Last Poetry Shop Standing
By Sunny Bleckinger
In 1982, writer and journalist Chris Keulemans, then in his early 20s, opened up a poetry bookshop in Antwerp with his girlfriend. After two years and very few customers they decided to come back to Amsterdam, and they brought the shop with them. Here, it managed to take root and survive, and is currently the only bookshop in town dedicated exclusively to poetry.
It’s called Perdu, and after moving from several locations, currently resides in what was once a large kitchen for an old hospital on Kloveniersburgwal. Though Keulemans no longer runs the shop, it retained his original goals of not only focusing on lesser-known poets—particularly avant-garde and experimental—but also seeking them out.
‘When we moved it to the Kerkstraat in 1987,’ recalls Keulemans, ‘we started building this organisation with volunteers, mostly friends and people in town.’ He then expanded it into a small independent publishing house. ‘I was just looking for writers that were in my generation and not yet published.’ For a while, they were able to publish two to three books of unknown poets per year, and they became known as the first step for young poets ascending into the literary world.
Today, most of the stock is by Dutch writers, and much of the section of foreign verse is translated into Dutch. ‘These books here,’ explains volunteer Leon Pankiw, pointing to a blue table, ‘are mostly put together by local poets. They don’t sell very well, but there are always exceptions.’ He’s referring specifically to Thomas Möhlmann (see p. 10 for Möhlmann’s favourite used book), who got his start with Perdu and is now being published by a national company.
In total, there are 20 volunteers who work there—mostly students and retired professionals; they’re extremely helpful, soft-spoken and friendly. Also, four years ago, Perdu was able to attain sufficient subsidies to create their first official paid position, Head Coordinator.
‘We all have a passion for unknown literature, and that’s why we do it,’ says coordinator Willemijn Lamp, ‘and that makes it a great atmosphere to work in.’ A couple years ago, several volunteers hitchhiked to Paris to observe the current literature scene there. They came back with several French poets, put them up in their friends’ squats, and scheduled them for readings. ‘That trip pretty much sums up Perdu,’ says Lamp. ‘No money and lots of enthusiasm.’
Perdu has also scheduled weekly literature events consistently for the past 22 years. They have a lavishly large space for this, right behind the bookshop, which originally belonged to a the-atre group, so there’s some bleacher seating and great lighting.
‘Usually on Friday nights we bring in five new authors to read,’ explains Lamp, ‘but we also schedule debates, theatrical performances, anything as long as it relates to literature.’ She then points to 24 February on their calendar. ‘These guys are pretty interesting—they do things slightly different from us.’
That particular eevent is called De Vierkante Avond, a night of short acts put on by Rietveld students Arnaud Bom and Stephane Kaas. ‘We get frustrated when we pay €6 to hear two new poets and they both suck,’ explains Bom. ‘So we bring in about 16 young poets and performing artists. Some of them are surprisingly good and others, of course, are not. But if it’s bad, it’s OK because it’s over in five minutes.’
They don’t have the official line-up yet, but it will be mostly unknowns, which is perfect for Perdu. The only way to discover new voices is to go and hear them for your yourself.