Bookstore Vrolijk 30 years old – an early midlife crisis

Bookstore Vrolijk celebrates its 30th anniversary, amidst economic pressures that burden all bookstores, not only Vrolijk. Below is an interview with Vrolijk, to update you on the latest (and important information about the famous German gay publisher Bruno Gmünder).
(EDITOR’s NOTE: the interview has been conducted in Dutch, then translated into English – with a free hand.)

Entrance of Vrolijk bookstore
Entrance of Vrolijk bookstore

First, some history
Bookstore Vrolijk (the name ‘Vrolijk’ is Dutch for ‘merry’, ‘gay’ in the old sense of the word) has developed in the 1980’s, from the gay scientific scene. It started with a ‘reader service’ of the gay scientific magazine Homologie. Readers could order scientific works that were otherwise difficult to come by. When the book service became more successful, Vrolijk opened its own shop at Voetboogsteeg 7, in 1984. In 1989 it moved to its current location, Paleisstraat 135, just behind the RoyalPalace on Dam Square. There it started with paid staff for the first time, and Vrolijk also started to sell more commercial and main stream works, such as novels, photo books, calendars and gay (porn) comics.

Two kissing Delft-blue men
Two kissing Delft-blue men

Today, bookstores, and bookstore Vrolijk too, are struggling to survive. The internet has made book ordering easy, and independent from the shop. In the spring of 2013 the bookstore went broke. Fortunately, an investor was found to take over the bookstore: Mr Leendert Rietveld. The bookstore was completely redecorated, and re-opened in November 2013. The most important interior change was the addition of a café on the first floor, the Vrolijk Coffee Corner. For the interview we speak with Mr. Antoine van den Berg, sales person in the best-known gay/lesbian bookstore in the Netherlands.

Alain van den Berg
Antoine van den Berg

What do you think will make the difference for Vrolijk, after the re-start?
‘There are several things that have changed. – We’re going to use Facebook and Twitter to enhance our online presence, which is also meant to attract a younger crowd. Although we do get younger customers, most customer are above 40-50 years old. – We will create more events. For example, this month (June 2014) we celebrate our 30th anniversary. Every week we invite a special guest in the shop, for an interview or a presentation. Every day there is a special 30% discount on some items. And: there is coffee and home-made applepie for just E 2,50 (a really good deal in Amsterdam!). We will have more events such as lectures, presentations and exhibitions. – The website has been improved. We are now connected online with the ‘Centraal Boekhuis’, a major distributor in Dutch book land. This means we can offer more titles online, also titles that have no direct connection with homosexuality (although we will not actively promote these). – We will actively use our email newsletter. In this newsletter we select about 4 books and 4 dvd’s. It is our experience this information reaches our audience, and really enhances sales of these books and dvd’s. – We ’embellished’ our shop on the outside, our shop window. A simple thing like putting the text ‘gay and lesbian bookstore’ on the shop window attracts more visitors. Also, the rainbow flag outside makes it clear there is something gay/lesbian to do here. The pink carpet on the sidewalk is a temporary thing, only for our 30 years anniversary.’

Vrolijk coffee bar
Vrolijk coffee bar

And how about the coffee corner upstairs?
‘We hoped the coffee corner was going to work as a meeting place, and a place to read a newspaper or something just bought. However, the number of guests is still too low. I often work in the shop by myself, and am able to staff the shop and the coffee corner – which is telling. It should really be more busy.’

Vrolijk Coffee Corner
Vrolijk Coffee Corner

Do you think this might have to do with the fact the stairs are a bit hidden?Or perhaps a big sign outside or in the shop drawing attention to the coffee corner?
‘Might well be…. we’ll work on that’.

