Comics History

Lambiek at Kerkstraat 104 (1968-1975)

Kees Kousemaker in front of the original Lambiek store (1968).

Opening Day
1968 was a turbulent year: the Prague Spring, the Tet offensive in Vietnam, the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, global student demonstrations and the election of Richard Nixon as U.S. president on 5 November. But for one Dutch man - Kees Kousemaker - there was only one real big event that year. On 8 November he opened his very own comics store in Amsterdam: Lambiek. Kees had promoted the event months beforehand. Publishers he had asked for advice were already sending collectors to him, whom he had to receive in his dorm room in Utrecht. Friend and graphic designer Onno Docters van Leeuwen created a special flyer which was also used as the store's official facade. Although it depicted various famous comics characters, quite some people wondered what Lambiek actually sold? Many assumed it was a sex shop, since the word "stripwinkel" ("strip store") had a double entendre. After all, it were the freespirited sixties! In fact: this was the very reason why a prudish rent owner refused us permission to open Lambiek at the Prinsengracht, so Kees instead had to go to the basement of Kerkstraat 104, which had previously housed the Story furniture upholstery. And even the official telephone guide Gouden Gids once listed our store in its pages as a "sex boutique"!

The original pamphlet by Onno Docters van Leeuwen, requesting old comics and newspaper clippings. The contact addresses are Kees' dorm in Utrecht, and Rob Ponsioen's home in Amsterdam. The same drawing was later used for the invitation to Lambiek's opening (only with Donald Duck replaced by Lambiek).

Whether this misconception explains why so many people were present at opening day we'll never know. Though the fact that Belgian celebrity cartoonist Willy Vandersteen was guest of honour seems more likely. The creator of the best-selling series 'Suske en Wiske' was popular both in his home country as well as the Netherlands. Kees had invited him because the name 'Lambiek' was a pun on the word "boutique" as well as 'Suske en Wiske's break-out character Lambik (Ambrose, in English). Vandersteen gave him special permission to use the name, as well as his character's likeness. Ever since that day Lambik has remained the store's official mascot. Since Kees was a huge fan of Vandersteen's work he felt quite thrilled to have his blessing. The comics legend gave Kees a special present, namely original artwork of a rare 'Suske en Wiske' story, 'Het Vliegende Hart' (1952-1953). Back then this story had only appeared in the newspaper De Bond and wasn't available in album format yet. The Flemish comics information magazine CISO would only publish it in 1970 as a free gift with one of their issues. It took until 1982 before it was finally included in the official 'Suske en Wiske' album series.

Evelien and Kees Kousemaker with Willy Vandersteen during Lambiek's opening.

Coincidentally Vandersteen wasn't the only comics legend present on Lambiek's opening day. Another juvenile hero of Kees happened to pass by and wondered what was going on? He entered the store and was instantly recognized by Kees as Frans Piët, creator of 'Sjors en Sjimmie'! Evidently he was welcomed inside as well. It was a magical moment. Kees had enjoyed 'Suske en Wiske' and 'Sjors en Sjimmie' ever since he was a young boy and now he could meet both of their authors at the same time! Vandersteen and Piët's presence also held a symbolic importance. Both artists had created the longest-running comics series of their respective language regions: Vandersteen in Flanders, Piët in the Netherlands (as of today their records still stand!). Both series had popularized Dutch-language comics and made them a force to reckon with. In the following decades Kees and his store would do the same...

Original artwork for a promotional sticker, presumably by Onno Docters van Leeuwen.

Early days and personnel
The opening day was a succesful media event. Various Dutch newspapers wrote an article about this "new book store which specialized in comics." At the time comics stores were still a young phenomenon. Between 1964 and 1968 some book shops in the United States had already specialized in comics, with Gary Arlington's San Francisco Comic Book Store - founded in April 1968 - traditionally seen as the oldest example in the world. In Europe, however, there was no equivalent until Lambiek came into existence. Therefore it holds historical significance as the oldest European and Dutch comics store. Since Arlington's store closed down in 2007, Lambiek is even the oldest comic book store in the world still in function!

Shop counter and "back office". Fun fact: the holder for the gift wrapping paper is still in use today!

Yet we were off to a bumpy start. Kees invested most of his money in this store, so he was nearly broke when it opened. His college buddy Rob Ponsioen personally built some cupboards and chairs for him so he wouldn't have to buy them. Kees also borrowed several comics from friends to make his store look more "full". They didn't mind, as long as he didn't sell them! As business started booming, Kees could build up his own stock and return these "filler comics" to their original owners. On Saturdays he personally drove across the border to buy the latest titles in Antwerp or Brussels and take them back to Amsterdam before they were actually imported. Kees collected various rare, old and unusual comic books, cut-out newspaper comics, original artwork, comics magazines, photographs, merchandising, statuettes, posters and put them all on display. He dreamed of having every possible comic title in stock, but eventually had to face reality that there was no room for it. Therefore he left that honour to Hans Matla, owner of the largest comic book collection in the Benelux and a frequent consultant on certain rarities.

