Holland: sex, drugs and books (Druh chytacha, No 11, June 2007)

By Vitali and Dmytro Kapranov

What kind of associations do you have with Holland? Tulips? Cheese? Channels? Of course all of them. But a modern person first remembers the allowed free drugs, including hash, and second – the famous Red District.

So, we go along the street of already mentioned Red District, looking around. Everything is like they show us on TV – shop windows with live girls inside, sex-shops, coffee shops in which there is no coffee, but only drugs. In some windows you can see hemp plants in place of ordinary plants. Looks like a heaven for advanced public. But human imagination is a tricky one. You look at one girl and she is nice; as well as the second, the third, the fourth… And then you become bored. They are all the same! Willy-nilly you look up and see the first and second floors of the buildings with apartments above the shop windows. Can you imagine – flats above brothels and drug-coffee shops? At the first moment you are amazed no less than by the girls. Immediately you start imagining how it is to live in such a surrounding. You are trying to look deeper inside these apartments via bright-lightened windows and suddenly you see the bookshelves up to the ceiling filled with different books. And these books are not subscribed editions with golden covers but different books in different format and colours, lying in mess, one on another, like they have been often reread. We have to confess – first we didn’t believe our eyes. Then we came closer and checked again - these were really books. Probably it's an apartment of an extravagant intellectual. And what about the neighbouring flat? Books as well. And in the following, and further on too. Fantastic! 

The beginning of the story was that Matra program of the Netherlands Ministry of Foreign Affairs invited a group of booksellers to study Netherlands’ bookselling experience. It’s a shame to refuse new knowledge, so we dropped everything and rushed to Amsterdam. To be honest we expected an easy trip - business-tourism in a way. How many days do you need to study bookshops? A day? Two days? And then - channels, tulips, cheese and other exotics from the Netherlands. Luckily our expectations were not true. Organizers worked with us extensively and out of 5 days trip we had not more than half a day for exotics.

We were told about apartments above brothels – bohemia lives there; rents in such places are lower and people of arts are never frightened of sexual workers’ areas. Remember about Remarque’s heroes. But while wandering along the streets of Amsterdam we were looking inside other apartments – we can’t help it because we are writers and it is not a modest profession, you are always spying in another's life. And almost in all living rooms we saw bookshelves.

Where do people get these books? Obviously they are bought in bookshops. There are a lot of bookstores. What is very pleasant – majority of them are not supermarkets, but small (even for Ukraine) bookstores – forty-fifty square meters. Of course, there is also a splendid 5-storey bookstore in the city center, but for Ukrainian people there is nothing to learn from it. It’s the same as receiving a driving license for spaceship – you will never ever use it. But small bookstores are everywhere, sometimes even two or three near each other. As Guus Schut, the guru of the Dutch book market, explained to us, there is an interesting tendency  - when a new bookstore opens somewhere, the turnover in neighbouring bookstores goes up, and vice versa - if a bookstore closes down all other bookstores lose their money. Is this a paradox? Only at the  first glance. Books are special products. There are a lot of them. And if bookstores are located near each other, the customer will go to this area because she knows that she will find what she’s looking for in one of these bookstores.

Every bookstore has its own face or, as the experts say – a formula. In our country, everyone tries to squeeze on 30 square meters everything from detective stories to dictionaries. And in the end neither the customer nor the bookseller can find anything. And here everything is clear – this is a children bookshop, and there is a cook-books bookshop, and there is an arts bookshop and another one - architecture and design. This is a bookshop where you can buy American books, and another one is for poetry and the next - for Central and East European literature - exSoviet - with matryoshkas and Soviet symbols, but we also managed to find ABC book by Malkovych (AbaBaHaLaMaHa) in Russian and a book by Kurkov in English. There are also bookshops selling remainders. Why is it a necessity to have a specialization? The matter is that the customer then exactly knows where to look for a certain book.

Another impression - the small number of personnel in the bookstores. We were lucky to have conversations with booksellers and bookstore owners. They told us that usually in the bookstore two people work, one working day - one day-off. In the busy hours they work together. And do their job perfectly, taking into account that books in the bookshops in the Netherlands are usually wrapped in a special paper by booksellers.

In Holland there is the fixed retail book price (vaste boekenprijs – note CEEBP). It means, that the same book can be bought in every bookstore for the same price. Exceptions are only for remainders and short promo-actions. What are the benefits of this system? Bookstores are not competitors in terms of prices but in terms of qualified personnel, additional services and carefully chosen book assortment. As a result, a small bookstore can be a competitor to a 5-floor monster. For example one of our hosts mentioned that he doesn’t buy books in supermarkets, because booksellers there do not know their books very well and can hardly ever advise something. And in relatively small academic bookshop Athenaeum, booksellers’ knowledge is the basis of their business. In the present book ocean it is hard to survive without a qualified navigator, and this is exactly the role of the bookseller.

Most of the books in the bookshops are produced in the Netherlands. And only every fifth is an imported one. And it's in the situation when the large majority of population reads in English.

Who provides connections between publishers and the large number of small bookstores? What is the secret of success of the small bookshops?

The secret is that the Dutchmen started to build their book distribution system in the XIXth century. At that time they founded the Central Book House, which operated as a storage, packing and distribution entity for the Dutch books. Hundred years ago they distributed books by horse charts. Today, the Central Book House is a huge logistic company with ultramodern equipment. The visit there reminds one of science fiction films - automatic lines and robots that print and put invoices and books into the boxes, scanners. As a result - 0% mistake in packing. Dozens of thousands meters of storage, dozens of thousands of book titles, hundreds of employees. And what is interesting is that the General Director of this monster found 2 hours to give us a lecture and a guided tour. And we were just guests from an unknown country.

Today the Central Book House is a warehouse and distributor of almost all Dutch books. It collects payments from the bookstores, packs Internet-orders, reports to the publishers, and guarantees the returning. Why does a market need such a powerful player? It means that today it is easy to open a new bookstore in every Dutch city. You need to rent a space and place the shelves – and the Book House will deliver everything you need, every book of every publisher. Every week or every month - it depends on your wish. They act as magicians. And help Dutch publishers to dominate on their book market.

Five days we walked around in Amsterdam, took a number of trains, listened to lectures, examined bookshops, asked questions to their managers, met publishers and returned to the bookshops again. We didn’t have any time neither for Rembrandt museum nor for a banal city tour, not mentioning spending evenings in coffee shops with stuff legal there and illegal here. We have to visit Amsterdam again for all of these. But the most important we saw – the book business is really inspiring, interesting and intellectual. Once it will be understood in our country as well. At least we will do our best for this.

The study visit of the managers of “100 thousands books” distribution project was organized and supported by the Fund for central and East European Book Projects, the Matra Programme of the Netherlands Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and the International Renaissance Foundation.

The Kapranovs brothers,

Druh chytacha, #11, 2007

Translated from Ukrainian into English by Dinara Chubarova and Iryna Kuchma, International Renaissance Foundation

Fund for Central and East European Book Projects, Amsterdam

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