Netherlands: The Littlest Comic Shop

Nick Martens explores Lambiek, one of the world’s oldest comic book shops and the starting place of acclaimed writer/artist Chris Ware.

Lambiek is a place to fall in love with comics. Founded in 1968, it is reputedly Europe’s oldest comics shop and, as the owner told me, possibly the world’s oldest in continuous operation. A jolly cartoon cutout on a real bicycle marks the entrance, reinforcing the store’s Dutch charm. The stylishly illustrated “ZIP!” sign only looks a little out of place hanging into the quiet Amsterdam side street where Lambiek is located.

Most comics shops are dominated by endless rows of back issues from mainstream superhero books, an arrangement that seems designed to repel those uninterested in the June 1988 issue of The Incredible Hulk. Lambiek has back issues, too, but they’re stored in crates underneath benches in the store’s second room. The front room serves a high-density demonstration of everything good about the world of comics, a condensed warehouse of evidence against those who would deride or dismiss the medium.

The tables that sit in the middle of this room are stacked high with an eclectic and seemingly random mix of stunning comics. Books spill over the edges, with a Spy vs. Spy collection next to Osamu Tezuka’s Buddha next to Fables, Tin Tin, Preacher, and Calvin & Hobbes. A table near the back is dedicated to the greats of alternative comics, and seeing all of those titles crammed together emphasizes just how many brilliant artists are working in the comic business today. Crumb’s Kafka shares the space with Charles Burns’s Black Hole, Shaun Tan’s The Arrival, David B’s Epileptic, and so on and so forth.

Oh, and then there’s Chris Ware. A lot of Chris Ware. The table hosts, of course, his acclaimed Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth, several volumes of Acme Novelty Library, the giant, beautiful and way-too-expensive Quimby Mouse, and the Ware-edited McSweeney’s 13. An original print from Jimmy Corrigan hangs on the wall, and the store’s business card is actually a mini-comic by Ware that features a depressed superhero who tries to kill his sorrow with booze, a prostitute, and purchases at Lambiek. In the end, he finds the path to true happiness by combining all three.

I ask the owner about this Chris Ware obsession, to which the snaggle-toothed old man boasts, “Ah yes, he’s a customer.” He goes on to tell me that Lambiek hosted Ware’s first solo exhibit in the downstairs gallery and designed the “business card” around the same time. Evidently, one of the little booklets once sold for 46 euros on eBay, and I comment that I could use such profits to buy the Donald Duck manifesto, which we agree would be an ideologically appropriate endeavor.

The Donald Duck manifesto? Well, that brings me to–by far–the best part about Lambiek. Since it has been in operation so long, the store has accumulated a breathtaking collection of old, kitschy comics theory books, which are jammed into shelves next to the featured tables. Some are classy (Erotic Art of Japan) while others are whimsical (Rube Goldbeg vs. The Machine Age, a collection of Goldberg’s namesake devices). One, however, stood out as, perhaps, the most awe-inspiring book I’ve ever seen. It’s called How to Read Donald Duck: Imperialist Ideology in the Disney Comic. That somewhere, some time, there existed a publisher willing to send such a document to press restores my faith in human culture. The author of the book is not joking. I was convinced I would leave the store with the book until I opened the front cover and noticed the price: 50 euros. It says something deeply troubling about my mental fitness that I still considered putting it on my credit card.

I picked up, instead, a good-but-not-perfect find: Great Comic Cats. The inside flap indicated 15 euros, but when I handed it to the owner to buy it, he approached me with apologetic eyes, pointing to the price. “This book was made in 1981, and it says 15 here, but that was the price in 1981.” As I pondered about inflation–the euro relative to the old Dutch currency, the guilder–the owner continued. “This book is very rare, so I really have to ask you to pay 20.” It was a little much for a campy book about comic cats, but the owner’s insistence told me something about Lambiek and about what makes it genuinely special: It isn’t just his store, it’s his collection. 40 years ago, this guy took the boneheaded risk of setting up a store just to sell the debased and juvenile books called comics, and somehow, he kept it going until now. It’s a place where dazzling young talents can catch a break. As I left, I felt okay about overpaying for my stupid cat book.

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Nick Martens is a founding editor of The Bygone Bureau. You can email him, if you like.