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 - sociology student Kees Kousemaker - there was only one big event that year. On 8 November, he opened his very own comic store in the Amsterdam city centre: 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. He also used the Amsterdam home of his friend Rob Ponsioen as contact address.

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).

Another friend, the graphic designer Onno Docters van Leeuwen, created a special flyer, requesting old comics and newspaper comic clippings. The flyer artwork was later reused for Lambiek's opening invitation, and the design also appeared on the store's original facade. Although it depicted various famous comics characters, many people wondered what Lambiek actually sold. Some assumed it was a sex shop, since the word "stripwinkel" ("strip store") was a double entendre. After all, it were the free-spirited sixties! In fact, this misunderstanding of "stripwinkel" was the very reason why a prudish rent owner refused Kees permission to open Lambiek on the Prinsengracht. Instead, Kees had to go to the basement of Kerkstraat 104, which had previously housed the Story furniture upholstery workshop. But confusion about the name continued: even the official telephone guide Gouden Gids once listed our store in its pages as a "sex boutique"! A lady receptionist from newspaper De Telegraaf refused an ad for the opening party, having a different connotation with with word "stripfest".

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

Whether this misconception explains why so many people were present at opening day (8 November 1968) or not, we'll never know - but the fact that celebrity cartoonist Willy Vandersteen was guest of honor seems more likely. The creator of the best-selling series 'Suske en Wiske' was popular in his home country of Belgium as well as the Netherlands. Kees had invited him because the name "Lambiek" was a pun on the word "boutique" as well as the 'Suske en Wiske' break-out character Lambik (Ambrose, in English), whose name was written as "Lambiek" in old Dutch editions. Vandersteen gave Kousemaker special permission for the shop to use the name and 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 thrilled to have his blessing. The comic legend gave Kees some special commodity: original artwork from a rare 'Suske en Wiske' story, 'Het Vliegende Hart' (1952-1953). Back then, this story had only appeared in the Belgian family weekly De Bond and wasn't available in book format yet. The Flemish comic news magazine CISO (Comics Information Service Organisation) published it in November 1971 as a free gift with one of their issues. It took until 1982 before the episode was finally included in the official 'Suske en Wiske' book series.

Kees selling a book in Lambiek on 30 January 1969. The picture was taken by Bert Verhoeff for an article in Elsevier magazine. On the wall behind Kees, we see press clippings from the Lambiek opening almost three months earlier. (Source: Nationaal Archief)

Coincidentally, Vandersteen wasn't the only comic legend present on Lambiek's opening day. Another childhood 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'! As Piët was welcomed inside, it was a magical moment for Kousemaker. Kees had enjoyed both 'Suske en Wiske' and 'Sjors en Sjimmie' ever since he was a young boy, and now he had both of their authors in his store 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 (to this day their records still stand!) and both series had popularized Dutch language comics, making them a force to be reckoned 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
The opening day was a successful media event. Many Dutch newspapers and magazines wrote articles about this "new book store that specialized in comics." At the time, comic stores were still a new phenomenon. Between 1964 and 1968, some book shops in the United States already specialized in comics, with Gary Arlington's San Francisco Comic Book Store - founded in April 1968 - traditionally seen as the oldest comic shop in the world. In Europe, however, there was no equivalent until Lambiek came into existence. It is historically significant as the oldest European and Dutch comics store. With Arlington's store closing down in 2007, Lambiek became the oldest existing comic book store in the world!

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

Yet early on, Lambiek had a bumpy start. Kees invested most of his money in this store - he had a starting capital of 500 guilders (280 USD) - so he was nearly broke when it opened. His college buddy Rob Ponsioen built cupboards, a desk and chairs for him, so he wouldn't have to buy them. Kees and Evelien also constructed shelves and bookcases from old packing cases they picked up in the street. Kees borrowed comics from friends to make his store look more "full". They didn't mind, as long as he didn't sell them! To fill the shelves even more, books were placed with the covers to the front instead of back to back. All this gave the early press photographers the impression of a richly filled antiquarian shop, even though this wasn't the case yet. As business started booming, Kees could build up his own stock and return the "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, comic magazines, photographs, merchandising, statuettes, posters and put them on display. He dreamed of having every possible comic title in stock, but eventually faced the reality that there wasn't enough room to do it; he left that honor to Hans Matla, owner of the largest comic book collection in the Benelux (and a frequent consultant to Lambiek on certain rarities).

More interior shots from the Kerkstraat 104 store.

