Boekie Woekie. A way of life

Charlotte Louen

— published in the framework of the expert meeting on artist's books


In the heart of Amsterdam there is a small bookshop called Boekie Woekie that sells artists’ books. ‘Shop’ is the suitable word for it; to call it a business would not be accurate. Although making money is a consideration, Boekie Woekie is not about commerce. It’s about “art, life and friendship”, says Saskia de Vriendt, one of the artists who founded the bookshop more than twenty years ago.

It all started on 1st January 1986 when a group of six artists – Henriëtte (Hetti) van Egten, Pétur Magnússon, Rúna Thorkelsdóttir, Kees Visser, Jan Voss and Saskia de Vriendt – opened a tiny shop in the Gasthuismolensteeg in the centre of Amsterdam: “Boekie Woekie – books by artists”. They founded the shop with the aim of improving the presentation, distribution and potentially the sales of their books. Between them the six artists had about 150 publications, which they sold in their own shop. The shop would be open six days a week, with each artist working one day.

Co-founder Jan Voss describes the presence of the artists in the shop as one long performance – a performance which took place in a bookshop that was barely bigger than a shop window.  According to Jan, “When there was one shopkeeper and one customer, a third person could not possibly fit in.” The shop remained located in that tiny space and stocked only books of the six artists for five years. Jan says about that period: “It was fun. We spent more money at the bar down the road than we made selling the books in the shop”. Asked at what point he was sure that Boekie Woekie would survive Jan Voss explains, “It took many years before Boekie Woekie was established enough for us to think it would survive. We never knew whether we would be able to pay the next rent. We still experience times like that, in which we think: ‘This is going wrong – in that sense the shop is never entirely infallible.” The name Boekie Woekie is actually derived from something meaning “shaky business”.

The venture was shaky from the start, and yet, the changes that took place in the organisation of the enterprise five years after its creation, demanded very major adjustments at Boekie Woekie. By 1991, two members of the group decided to call time on their adventurous performance by starting a family. And one of the founders had passed away. The founders were between twenty-five and forty years old when they started the bookshop. “Those first five years of Boekie Woekie, known to us then as the chicken coop, we saw either as a five-year-long piece of performance art or as one of those practical jokes people play on each other. But since we were and are serious people we did ask ourselves whether we wanted to continue with the bookshop venture or not because expansion to a larger shop and extra activities was the only way forward for us. We were approached many times by artists who asked us to stock their books, but since the shop was so tiny that one table and one customer was enough to fill it, we had arrived at a point where they could either stop with their performance altogether and close up shop or expand and increase their activities.” The three remaining founders (Hetti van Egten, Runa Thorkelsdóttir & Jan Voss) and one newcomer (Cornelia Hoedeman) searched for new, larger premises.

 

The ones who left the group did that “in time”, says Jan Voss, but for him and his two colleagues Hetti van Egten and Rúna Thorkelsdóttir it was too late. “For murder you get 15 years in the West, in Boekie Woekie we’ll serve life.” And the piles of books never get smaller, the number of titles and the number copies only increase. “If you want to get rid of the books under your bed, opening a shop is not a good strategy. I now have way more books to take care of than I did before.”

Despite this and his being in a quite ambivalent situation, Jan seems to enjoy it: “I find it wonderful that the books are there. If someone wants theirs back, we’ll give them back; otherwise we’ll keep them. It’s like the shepherd and his sheep, we would miss them if they weren’t there.” Jan is clearly still devoted to the venture he started twenty years ago. Quitting is simply not an option, because of a need, an obligation almost, that Jan, Rúna and Hetti feel to ensuring that the phenomenon championed by Boekie Woekie lives on. Jan defines this phenomenon as “the urge of many individuals to publish books in their own right”, and that is what the remaining founders aspire to support and encourage. “We want to represent a phenomenon, we want to say: something is going on out there. And I think that our shop allows us, compels us, in a way to show as much of what’s going on as possible. Often books are brought to us and we just can’t refuse to take them. Even if it’s clear that they will never sell.”

Not everyone considers the books they take to be strictly artists’ books. As Jan explains: “I think the definition of what is an artists’ book is a very unclear. Many people differ in their opinions of philosophical question. One might not consider a particular book art, but I wouldn’t want to be the one who says it is not art.” This implies that Boekie Woekie is eager to show all aspects of the phenomenon – they are not selective in this way.

 

In spite of the ambitions named above, Jan, Hetti and Rúna are also very aware of the huge limitations of their undertaking. Boekie Woekie, Jan says, is able only to show a tiny fraction of what is out there. “There is an incredible pressure in the miserable game we call the art world. But the artists’ book has remained a relatively unspoilt little corner of the art world. And in that innocent corner, thousands of people want to play but there’s not enough space for all of them. We have grown from a bookshop stocking a hundred of our own titles to a bookshop with a stock of some 7,000 to 8,000 books. We realise now that in the twenty years we have been dealing with books, we have been able to show only a fraction of what actually exists. The phenomenon requires more than we can offer. We can only say: ‘Look, the phenomenon exists!’”     