More interior shots from the Kerkstraat 104 store.

During Lambiek's first decade many people helped Kees out with his store. His wife Evelien Willems, a French language teacher, was preoccupied with the press communication. She would later co-write and edit Kees' encyclopedic books 'Strip voor Strip' (1970) and 'Stripleksikon der Lage Landen' (1979). Former Dutch Provo-activist Olaf Stoop and his Real Free Press imported underground titles from the USA, a genre which was difficult to find in the Netherlands. Between 1969 and 1971 Babes Plomp was one of Lambiek's most notable salespeople. Her prettiness attracted people to the store "who were otherwise uninterested in antiquarian comics", as Kees put it. Babes is thus far the only Lambiek contributor who had a film career. In 1974 she appeared in a low-budget movie, 'Bloed' (1974), based on the eponymous book by politician Roel van Duijn, who also directed this picture. Another early 1970s co-worker was Tammy (last name lost in history), who presumably helped Kees with the 1971 catalogue. During Kees' celebration speech at Lambiek's 40th anniversary in 2008, he recalled Tammy was notorious for wearing crocheted see-through sweaters, which might also explain why we couldn't get rid of our reputation as a "sex shop". Flip Fermin, a legendary yet obscure Dutch underground comix artist, also became an employee in the early 1970s. Future Donald Duck editor and early customer Thom Roep remembers Fermin's theatrical and elaborate way of describing passages in comic books, his enthusiasm almost made him enter a trance-like state. Fermin also produced original artwork for Lambiek and remained a regular visitor until his untimely death in 1994.

Flip Fermin in 1979 (Photo: Job Goedhart).

In the early years Lambiek presented itself more as an antique store, though new comics were also available. It explained the expensive prices, which many customers at the time complained about (not surprisingly, given that most were Dutchmen...). Kees, however, had a gift for self-mockery and took it as a badge of honour. Some advertisements read: "Lambiek: nog steeds de duurste!" ("Lambiek: still the most expensive!"). But he also wanted to give comics more prestige and felt that the prizes should reflect that. As a child of the 1940s and 1950s he personally experienced a general contempt for the medium. Moral guardians felt "these picture books corrupted the youth and made them too lazy to read." As Kees grew into adulthood during the 1960s, public opinion about comics matured along the way. Particularly in the United States, Belgium and France there was more academic interest for it. But, to his regret, the Netherlands stayed way behind. Apart from Marten Toonder's work most Dutch comics still suffered from a bad public image. Kees was determined to do something about it...

'Strip voor Strip'
To be honest even Kees was aware that some comics were forgettable trash. But the actual problem was that most people weren't aware of the medium's diversity. Quite some comics series featured magnificent artwork or imaginative stories. Occasionally both! The general public was unaware that comics counted just as much different genres as any other medium. Most readers were unaware that there were comics for adults too. And even fewer people realized that not all of these are pornographic. Even Kees and his staff frequently discovered new things or were unable to answer questions since there was no official comics reference guide available at the time. Sure, there were a few books about U.S., British and French comics and some about iconic cartoonists like Hergé. But most were untranslated. Even so: there was nothing available about Dutch-language comics.

Sample of Joost Rietveld's design for the Strip voor Strip cover.

Kees and Evelien therefore decided to write their own reference guide. They established a publishing label titled De Morsige Roerganger, a reference to the character 'Orm de morsige roerganger' from H.G. Kresse's epic 'Eric de Noorman' newspaper comic. The couple had two goals. The first one was the easiest: offering general information about comics. Most could be found in foreign comic encyclopaedias and was just a matter of translating and rewriting it in their own words, combined with their own expertise and opinion. The second goal was more difficult: offering information about comics in the Netherlands and Flanders. Except for a few newspaper articles about popular cartoonists like Marten Toonder or Willy Vandersteen there were little sources available. The Dutch comics appreciation society Het Stripschap happened to be collecting newspaper and magazine articles ever since its foundation in 1967. Yet Kees and Evelien could not get permission to check the archives, because "everything was still a disorganized mess." However, the Kousemakers weren't the kind of people who would be discouraged by this. They just went ahead and did their own research. The couple personally contacted publishers, newspapers, magazines, private collectors and even the cartoonists themselves. Friends, relatives and customers helped them out. Many phone calls were made, letters were sent and appointments were made. Kees even put announcements in the paper, asking people whether they happened to know the addresses of certain obscure cartoonists? Everything was done in their own spare time and at Kees' own financial expense. But it allowed him to build up a huge network of people in and outside the industry. Many remained friends and correspondents for life, which came in handy whenever Kees needed new information or wanted to organize special events.