Early personnel
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 publicity and public relations. Later on, she helped Kees compile and edit his encyclopedic books 'Strip voor Strip' (1970) and 'Wordt Vervolgd - Stripleksikon der Lage Landen' (1979). With his Real Free Press, former Dutch Provo-activist Olaf Stoop imported underground titles from the USA, a genre difficult to find in the Netherlands. Between 1969 and 1971, Babes Plomp was one of Lambiek's most notable salespeople. Her beauty attracted people to the store "who were otherwise not interested in antiquarian comics", as Kees put it. Babes is thus far the only Lambiek co-worker with a film career. In 1974, she appeared in a low-budget movie, 'Bloed' (1974), based on the book of the same name by Dutch politician (and director of the film) Roel van Duijn. Another early 1970s co-worker was Tammy (last name lost in history), who presumably helped Kees with the production of his 1971 catalogue of his comic stock. During his celebration speech at Lambiek's 40th anniversary in 2008, Kees recalled Tammy was notorious for wearing crocheted see-through sweaters, which might explain why we couldn't get rid of our reputation as a "sex shop".

Flip Fermin in 1979 (Photo: Job Goedhart).

Flip Fermin, a legendary obscure Dutch underground comix artist, was another employee in the early 1970s. A remarkable character, who also produced original artwork for Lambiek. Future Donald Duck editor and early customer Thom Roep remembers Fermin's elaborate and theatrical way of describing passages in comic books. One day, Roep's sister went to Lambiek to buy her brother the 'Blake & Mortimer' book 'Het Gele Teken' ('The Yellow "M"') for his birthday. Roep descibes: "He complimented her with her choice, grabbing E.P. Jacobs' legendary book and presenting her certain scenes. At one point, he was completely ecstatic. He just fell into a trance and read her the dialogues aloud, with his finger pointing at the pictures. Almost like Hamlet ("To be or not to be"), he moved through the cramped space as if it were a stage, to finally end at the scene where the scientist is abducted on the street and only his hat remains on the sidewalk. "And then... and then the hat! The HAT!" Fermin declamated, raising his voice." Flip Fermin remained a regular Lambiek visitor until his untimely death in 1994

Promotional artwork for Lambiek by Flip Fermin (1970s).

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 honor. Some advertisements read: "Lambiek: nog steeds de duurste!" ("Lambiek: still the most expensive!"). But he also wanted to give comics prestige and felt that the price 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 in the medium. But, to Kousemaker's regret, the Netherlands remained behind in its attitudes. 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'
Kees was not blind to the fact that some comics he sold could be considered forgettable trash. But the actual problem was that most people weren't aware of the medium's diversity. Many comics series featured magnificent artwork or imaginative stories - occasionally both! The general public was unaware that comics had as many different genres as mediums like movies or television did. Most readers were unaware that there were comics for adults, too, and even fewer people realized that not all of these comics were pornographic. Even Kees and his staff frequently discovered new things, or were unable to answer questions about certain comics, because there were no official comics reference guides available at the time. Although there were a few books about U.S., British and French comics, and some about iconic cartoonists like Hergé, most were untranslated into Dutch. Worse still, there was nothing available in print 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 to correct this situation. They established a publishing imprint titled De Morsige Roerganger ("The Grubby Oarsman"), a reference to the nickname of the character Orm 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 of these facts could be found in foreign comic encyclopaedias and was just a matter of translating into Dutch, and rewriting it in their own words, adding intheir 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 few sources available. The Dutch comics appreciation society Het Stripschap had been collecting newspaper and magazine articles ever since its foundation in 1967, but 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 - 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 sent and appointments 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 spare time and at Kees' own financial expense. But it allowed Lambiek to build up a huge network of people, inside 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 crowning achievement was a huge alphabetical encyclopedia, listing all available information about every known Dutch and Flemish comic 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 was updated and expanded as 'Wordt Vervolgd. Stripleksikon der Lage Landen' ("To Be Continued. Comics guide of the Low Countries"). Danny De Laet also used much of his research for 'Strip voor Strip' to write a more specific book about Flemish comic 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 comic 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 prices. 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. In 1979, the book was updated and expanded as 'Wordt Vervolgd. Stripleksikon der Lage Landen'.

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 traveled 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" traveled 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 comic 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 comic artist and TV scriptwriter Wim Meuldijk ('Ketelbinkie'), conducted by Kees. Unfortunately, most of the pictures Kees took were overexposed and the batteries of his tape recorder were dead. Parts of the conversation had to be distilled from his somewhat muddled memory. Later on, Kees interviewed artists and writers Fred Julsing, Lo Hartog van Banda and Martin Lodewijk for the comics magazine Pep, but these talks turned out be "not fit for publication", as Kees diplomatically put it.

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

Professor Pi publications
In 1971, Lambiek also hosted 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, 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 our feet wet
While all these events were wet dreams PR-wise, the store became a victim of an unfortunate wet nightmare in 1971. Water damaged part of Lambiek, but luckily the landlord was willing to pay back the costs. Four years later, Lambiek flooded again, but this time, the damage was billed to Lambiek. The store would suffer from leaks, heavy rainfall or flooding again in the early 2000s, 2008 and 2014. Naturally, these large spills were all regrettable incidents, but we try our best to avoid it and just go with the flow, literally.

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, one for 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 instead was handed out to Haddock’s doppelganger. 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, and 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 comic 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. Music 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 just say this was 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)