JENNIFER M. SCHAFFER
Amsterdam is a bizarre city. It has so many veins, yet it is hard to take its pulse. It is hard to make up your mind. You wait to fall in love with the city or else fall into indifference. You wait for things to click. You think about the moment things have clicked in other cities. For this reviewer, it was Dog-eared Books in San Francisco, where a quiet-pink tome of Lydia Davis waited like a sign; in Vilnius, it was Mint Vinetu, with its small cups of linden-tree tea, fresh apple cake, and a small but varied collection of English books, printed friends in a foreign land; and in Amsterdam, after over two weeks waiting for the verdict of my inner compass, it was Boekie Woekie.
Without an impulse or imperative to do otherwise, it is easy for the visitor to Amsterdam to find herself stuck in the hectic, polluted streets of central Amsterdam, the half-dead neon lights of Chinatown, the Red Light District’s rows of butts laid bare by hardly-there G-strings, the chaos and pigeons of Dam Square, the maze of cheap Argentinean steakhouses and shoarma shops. This reviewer, a paradoxical ‘city-person’ with a homebody streak, had found refuge on the seminar houseboat, Waterland, floating under the big Oosterdock sky; but otherwise found Amsterdam an intriguing but ultimately jarring city, too much crunched together and lit up for the sake of tourism. That is, before the click. Before this reviewer fell head over boots for one part of Amsterdam. Before Boekie Woekie.
Picture yourself, alone with the sole mission of getting lost. Your first free day after a whirlwind of art-making and art-reviewing that has brought you little sleep but several friends and revelations. You set out from Oosterdock intending to take a tram to some far corner of the city, maybe Vondlepark. Instead, you find yourself walking, walking, past Dam Square, past all of ‘that’ version of Amsterdam you’ve been privy to thus far. It is a hot and windy Sunday. Many blonde families are out in their bathing suits, going to or from the water. The bicyclists shed their sweaters in exchange for thinner linens. You watch them pass, still walking. The air seems clearer, cleaner, brighter.
You do not know where you are, you have been making 90-degree turns with little forethought. The atmosphere of Amsterdam seems fundamentally changed, though there remain the same canals and bridges and tall gabled houses with their curtainless windows. You realize you are at the Nine Streets, a more residential, less neon part of town. All of the shops (Cats and Things, etc.) are closed and a few block parties are happening (beautiful Dutch men and women are sipping wine from water glasses, on their stoops; beautiful Dutch men and women are dancing and eating burgers fresh from the grill; and somewhere, in the distance, a live electronic band is playing a rendition of “Country Roads”). You wander until the witching hour and then set on the path home, which necessitates a stroll through the thickening crowds of the Red Light and the killer bicyclist mobs of certain street crossings and the swarms of fat pigeons threatening at any moment to poop-and-aim. Perhaps you would, as this reviewer did, long to return to the Nine Streets. Perhaps you would return the next day to the first corner of Amsterdam this reviewer truly loved, and find a reason to love it even more. Perhaps you’d find your ‘click’ moment, as this reviewer found hers: in a small, surreal bookstore at Berenstraat 16: Boekie Woekie.
At the entrance to Boekie Woekie: a carousel of absurd postcards depicting fish, cats, patterns in acid-trip technicolour; a piece of weathered paper that reads “FOR IT NOT TO BE WORTH THE PAPER IT IS PRINTED ON IT HAS TO BE PRINTED”; an arrow pointing “BOOKS HERE”; a display window packed with big bold unrecognizable titles, each the only one of their kind. Upon stepping inside, you are greeted by what this reviewer estimates to be Amsterdam’s fattest and luckiest cat: a blubber-esque oblong ball of black fur dotted with two sarcastic eyes. The walls to your front and side are covered with bookshelves, each layered with books that never repeat. At the centre of the shop stands a thick island: more books atop books atop books. In the far corner sits the shopkeeper, a woman in rectangle glasses and cropped hair, typing slowly at an old laptop.