Correspondence with Jan Dirk van Exter and Marten Toonder as part of Kees' research for Strip voor Strip.

On 30 October 1970 'Strip voor Strip' was finally published: the first standard Dutch-language book about comics. The cover was designed by Joost Rietveld. Apart from a general overview of the medium the work provided chapters about the comics traditions of certain nations. The chapter about Belgian comics, particularly Flanders, was provided by Fleming Danny De Laet. The book's crownpiece was a huge alphabetical encyclopedia listing all available information about every possible Dutch and Flemish comics artist, series and magazine. 'Strip voor Strip' gave Lambiek extraordinary credibility among comics fans and art historians. It wasn't just an informative book, it was a well written one too. Kees used colourful and passionate sentences to get his point across. In 1979 the book would be updated and expanded as 'Wordt Vervolgd. Stripleksikon der Lage Landen'. Danny De Laet also used much of his research for 'Strip voor Strip' to write a more specific book about Flemish comics artists: 'De Vlaamse Stripauteurs' (1982).

The Franquin-Peyo drawing on the cover of the Lambiek catalogue (1971) and an issue of the Lambiek Bulletin (1978).

The Franquin-Peyo drawing
After Lambiek opened its doors in 1968 several other comics stores followed in its wake. Yet Kees Kousemaker was still the only comics store owner to be regularly interviewed as a spokesperson for the medium. On 21 January 1970 Kees appeared in an episode of the NCRV teenage TV show 'Twien' for a thematical broadcast about comics. Between 22 and 27 March 1971 the Nieuwscentrum co-organized a special Comics Week, partially at Kees' initiative. He invited famous comics artists like Willy Vandersteen, André Franquin ('Gaston Lagaffe', 'Marsupilami') and Peyo ('The Smurfs') to come and sign their work. It was most likely at this occasion that Franquin and Peyo made their famous publicity drawing for Lambiek. The legends drew Gaston ringing at Lambiek's doorbell, while Smurfs crawl down from his backpack. In September 1971 it was used as the front cover of a catalogue listing all available comics titles in Lambiek and their prizes. The illustration remained one of Kees' proudest possessions and can still be seen in the store. Unfortunately, as time went by, Peyo's inking work started to fade out, despite all efforts to conserve it. At the Third Day of the Comics on 17 April of the same year in Amsterdam Lambiek also had its own spot.

The Usual Gang of Idiots in the Muiderslot (1971). Top row: Lou Silverstone, Bill Gaines, Don Martin. In the front: Jack Davis and Jerry De Fuccio.

Mad in Muiderslot
In the late summer of 1971 the staff of Mad Magazine spent their annual collective vacation in Europe. They travelled to Moscow in August to visit the editorial board of the Russian satirical magazine Krokodil. According to them, Krokodil's chief editor joked: "We're really colleagues. You satirize U.S. society and we do the same!" Afterwards the "usual gang of idiots" travelled to the Netherlands, where they were expected at a reception in castle Muiderslot, organized by Stripschrift magazine. Chief editor William M. Gaines, assistant-editor Jerry DeFuccio, writer Lou Silverstone and fellow cartoonists Dave Berg ('The Lighter Side'), Jack Davis and Don Martin all dined together in the presence of Kees Kousemaker and comics artist Dick Matena ('De Argonautjes'). Afterwards Kees drove Berg, Davis and Martin back to Amsterdam to see the red light district. Potrezbie! A report of this event appeared in Stripschrift's next issue, which also offered an unrelated interview with Dutch comics artist and TV scriptwriter Wim Meuldijk ('Ketelbinkie'), conducted by Kees. Unfortunately most of the pictures Kees took were overexposed and the batteries of his taperecorder turned out to be empty. Parts of the conversation had to be distilled from his somewhat fuddled memory. Kees would later also interview artists and writers like Fred Julsing, Lo Hartog van Banda and Martin Lodewijk for comics magazine Pep, but these talks turned out be "not fit for publication", as Kees put it diplomatically.

Kees and Bob van den Born being interviewed, presumably 1971.

