Athenaeum Booksellers, Spui 14-16, 1012 XA Amsterdam
Imagine you’re a young Japanese tourist in Amsterdam who suddenly feels the urge to read up on his next holiday destination in the travel magazine WYP (働きながらインを探). Or you’re a Brit cycling the Continent, who’s made a stop off in the Dutch capital, curious for the new issue of Boneshaker, a magazine “celebrating the wonderful things that happen when people and bikes come together.” Or you’re an expat architect from Egypt who wants to catch up on the urban developments at home in Brownbook, an urban guide to the Middle East. Or maybe you’re just a local, craving something new to read. Well, consider yourself lucky to be in the same city as Athenaeum bookstore.
In the lively historic center of Amsterdam, it is almost impossible not to end up at Het Spui. The square—famous as the scene of student demonstrations in the turbulent sixties—is dominated by a beautiful old building that houses both the Athenaeum News Center and Athenaeum Booksellers, not to mention the Amsterdam Writer’s Residency (created and run by the Dutch Foundation for Literature). The News Center seems to be open at whatever hour I cycle by, and offers both foreign and local newspapers and magazines, along with a selection of travel guides and books on design, fashion, and lifestyle. The News Center’s twin is Athenaeum Booksellers, which also overlooks the square.
One of the things that makes shopping for books here a unique experience is the store’s interior. Instead of being your typical spacious bookstore with gleaming displays, it is an alluring maze. The bookstore, which opened its doors in 1966, is housed in a former gallery. Over the years, Athenaeum acquired some of the surrounding buildings and tore down the interior walls. The result is a unique setting with many different levels, mezzanines, and seemingly hidden corners, all connected by means of narrow stairs and small corridors, making browsing here an adventure.
With over 25,000 titles in stock, there are numerous sections to explore: not only Dutch and foreign literature, but also books on science, linguistics, philosophy, history, law, social sciences, architecture, and cooking. And even when you end up in a section on a topic you know absolutely nothing about, you will discover a book you absolutely must have.
In my opinion, the difference between a decent bookstore and a great bookstore is this element of serendipity. A crucial factor in Athenaeum’s charm is that their buyers and sellers often know what their customers want even before they know. For instance, I probably never would have become aware of Anne Carson’s Variations on the Right to Remain Silent—one of the most evocative texts I have ever read on “the stakes involved when translation happens”—if an Athenaeum bookseller hadn’t drawn my attention to it. It is therefore hardly surprising that for some locals, Athenaeum functions as a substitute living room.
But these are modern times, so in 2009, Athenaeum also opened a virtual branch. Their website is now a full-blown virtual store, where one can dwell for hours, reading reviews, previews, interviews, and excerpts, watching movies, and exploring what’s going on in the literary world. To my knowledge, the Athenaeum website is unique in the prominence it gives to the craft of translation. The website has a feature called Eerste zinnen (“First Sentences”), where translators are given the floor to elucidate their translation of a specific novel, the dilemmas they face, and the choices they make—taking the first sentence as a starting point.
One could say Athenaeum has everything the modern resident, the old-fashioned resident, and the tourist could wish for. (Yes, the Athenaeum people will also tell you how to get to the Van Gogh museum, the Flower Market, or the nearest coffee shop.) And if you don’t want to leave the house, you can spend hours and hours on the Athanaeum website, order a book, and find it on your doormat the next morning. Is there nothing more to wish for, then? Well, maybe—in a city where one can order pizza 24/7, wouldn’t it be nice to have a special big red button on the website for the fidgety booklover who wants his or her novel delivered by bike courier? In this city of books and bikes, I can see it happening any day now.