Stop and pick up one of the books, Paradoxymoron, expecting – well, not knowing what to expect. Find a labyrinth of philosophy that wraps into itself. Intelligent, bizarre art. Set the book down, pick up another. Rinse and repeat and watch as a few hours pass. One of this reviewer’s favourites is OTHER EXERCISES by Kurt Johansson, a small white square of a book, filled with small white square pages that contain only a nibble of text per page in crisp black typeface. “Try to remember what went through your mind when you learned that the shortest path between two points in the universe is a curved line.” “Draw a border from your ear to your mouth. Do not speak to anyone. Erase the border at night.” “Try to imagine God while watching your laundry spin.” etc.
Place OTHER EXERCISES down and walk around the store. Notice the walls: a small frame that reads “Peanut of the Month” and holds a shelled peanut nailed inside; two long lines of tiny faces cut out of photographs and magazines; odd-angled paintings of cats; a drawing of a slice of cake, captioned “THISISNOTART.” On one of the bookshelves sits a big plastic tub of nails, with a yellowing sheet of paper detailing instructions. (Essentially, pour salt water into the tub every day for a month, then drain.) Next to the plastic tub is a strange, crusty, oval statue: the result of the instructions, a rusty-nail masterpiece. DIY art.
In the second and final room of the shop, a wall of long, thin books including FOR IT NOT TO BE WORTH THE PAPER IT IS PRINTED ON IT HAS TO BE PRINTED, Boys and girls who could be models, Everything Looks Familiar. Some of these contain only images; others are built out of pieces from other, older texts; a few are collections of absurdist poetry; some pages are just one word, others are one word repeated ad infinitum. Facing these books is a counter, displaying famous figures heads fashioned into colourful 3D lollipops. On the next wall is a collection of postcards made from newspaper cut-outs, magazine advertisements, juice cartons, spaghetti boxes, recipe books, some created in 1994 and still unsold, still on display.
Boekie Woekie displays books created by artists, books that emphasize the rare and the sensual over the popular and reproducible. Argue what Kindle will, give this reviewer your economics lectures and doomsday predictions: no electronic can reproduce the aesthetic of a physical book, least of all a Boekie Woekie book, often bound by hand. No one book is displayed with another copy, so that each feels like the only edition on Earth. Some certainly are. It is a museum where you can touch all of the art and then, if you’d like, buy it and take it home. The prices are high – OTHER EXERCISES, no larger than a beer coaster, costs 15€ - but soon become relative; after holding a 350€ text, that 15€ begins to feel like a bargain. You realize that you are paying not only for the book or even for the art, but for the shop itself, for what the shop represents, something rare, approaching its perhaps inevitable extinction: the thoughtfully-, lovingly-printed word and image. The capital-B Book, which cannot exist in a form that places an ‘e’ before its title.
More than that tired truth is something else, something greater, that makes Boekie Woekie such a magical place, where two hours can pass like twenty minutes but drain your emotional energy like a full day. The existence of Boekie Woekie gives credit, even permission, to the creative individual disinterested in commercial considerations. Not opposed, simply disinterested; creating from another part of the body, somewhere between the heart and the hands, for a motive other than cocktail parties. (Though this reviewer would love to have Kurt Johansson at any cocktail party of her own.) The small scraps of paper turned into postcards, the books made up of notes kept over the course of five years, the photography collections of unapologetically commonplace images: they all seem to say, “Go do your thing. Now. It matters.” In Boekie Woekie it feels as if conviction is everything, in art and in life.
Emerging onto the streets of Amsterdam after an indefinite period of time spent touching, reading, hating, loving books, books, books, it becomes easier to cross the streets and the high sky seems lower, wider. Amsterdam is a city for artists. It is a city that denies no permissions. It is a city whose only requirement is that you want what you want enough to wear it on your sleeve or handlebars every single day.
Everyone must find their own Amsterdam, but if you find yourself seeking yours to no avail, this reviewer suggests that you need only escape the very-centre and go a bit further, to the Nine Streets, to one small, still-surviving bookshop whose very existence feels like a nod of subtle encouragement. Carry on.