Athenaeum, Amsterdam 15 April 2008

Presentation of the managing director of Athenaeum Booksellers, Mr Maarten Asscher, for Ukrainian book distributors and booksellers, and the director of the Romanian Association of Publishers and booksellers


The Athenaeum bookstore  was founded in 1966 along with a literary publishing house by Johan Polak, a book loving heir of a family fortune earned with perfume.

Originally there was only the bookshop at Spui, in 1969 the News Centre next door was added, in 1988 a general bookstore in the city of Haarlem, and since 1998 four small campus bookstores in Amsterdam. Early 2008, Athenaeum took over the bookshop at the Amsterdam Historical Museum, which is open to the general public through the museum entrance at Nieuwezijds Voorburgwal street. Athenaeum has also a small publishing line, which reprints modern classics on demand in the field of the literary and academic essay.

The annual turnover of Athenaeum bookstores amounts to € 7,5 million. There are 45 employees, and the bookstore has 50 thousand titles in stock. The Athenaeum bookstore is a combination of a literary, cultural, and academic centre. It is independent, not a part of a chain or a conglomerate. The bookstore at Spui has 200 m2 commercial floor space, all Athenaeum outlets together some 500 m2.


Athenaeum cooperates and forms partnerships with others:

1. University of Amsterdam (UvA)

This is not an exclusive partnership, other bookshops also sell textbooks, but it is a good and very fruitful cooperation. This is thanks to Athenaeum specialization in humanities. It is essential to make a choice, a very clear profile with clear specialisation, expertise, and a clientele community among teachers and students. Of course there is competition all around, but Athenaeum has a unique, special book selection and expertise, with a different assortment and atmosphere than any other bookstore.

2. “Spui 25”, an academic cultural and literary centre with 80 seats, set up across the street together by the Athenaeum bookstore and the University of Amsterdam, which organizes 2 or 3 times every week lectures, debates, and book launches. Two publishers, two university faculties, and the quality newspaper NRC Handelsblad joined the initiative. Athenaeum sells books during the events related to the topic of the evening.

3. Writer(s) in residence

On the upper floor of the building, Athenaeum hosts a writer in residence who stays several months to work on a book. This is co-financed by state-funded literary foundations.

Guiding principles

The guiding principle is that the Athenaeum Booksellers know the developments in their field of specialisation and select the best and most original new books from national and international publishers’ catalogues. The specialisation and expertise comes from the staff. For example, the young classical scholar who runs the classics department is working with two of his colleagues in the shop on a new website with extensive webshop facilities. The initiative does not come only from the management.

This is motivating for the personnel and attracts young people, as their work entails far more than just the cash register.

All this cannot be maintained without extensive software and computer support. Athenaeum uses its software mainly to control stock, logistical processes, support the website and inform customers about the status of their orders.

Athenaeum has a unique ownership structure, with staff profit sharing (profit over the past five years has been between 5% and 6% of the turnover). Roughly one third of that profit goes to taxes, one third is added to the company’s capital for continuity and possible future investments and one third goes to all those in the staff with a permanent contract. Forty eight per cent of the company is owned by a foundation run by the staff, and fifty two per cent is owned by a trustee and the managing director. This intelligent structure ensures that the bookstore cannot be taken over, so that the continued independence of the company is guaranteed.

The building is owned by another foundation, founded by the estate after the death of the founder of Athenaeum and it is rented to the bookshop at a regular commercial fee.

Approximately ten percent of the staff per year leaves Athenaeum to retire or to work elsewhere, but there are also people who have a 30 or even 40 years of track record in the company. This staff rotation ensures a good mix of experienced and new people, older and young ones.

Quoting the renowned music conductor Vladimir Gjergiev, who has been conducting the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra for many years, “our toughest competitor is our own past which we have to live up to”.

Further to the staff motivation, there is differentiation in salary depending on the function and experience. Start salary is € 1.500 - € 1.600 gross. The average at Athenaeum is € 1.900 gross, which is 20 % higher than usual in bookselling. Average level of education in Dutch bookselling is low, too low. But formal education is not all, many a bookseller worked hard to become a specialist without an academic degree. Nevertheless, for the academic fields in which the bookstore specialises, booksellers with a university degree are almost indispensable.

In a newly established bookshop you shouldn’t expect to make a sizeable profit for the first 3 years, building up the clientele and different cooperation in the book trade and in the local social and cultural network. What is important is permanent innovation, but not changing anything unnecessarily. Different activities tied to different seasons – this evens out seasonal fluctuations in sales. All the year round there should be a reason for people to visit your shop and your website regularly.

A bookshop is a cultural institution on economic basis; it is not just about being in business, but about playing an active role in the cultural life of your city and your country.

© CEEBP 2008

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