For almost fifty years Amsterdam’s Galerie Lambiek has served comics fans from across the globe. Named after the character Lambik in Willy Vandersteen’s Suske and Wiske (translated into English as Bob and Bobette) it was intended as a pun on the modern boutiques of the time. When it opened its doors in 1968 it was the first comics shop in Europe and is now the oldest in the world.
Its founder, the late Kees Kousemaker, was a tousle haired Rembrandt lookalike who become Holland’s most renowned comics expert. His early inclination to treat comics as art was met with ridicule but as the world caught up with his ideas he gained increasing respect and by the time of his death not only had he been awarded a Royal Declaration for his contribution to the Dutch comics field, he’d even been made a Knight of the Order of Orange Nassau.
From the beginning Lambiek was a place where comic artists could meet. In the 1970s and 80s fledgling artists would turn up with homemade work which Kees would often buy and then sell on. When many of those artists, such as, Peter de Wit, Joost Swarte and Jean-Marc van Tol went on to find success they showed their gratitude to their early patron by returning to stage exhibitions and create promo work for the shop.
The two shops Lambiek occupied on Kerkstraat, first at 104 and then at 78, were a joyous jumble packed with best-sellers and eclectic rarities. An amazing array of memorabilia was dotted around the shelves, generally priced at a level which meant it was unlikely to leave the store and thus ruin the display. The plans chests in the gallery space, filled with original art work and limited edition prints, offered marginally more affordable temptation.
An atmosphere of slightly anarchic enthusiasm seemed to reign supreme. A regular stream of coffee and beer was on hand for customers who increasingly came to visit from oversees. A fortunate few were allowed to rummage through the holdings of the backroom which held untold delights for comic aficionados.
A regular programme of signings and exhibitions added to Lambiek’s draw. Their first exhibition, held in 1986, was dedicated to RAW, the magazine created by Art Spiegelman in which Joost Swart was published. Later exhibitions included Robert Crumb, Will Eisner and Chris Ware. Kees always treated them as genuine art exhibitions and invited critics and patrons from the ‘real’ art scene.
In an echo of Paris’s Shakespeare and Co, many of the artists were put up in the studio above the store, making drawings on the wall to show their thanks, resulting in the studio becoming a place of pilgrimage for any comics fan in the city.
Chris Ware, relatively unknown at the time of his exhibition in 1996, designed a business card for the shop in the form of a mini comic. Inspired by the Dutch pulp comic Lex Brand it is still in use today and a copy is sent out with every online order.
The Crumb exhibition in November 1994 served as inspiration for fans to set up a website for the store which resulted in Lambiek becoming one of the first companies in the Netherlands to have an online presence. Kees rewarded the fans’ efforts in comics and, thanks to an enthusiastic stream of staff and interns working in the studio above the shop, the site gradually grew into a massive online reference tool known as the Comiclopeida. It now has over 10 000 entries making it one of the most comprehensive comic references available.
Sadly Kees was diagnosed with cancer in 2009. When he died the following year comic artists from around their world passed on their condolences.
The shop is now run by Kees’s son Boris and his old friend Klaas Knol who has been a regular feature in the shop since the 1980s. In 2015 Lambiek moved to new premises on Koningsstraaat near Centraal Station. Slightly smaller, the space for exhibitions is reduced, but there are still regular signings, the Comiclopedia continues to expand and the coffee still flows. One hopes it will be that way for another 50 years.
Lambiek, Koningsstraat 27, 1011 Amsterdam
Tel: 00 31 20 626 7543
All images ©Lambiek, reproduced with kind permission