Reading table in Vrolijk Coffee Corner
Reading table in Vrolijk Coffee Corner

Info about the coffee corner:

  • – in the coffeecorner you can buy real packages of Vrolijk coffee.
  • – during June 2014, you can get coffee with home-made apple pie for just E 2.50
  • – there are free (Dutch) newspapers to read
  • – there is free WiFi

Now that Vrolijk has been open again for half a year, do you think the re-start had the desired effect?
‘The turnover is reasonable, but it’s really too early to tell. We’re still trying out a lot of things.’

Gay comics @ Vrolijk
Gay comics @ Vrolijk

Trying out things? Like what?
‘We’d like to sell more of ‘classic’ authors like Gerard Reve, but his works are not in print at the moment. Also, I’d like to do more with gay/lesbian poetry, but this is really a small niche market. Antiquarian sales is another thing we are thinking about. Self-publishers and printing-on-demand are topics we are looking into.’

Interior of bookshop Vrolijk
Interior of bookshop Vrolijk

How important has the internet become as a sales channel?
‘Very important. The website is growing and the share of internet sales, compared to shop sales, is also growing. Both in the shop and online, novels are the best-sold items. Porn not so much, as the internet has taken this over to a large extent, with online content, and it’s not our main occupation. But we still have a nice collection of gay (porn) comics. Also, we will work on our online presence. We publish a top-5 of titles on our website (www.vrolijk.nu) and on Facebook. The website still has some errors, and other websites reference us incorrectly. Sometimes with wrong information, such as out-dated opening hours. And sometimes we have been wiped out completely, such as on Nighttours.com, that lists us as ‘out of business’. Lots of work to do!’

Lesbian Delft-blue figurines
Lesbian Delft-blue figurines

How lesbian is Vrolijk?
‘As always we still select a lot of women-related titles. A fact is that there are more male than female titles on the market. The shop visitors are about 2/3 men, 1/3 women. We have a lot of titles from the lesbian publishing house LaVita.’

Vrolijk's own coffee
Vrolijk’s own coffee

Do you sell a lot to tourists?
‘Yes, they are quite important for us. This is also due to our location, so close to Dam Square and the RoyalPalace. We have quite a number of English and German language titles, and of course we sell the world-famous Delft Blue kissing figurines (2 girls or 2 guys). At the moment there are no paper gay guides on the market any more. This too has been taken over by the internet. But we do have the (free) gay map of Amsterdam. We have a selection of postcards, and of course, there is our own brand of Vrolijk coffee – a perfect gay gift. And of course, we sell the classic Spartacus gay guide (but see the news below!)’.

Dvd's @ bookstore Vrolijk
Dvd’s @ bookstore Vrolijk

Vrolijk originates from scientific publications and was a non-commercial initiative. Is there anything left of the idealism?
‘Things have changed here. There are not so many scientific publications any more, a magazine like ‘Homologie’ has ceased to exist long ago. Nowadays, there are salaries and rent to pay. However, running a bookstore, and certainly in a niche market like ours, requires a good deal of idealism. It might be profitable, but you’re not going to get filthy rich!’

30 Year anniversary of bookshop Vrolijk
30 Year anniversary of bookshop Vrolijk

Finally, do you have a tip for your customers?
‘Of course. The German gay publisher Bruno Gmünder, well-known for its beautiful photo  books, but also the publisher of the well-known Spartacus gay guide, went broke. This means we are able to offer some beautiful books for a really good price.’

Special Bruno Gmuender offer
Special Bruno Gmuender offer
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Vrolijk - Gay/Lesbian book store

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Vrolijk - Gay/Lesbian book store 52.372239, 4.889807 Vrolijk - Gay/Lesbian book store Holland\'s best-known gay/lesbian book store. Since 1984. Has a coffee corner with free WiFi. Address: Paleisstraat 135 Open: Mo-Sa 11-6, Su 12-6 http://www.vrolijk.nu/

Vrolijk – Gay/Lesbian book store

Holland’s best-known gay/lesbian book store. Since 1984. Has a coffee corner with free WiFi.

Address: Paleisstraat 135
Open: Mo-Sa 11-6, Su 12-6
http://www.vrolijk.nu/