Lambiek in Amsterdam,the oldest comic store in the world,is a shop where people go to reclaim the child in them.
Here you are said my Dutch friend. Here was De Wallen,the far-famed red light district of Amsterdam. My friend was showing me around the city. Out of a sense of duty she had offered a tour of the coffee shops. I had declined,and now she had brought me here,presumably by a process of elimination. “No,you misunderstand,I want to go to Lambiek,the oldest comic book store in the world! They say that Herge used to shop here,” I protest. My friend is unimpressed. If this was a comic book,there would be a thought balloon above her head with the text reading “Comic book nerd”.
We press on through the winter gloom,snow flakes slowly drifting down. The cobblestones gleam wetly. Trams tinker along in the fast fading light. Very Frank Miller I think. I recall the famous opening lines from Albert Camus The Fall,”Have you noticed that Amsterdam’s concentric canals resemble the circles of hell?” I put such morbid thoughts on hold for we finally arrive at Kerkstraat. Kerkstraat in its original incarnation in the 17th century was a collection of coach houses and stables of the wealthier adjoining “canal houses”. It is easy to spot Lambiek amongst the grey shopfronts a life size cutout of a bowler-hatted,bow-tied man on a cycle greets customers. Inside,it is an oasis of warmth. Comics everywhere! There are few English titles,but no matter. It is a pleasure to just flip through them,taking in the fantastic illustrations. It is a return to the joys of thumbing through a book for pictures long before one can read. The manager of the shop is a tall,bespectacled man with the air of a university professor. He takes me through the history of the shop. It is near closing time,but “who cares about closing time?,” he says genially. How did he get to become manager? “My name is Schoenmaker which is shoe-maker while the owner is Kousemaker which means sock-maker,so we really found each other like that,” he says.
Lambiek was founded by Kees Kousemaker in 1968,when the keen comic fan could not find old comics that he had read as a child. He named the store after “Lambik” a popular character from the Suske & Wiske comics. Lambik,a balding,pompous figure with a heart of gold was named in turn after a favourite Belgian beer of the author.
The early customers were people like Kees. They wanted to “recreate their childhood,” says the manager. They were the people “who tried to find the comics they had when they were kids,or wanted to have but couldnt buy because their parents said no.” While buying the comics they had treasured as children,they also discovered new offerings,and slowly a comic-buying audience came into being.
What does it take to work in a comic book store? Almost encyclopaedic knowledge and an elephantine memory,says Schoenmaker: Even as a kid I looked at the backsides,at the printings,the numbers of the series and the title. And I always remembered them”. This knowledge is often tested by customers. People are always entering the store saying,’I have a funny question,’ says Schoenmaker,”I always say the funniest question is also the nicest”. Once a woman came into the shop and very hesitantly said she was looking for a particular comic. She had no idea of the name or even the characters it was a beloved comic of early youth and all she remembered was the image of a girl offering roses to an old man while a railway station was being inaugurated. The woman almost keeled over in shock when Schoenmaker calmly pulled out the exact comic in an instant. “It was from the series Lucky Luke. The title is Railway through the Prairie,a book I devoured as a kid. I almost know every inch by heart,so I was lucky,” he says with a laugh.
I have a funny question too. The Tintins I read as a child seemed brighter,the colours deeper and richer,the lines cracklingly crisp. When I went through a recent printing,it somehow seemed dull. Was it just because I was older? Had the magic gone? “I experience that as well here in the Dutch versions” says Schoenmaker. “Every reprint is slightly more off-colour than the earlier ones,” he explains. “And what might be the reason is the fact that nowadays all the printing is done with computer. They have to rescan all the colours and do it in the computer. There is a difference.”
While in most of the world,comics had to be re-marketed as graphic novels to be taken seriously,in Europe they were always a serious business. As Schoenmaker explains,at the turn of the century,without television,movies or radio,comics were big and so were comic artists. People used to buy newspapers often based on the comic strips they carried. In America,as other media proliferated,the star value of the artist declined. In Europe,however,comics managed to hold onto their status,and were very much a part of the cultural mainstream. Hugely popular comic magazines like Spirou and Tintin helped propel this growth. As we talk,other customers chip in with their memories. One man says his first gateway to India was a Suske & Wiske comic called Lambik Baba,set in India and featuring the Shirdi Sai Baba! An Indian woman looks for Amar Chitra Kathas to give to her Dutch husband for a quick immersion into Indian culture.
It is time to go,and we exchange business cards. Their card,designed and drawn by Chris Ware,is a thing of exquisite beauty. It is actually a tiny comic featuring Wares anti-hero Jimmy Corrigan,the Smartest Kid in the World.
Kousemaker passed away in 2010 but his legacy continues under his son. “I miss him,” says Schoenmaker,”Once in a while I remember how he used to enter the store and start shouting that I have to clean up the mess. I miss that,so I keep it a bit messy in memory of him”.