Feeding hungry minds

25th July 2003, Comments 0 comments

American Book Center Managing Director Lynn Kaplanian-Buller is in the business of the written word and has years of experience feeding the minds of thirsty readers. This is her story.

“My personal goal is to get as many books as possible out there into those hungry minds as there are people writing them,” says Lynn Kaplanian-Buller.

As managing director and co-partner (with her husband Avo Kaplanian) of the American Book Center, she’s been feeding hungry minds for years.

She not only has three book stores — Amsterdam, The Hague, Leuven — but regularly donates books to charities here and abroad, connects people through her Amsterdam activities center and art gallery (The ABC Treehouse) and nurtures many writers living in Holland.

The panoramic view of city rooftops from the fifth floor office window of her Amsterdam store is fascinating, but the woman in the room is even more interesting. Lynn is a soft-spoken, quietly dressed go-getter. She makes things happen.

How she did it

Starting as a sales clerk in 1972 in the small American Discount Center in the Kalverstraat, near to the Spui, Lynn quickly made herself indispensable and within short time was overseeing the administration.

By 1977 she was director and the store passed into her capable hands in 1983.

The business eventually moved from its original location to its present day larger quarters at Kalverstraat 185.

But because the inventory no longer consisted of discounted titles and publishers' remnants, the name was changed to The American Book Center in 1993. Between the three stores, the staff numbers about 65 people.

Creativity and exchange

The Amsterdam store is the mothership and stocks more than 150,000 titles in English and offers the largest collection of science fiction/fantasy books in continental Europe.

With a huge magazine section, many specialised books, regular sale items and Oprah's picks, it's a bookaholic's dream.

A coffee machine (in the basement) and chairs make it hard to leave.

The ABC Treehouse, located close by at Voetboogstraat 11, offers a meeting place for artists, poets, writers and musicians, with regular art exhibitions, writers' workshops and other activities. An Open Mike is held the last Friday of every month.

Lynn wants to create a climate for creativity and exchange.

But as a steady stream of tourists and expats browse all floors of the book store, Lynn surprises and says: "Most of our customers are Dutch".

The secret of success

Lynn says one reason for the success of the company is that there's no reason to comparison shop.

"We've already looked at the US and UK versions of a title and chosen to buy the least expensive one," she says.

There's also customer service.

"We've always sent special orders out to people," she says.

"At first, they ordered via letters and fax.

"We added e-commerce in 1994 and put up the first Dutch bookstore website early in 1995."

And competition?

"Our biggest competitors would be local (Waterstones, Atheneum and Scheltema) as well as global (Amazon.com)," Lynn says.

"Because we have so many staff buyers constantly staying on top of their sections, we can react quickly to what's being requested.

"We get 12,000 new titles a month - that's a conservative estimate. Most are single copies.

"Our edge on our local competition is the breadth of our English-language assortment over all sections, our price flexibility and our specialised knowledge."

But does Amazon.com pose any great danger?

"Don't expect internet booksellers to put us out of business," Lynn says.

"Our advantage over them (outside of the obvious advantages of 'bricks over clicks') is being able to draw good deductions from the database information re: actual availability and to explain why sometimes a book looks cheaper on screen than it actually will be when delivered.

"We've got very knowledgeable staff; they engage in dialogue with clients in order to hone in on what's wanted and they have a more holographic overview than a search engine."

The digital challenge

Lynn is full of surprises and says The American Book Center has the fastest search engine on the web.

She says that from first experiments it became clear that it would be easy to lose a lot of money from the internet, so the American Book Center always considered its website as an information spot and just another way for readers to approach.

"Instead of having one guy in a corner doing the website, we've always had as many staff members as possible involved in writing, designing, answering emails and fulfilling orders," she says.

"This has been more challenging for all of us and indeed became a method by which we all learned to work with the new digital technology.

"We've never lost money at it. And in spite of giga competition, we're still here.

"That feels good!"

The American Book Center can be found at: Kalverstraat 185, 1012 XC Amsterdam. Ph: 020 62 555 37 or www.abc.nl

© 2001 Jonette Stabbert

Subject: Expat profiles

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