Professor Pi publications
In 1971 Lambiek also put his shoulders underneath the first offical book release of Bob van den Born's classic newspaper comic 'Professor Pi', which had ended seven years earlier but was still fondly remembered by many readers. Since there was a demand but no book to fulfill it, Kees personally compiled 200 gags he considered the best. In 1978 and 1979 three other volumes with 'Professor Pi' gags were published. Kees sent one copy to Hergé who wrote back a letter of gratitude, stating he had always been very interested in 'Professor Pi'. He returned Kees' favour by sending a copy of '50 jaar Kapriolen aan de Ketting' ('Cinquante Ans de Travaux Fort Gais', 1979), which celebrated Tintin's 50th anniversary.

Professor Pi collection
First Professor Pi collection. The cover design was by Willem de Ridder.

Getting wet feet
While all these events were wet dreams PR-wise, the store unfortunately became victim of a wet nightmare in 1971. Water damaged part of Lambiek, but luckily the rentmaster was willing to pay back the costs. Four years later Lambiek flooded again, but this time the damage was put on our own bill. The store would suffer from leaks, heavy rainfall or flooding again in the early 2000s, 2008 and 2014. Naturally these leakages were all regrettable incidents, but we try our best to avoid it and just literally and figure-of-speech go with the flow...

The three winners of the look-a-like contest.

1972: Lambiek's 5th anniversary party
On 8 November 1972 Lambiek celebrated its 5th anniversary in the Arti et Amicitiae in Amsterdam. During the celebration a lookalike contest was organized. People who shared a canny resemblance with a famous comics character could turn up and compete in two categories, one for people who had to dress up for it, others who didn't. The third prize went to Dutch sculptor Ad Root who appeared as Captain Haddock from Hergé's 'Tintin' and who was particularly inspired by his alcoholism. A young boy, Aernout Willenborg, came in second as the lookalike of H.G. Kresse's Erwin de Noorman. The unanimous winner was Charles van Caeneghem, a former fairground salesman from the Belgian village Avelgem, who looked exactly like E.C. Segar's Popeye. It's not clear how old Charles was? Two newspaper articles give a conflicting age, one says he was 63, the other claimed he was already 72. Whatever the case: he was certainly old enough to be the spitting image of the spinach eating sailor. The first and second prize were a crate of alcohol. But since our Erwin-lookalike was a minor he was given a different prize, while his crate was handed out to Haddock’s doppelganger instead. Root took his role as the whisky guzzling sea captain a little too seriously. Already tipsy before the contest started he was unable to see a “Clear Line” by the end of the night. He eventually passed out in the gentlemen’s toilets.

Our fifth anniversary event was also significant for another reason. It was the first time that Lambiek managed to get several celebrity comics artists together at one spot. Among the familiar faces were Fred Julsing (later famous for 'Ukkie'), Daan Jippes ('Bernard Voorzichtig'), Willy Lohmann (‘Kraaienhove’), Frans Piët (‘Sjors en Sjimmie’), Victor Hubinon ('Buck Danny'), Jean Roba ('Boule et Bill'), Peyo ('The Smurfs'), and the entire editorial team of the Dutch Donald Duck weekly, including newcomer Thom Roep. Musical atmosphere was provided by Flemish singer Walter de Buck, best known for his hit song ''t Vliegerke' and his annual Gentse Feesten festivities in Ghent. There is an urban legend that says that Hergé himself arrived at the party, and instantly left after seeing a naked 'Tintin' doll near the stage. Well, let's say this was just a fun story to tell. Though we could imagine that a drunk Haddock only winning third prize might have shocked Hergé too.

Lambiek in the Toverdoos card game of the Amsterdam city council.

Celebrity visitors and rise as an Amsterdam landmark
By the mid 1970s, Lambiek had gathered a steady group of loyal visitors, including several famous ones. Among them cult poet and pro-marijuana activist Simon Vinkenoog, culinary journalist Johannes van Dam and novelist Jan Wolkers, most famous for his erotic book 'Turkish Delight' (1969), which was adapted into a 1973 Oscar-nominated film by Paul Verhoeven and a 2016 comic book by Dick Matena.

Lambiek now definitely had earned its place as a popular tourist hotspot. In 1975, when Amsterdam celebrated its 700th anniversary, a special card game was issued by the city council, titled 'De Toverdoos' ('The Magic Box'). Among famous landmarks like the Dam, the Rijksmuseum, Anne Frank's House, the red-light district and the Stock Exchange the designers had also included Lambiek.

In the early years, the books could still be displayed on the shelves side by side. The man in the picture is Pep editor Jan de Rooij. (Photo: Spaarnestad Archief, 1973).

Next chapter: Kerkstraat 104 (1976-1980)