shelves is there because customers asked us for it. This means that our selection has always been much broader and more eclectic than the average bookstore. We were one of the first and best places to buy New Age, Gay and Sci-Fi books, and now the first and best stop for Manga. Until quite recently, we were scorned by the established Dutch book world and were not able to buy from the Dutch book importers. So we imported books ourselves, placing orders for small quantities of a wide variety of titles rather than mountains of bestsellers.
While most bookstores have one central buyer, who may or may not work in the store, at ABC, we hand over the responsibility for stock to as many people as possible. No qualifications are needed to be a buyer for a section except enthusiasm and an interest in the subject. Because they have ordered each book and shelved it and they control their own inventory by hand, buyers know their sections well and can help customers find the right book without using a computer. We all know about books: In Amsterdam, regular staff build up knowledge on each of the sections on their floor, plus a general knowledge of the books in the rest of the store. Meanwhile shoppers in the Hague can be assisted by staff who know a about every section in the store. We try to make sure that a buyer for each of the major sections is in the store every day so that you are always able to get advice from someone who really knows the genre. Publishers reps, used to dealing with one central buyer are initially shocked that they might need to spend a whole day or even two at the store, if they want to see each buyer; most enjoy the warm atmosphere, friendly chat and bottomless cups of coffee so much that they don’t mind.
A Family Business
ABC’s owner and director Lynn Buller joined The ABC while on vacation here from her home in Minnesota in 1972. Originally employed to keep an eye out for shoplifters, she made herself indispensable, and eventually bought the company in 1983 along with her husband Avo Kaplanian, and sister Rachel. Rachel sold her shares after a year (and bought a farm back in the US) but Lynn and Avo were co-directors until 1996, when Avo’s heart told him in no uncertain terms to take a step back. After many years alone at the helm, Lynn handed over the daily running of ABC to two adjunct directors, but she and Avo are still very much involved with the company. Their children, Nadine and Paul, also work at ABC in a variety of functions, like HR, window display, marketing, buying, warehouse and cash desk.
ABC is not a national chain with the backing of investors but a fiercely independent family-run business which has managed to stay afloat in a cut-price, multinational, online bookselling world where many other independents have floundered. Lynn likens the company to bamboo: it is strong, but it is also flexible and able to bend and resist whatever winds may batter it. We survive by playing to our strengths: adaptability, independence, creativity and staff loyalty.
A Fun Place to Work
Lynn has always believed that ABC’s greatest strength is its people. Believe in and trust your staff, allow them freedom, and they will make the company strong; ABC staff now have a famous reputation among booksellers worldwide. When you work here, every day is different. You’ll work hard, and often find it stressful, but it’s also fun! We have quick yoga lessons from Klaartje to make sure all the lifting and computer work we do doesn’t damage our backs. We take lunchtime naps on the well worn sofas in the kitchen. We have yearly staff clothing exchanges – not just to save money, but because we believe in recycling everything and trying to leave as small an environmental foot print behind as possible. We might have an impromptu jamming session with a colleague who brought his guitar, or practice salsa moves in the warehouse. We enjoy Christmas parties in cozy cafés and sultry summer barbecues in Avo and Lynn’s garden, with swimming and boat trips in the lake. We work, play, eat, get drunk and sometimes even live together. Sometimes it’s hard to figure out where work stops and fun begins.
We almost never advertise for staff. Anyone who says “I want to work here” is welcome to apply for a job, and we go through the bulging file of applications each time we need someone new. Everyone comes in at minimum wage, but is given the chance to grow and earn more by becoming a buyer, or joining a focus group, or taking on other tasks like processing web orders. Each day becomes what you make it. You’ll help customers find a book or maybe just the quickest way to the Anne Frank House, order books, even print books! Or you’ll stock shelves, visit trade fairs, set up a display, create an information leaflet, hunt out great bargains, unpack boxes, package mail orders, answer e-mails and the telephone or sometimes, just work the cash registers. Multi-tasking is taken to the extreme in The Hague where everyone takes turns at doing all of the days tasks. This means that it is impossible to only be answering e-mails, or only processing mail orders as you’ll often also be answering the phone and unpacking the van at a moment’s notice!
Shared Decision Making
The company has a semi-flat organization; we have directors and managers but everyone is welcome to influence the decision making. Amsterdam staff were consulted by the architects of the new Amsterdam store, and their wishes and combined expertise have been considered in every aspect of the design of Spui 12, and also in the refurbishment of our Hague store. There are managers who will consult with members about the structure of the day but rarely tell staff what to actually do. It takes a particular sort of person to work well within this structure – those who can often end up staying for a long time.
This all may seem chaotic to outsiders, but perhaps this is what makes us so able to adapt and deal with the many challenges we face as independent booksellers.
We still sell porn and remainders, and we still do things in our own way, but now we’re the biggest bricks & mortar source of English language books on the Continent. We may be becoming smarter smarter and more conventional, but we hope to remain the same group of friendly, helpful, slightly quirky booksellers we have always been.