In a series of interviews conducted by ABC’s Maria Minaya, we’re going to introduce you to (almost) everyone who works at The American Book Centers in Amsterdam and The Hague.
Books form an integral part of our lives not only because they’re our bread and butter, but because our passion for them came first. Our mission is to pass them on. Most of us are compulsive readers. Both Lynn and Barry will tell you that when no books are around they’ll read anything: jar labels, street signs or cereal boxes! When he was a child Avo would pick up scraps of paper he’d find on the streets of Palestine just to read them. Joe’s dare, “Tell me your top five and I’ll recommend five more,” immediately made me want to challenge him. Some of us grew up without books and now would die without them. By reading these interviews you’ll discover the faces behind your favorite sections and get a glimpse of who we are.
Meet Lynn, ABC’s owner co-owner and director
Where were you born?
I was born in Heron Lake, Minnesota and now I live in Land Lake (Landsmeer), the Netherlands. My mom had preeclampsia so they almost lost me, and then on the way home from the hospital the floor boards of the Model A Ford caught on fire! In Minnesota it’s really cold and some part of the muffler must have rubbed up against the bottom of the car so when they looked smoke was coming off the floor and a burning hole began to form. An exciting beginning to say the least and to top it off I had red hair!
What was your favorite food as a kid and what did you hate?
For my favorite food, I’d have to say oatmeal chocolate chip cookies. There is really nothing I hated to eat as a child. I also really loved vegetables. Vegetables and fruits. We use to buy bushel baskets of several things at once and leave them in the cellar. We kids would then just go by and eat from the baskets all the time. We didn’t have Brussels sprouts or broccoli because they don’t grow well in Minnesota and we didn’t do nightshades except for tomatoes. We had green and yellow beans and a lot of carrots. I use to pull them out of the ground on my way to school. I can’t think of anything I hated to eat as a child.
Were you read to as a child?
I was read to daily. After lunch mom and I would lie down for a nap and she would read me three or four or five picture books first. I got the hang of reading pretty soon and then I began reading everything: cereal boxes, road signs, everything. Then mom started taking me to the library. We went every week. You could keep books for three weeks, but we never lasted that long.
After I got my own library card, around the time I was in Junior High, I was there every day, after school, in the evenings, all the time. I decided I’d start with one bookcase and read my way around the library. The librarians would call my mother and say: “Lynn, wants to read…” and it would be a book that was blacklisted. Mother would say: “Well, I don’t think she’ll understand it but let her go ahead. If she gets it then she gets it and if it’s over her head she won’t. Carte Blanche!” Thank you mom! I was reading Karl Jaspers at 15 – you see the philosophy section was in the middle of the library. I read right through it and then sociology, politics, history. It was a small county library mind you, but still. Then I read the fiction section. I tried everything. I read a lot.
Did you have books in your house while growing up?
We had more than our neighbors because my parents had both studied. They had their college text books with them and some novels. There was a library, but no place where you could buy a book. You could buy bibles at the stationary store. Later when I was a teenager, there was a spinner rack of pulp fiction at the drugstore. Those were probably the first books I bought.
Quick free associations:
a) Paperbacks: Red.
b) Sale: Yellow.
c) Magazines: Green.
d) Piano: Black.
e) Price gun: Blue.
f) Cash Register: Gray.
g) Discount Card: White.
h) “I’m looking for a book…”: Ooooo!
What is your connection to books and the written word now?
I love to read and I love to write, which is why it is my business. Sharing information is my passion; taking it in then sharing it. As for writing, I’m happy to write to be of service to something. Like having written the quilt book, Passing On The Comfort, in service of those stories. They needed to get out. If somebody asks me to write an intro to something I’ll do it. I like the puzzle part of writing, the construction part of it. After all my reading it’s nice to try and write something myself, but I don’t have to write. I’m not going to write the Great American Novel. I’d be really surprised if I did. I’m 58 now so chances are pretty good that I’m neither going to direct a symphony orchestra nor write that novel.
What are your responsibilities as head of the American Book Center?
My first responsibility is to hold the long view, the big picture. Much like a captain of a ship, you sit way high, look over the horizon and steer out there. That’s a lot of it. It’s picking up signals. I read three newspapers a day. It’s about processing those signals and trying to figure out innovations that make sense for us. What kind of path should we be following? Actually it’s never really one path, but trying out one to get to another, always feeling out the way forward.
I take care of the big lines and the logistical things. Is the money turning into books? Are the books turning into money? Is there a good alchemy going on there? In other words, are we buying right? Are we selling right? How is our building? Is it safe? I facilitate that things keep moving in a particular structure. That doesn’t mean I invent the whole structure. I don’t. But I do have time to think about it. That’s the one thing I think that adds some value to what I do. I’ll pick up the phone, but I don’t have to pick it up. It’s helpful to pick up the phone because then I get more signals. It’s fun to hear a real customer’s voice. I’m always trying to feel, with the rawest possible data, what is going on.
What is the best part of your job?
Well, were I to give you an answer right now, this afternoon, it would be being able to sit up here in this eagle’s nest of my office with a cup of tea and talk with you about my job. This moment is sublime. Nonetheless, what I like about my job is that it keeps changing. There is this moment and there are lots of other moments. I’m not bored yet. I also love being with people who are also nuts about books and bringing them to other people. It is a kind of camaraderie that on the one hand I feel cut off from because ‘alright I am the boss’. On the other hand even though people tend to see me that way, and I am that, I still feel I can make jokes and be a colleague and talk books. There are not a lot of fields, I think, where it’s quite as easy to be both financially responsible for the whole picture and be loading and unloading the van and loving it. I work with a great bunch of people and I like all of it.
How would you describe your customer service, i.e., how do you do your job in terms of: cars (Ferrari or Fiat?), pastries (Hema or Holtkamp?), or shoes (Puma or Prada)?
I’m a fan of Puma. I like exotic, esoteric, weird. And I love it when a customer asks me a question I can’t answer. I think ooo, adventure!
How long have you worked at ABC?
More than 36 years.
Who is your favorite author? Or who are you reading now?
I’m reading Disgrace by Coetzee. It’s great, hard to go to sleep at night. Before this I read Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town by Cory Doctorow. It is such an unusual book. It is not often I read something that is so unusual.
What is the opposite of bookselling?
Being a prison guard. Bookselling is about getting things out; getting ideas out to as many people as possible. A prison guard keeps people in and everything closed down, at least that’s my assumption.
What do you think people should know about ABC?
I really don’t know. That’s a good question.