Still, as was mentioned earlier, these limitations do not lessen the determination of Jan and his colleagues to show that this urge to make artists’ books exists. Since they moved to the bigger premises they also extended the range of their activities. They sell books by many artists (apart from their own creations) and they often present the books at fairs. They have on several occasions exported the shop, running a temporary branch abroad. These side-projects are always in partnership with someone who is established in the country where they want to set up a temporary bookshop. This started in 1995 when Boekie Woekie teamed up with Dieter Roth selling books at his exhibitions.

It is quite an undertaking to set up such a project, because every time legal, financial and organisational challenges must be dealt with. Some may perceive Jan, Hetti and Rúna’s lack of professional training in book sales as a disadvantage. However, for more than twenty years the Boekie Woekie team have been proving these people wrong. In this way the name “books by artists” has a double-meaning. The founders use all their creativity to manage all the work in their own way. Of course, the survival of Boekie Woekie has never been a certainty and the team never knew, nor do they know, what adventures await them (take the temporary foreign branches, for instance).

Boekie Woekie has had a temporary foreign branch in London, Reykjavík, Vienna and Basel to name just a few places. The foreign sojourns have proved quite successful. In the case of Vienna there were even thoughts of continuing the project and establishing a permanent branch there. However, after some consideration and an extended visit the three owners of Boekie Woekie decided not to expand their activities abroad. Jan explains: “It’s growing over our heads! There is too much to do! In the first five years of the 1990s one of us would look after the shop each day, now the three of us are there every day. We should actually start thinking about delegating things, the website, for example.” That said, they have always been determined to sort everything out for themselves – the financial part of the shop, the administration, the bookselling, the organisation and allocation of the branches in other cities, the website as well as the exhibitions. They are proud of their independence and self-sufficiency.

The first location on the Gasthuismolensteeg, was used also for exhibiting art. Despite the limited space available, one wall of the shop was reserved for the display of artworks. Since the relocation they have a little more space for this – while the back serves as temporary storage space for books needing to be taken up into the administrative system and be placed in the front of the shop two of the walls function also as exhibition space. Space on the whole is in short supply, the shop is filled with piles of books and the three of them admit: “It is permanently growing and we can’t cope with the influx of more books. Mountains of books are still waiting to be taken up into the stock.”

Jan thinks that “if there were shops like Boekie Woekie in all major European cities, the issue of distribution of artist’s books would be resolved quite quickly.” He does not understand “why there are not shops all over Europe specialising in publications which standard bookshops have a hard time promoting and selling.” And he adds: “I really think that establishing such shops from Lisbon to Stockholm would make a lot of sense.”

 

Still the three of them are not giving up, even concerning administration, a terribly time-consuming activity as one can imagine. Boekie Woekie stocks more than 8,000 titles and works on the basis of consignment. Therefore Jan, Hetti and Rúna have to know exactly how many books they have added to their stock in the first place, how many books they have sold and whom receives the money for the copies sold.

It is clear, though, that the whole Boekie Woekie project could not function with any system other than the consignment system. They simply cannot pay to buy up all the books – when they founded the shop they couldn’t afford the books they had, and now they have so many books, they never could pay for them all. “We have no money, there is no financial backing. We never had money to buy the books and that’s why I think it’s fair to ask the people to give the books in consignment.” It enables Jan and his colleagues to continue running the shop as they do and to accept publications without having to think about whether they will sell.

For the artists who want to sell their books to Boekie Woekie, it is
“a perfect outlet. It especially suits artists who have difficulties finding their place in the art world, which is obviously run in such a way that artists are constantly asked to make compromises. It allows the artist to measure and test the response to what he or she is doing. Boekie Woekie is like an academy in many ways, it is a very productive way of spending your time.”

 

Back in 1986 when the shop was launched, the founders, six artist friends, already suspected that there could be an element of truth in the phrase, ‘the name says it all’. They understood it would feel like boogie woogie to run such a bookshop. It requires patience and determination. Boekie Woekie has grown, literally in terms of the amount of square metres of floor-space, and, in terms of the ever-increasing number of titles stocked and gradually sold. There are different activities going on, from exhibitions to temporary branches and presentations at book and art fairs. But despite the upward trend it’s still not all plain sailing. Boekie Woekie’s financial situation and its ambitions remain on shaky ground. However, Jan and his colleagues still enjoy and embrace the bookshop venture with all the different challenges that come along with it. As Saskia puts it: “Boekie Woekie is about art, life and friendship; they are one and the same”. Jan adds, referring to the shop: “It is life itself”.



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