Glancing at what seems to be an infinite abyss of books, one feels that Athenaeum Boekhandel holds every title ever published and can expand at will to host even more
In Amsterdam’s historic square and weekly book market venue het Spui, a statue of a street boy guards the entrance of Athenaeum Boekhandel & Nieuwscentrum. The white facade of a Dutch Baroque building towers over the modern finish of the ground floor. Under its red and white awnings, illuminated windows reveal a tessellation of book covers and low stands bear neatly arranged piles of magazines.
Inside, tall black shelves brimming with books line the three floors of the bookstore and elongate into island displays, creating nooks and aisles with a labyrinthine quality to them. Customers in search of a particular genre can trust LED-illuminated signs on top of the shelves to help them navigate the rooms with a sense of purpose and direction, or they can wander through the spellbinding patchwork of book covers, guided by curiosity.
Diversity and richness are the keywords in this space where avant-garde indie zines and children’s books cohabit with ancient embellished editions of classic novels. Glancing up and down the stairs, to an apparent infinity of walls and displays crowded with books and tomes, one feels the bookstore holds every title ever published and can expand in space at will to host even more.
Athenaeum Boekhandel was founded in 1966 by publishers Johan Polad and Rob van Gennep in a former artwork store. Three years later, the store underwent an expansion by creating the newscenter and broadening its offer to newspapers and magazines. The publishing house Polak & Van Gennep Uitgeversmaatschappij eventually split off from the bookstore and merged with Uitgeverij Querido, but that did not discourage Athenaeum Boekhandel & Nieuwscentrum from continuing on its path of development.
In 1976, Athenaeum Boekhandel proved that the growing success and clientele did not make it forget its original nature of the independent enterprise, and decided to rescale its structure and turn into a private company by offering co-ownership to the staff, then going on to further build its presence in the editorial panorama.
Athenaeum Boekhandel is now one of the largest independent bookstores in Amsterdam and the Netherlands, counting six branches — each with its particular assortment of titles and publications — and an online shop with more than ten million titles and a daily offer of book reviews, podcasts, and articles. The joint catalog ranges from Dutch authors to foreign and ancient languages, from academic texts about history, politics, classics, to independent magazines on current affairs, design, art, fashion, and cooking.
In 2018, the bookstore knocked down the walls that separated it from the adjacent newsstand and incorporated it, stocking its kiosk to the brim with cutting-edge publications and international newspapers, thus completing its latest expansion into the universe of publications.
While extending its reach to international titles and editors, Athenaeum takes pride in its Amsterdammer roots — «Amsterdammers buy their books in an Amsterdammer bookshop, either in-store or online», declares its website, signaling allegiance to the empowering initiative it created with bookstore Scheltema involving twenty-one other local bookshops. But Athenaeum does not reserve its devotion to its fellow citizens only — it offers a welcoming space for international literature lovers, intellectuals, art, and design students, aspiring novelists, tourists, and inspiration seekers.
Athenaeum Boekhandel does not dismiss its origins and remains actively involved in the independent publishing panorama, hosting launch events and panels to give the spotlight to emerging editors and to offer the public an authentic insight on the behind the scenes of the editorial universe.
Over time, with a steady expansion in offer and space and with increasing connections and trust with independent editors and publishers, Athenaeum has rightfully gained the reputation of veritable palace of printed paper.
Amsterdam, the Netherlands