Written by Lynn
Of course, we had no idea when opening an English language bookstore full of remainder books how vital freight services would become for our survival. (Just as most people didn’t think about logistics and supply chains until Covid hit.)
At first, our books came from Baltimore on pallets by sea to Rotterdam, where they were custom-cleared and trucked to our front door. When the Hague store opened, owner Sam marked boxes destined to go there with yellow tape. We sorted them out in Amsterdam and drove them to The Hague by car. Even later, when we had stores in Eindhoven and Groningen, our tape colors expanded, as did our fleet, which by then included two used Volvo station wagons.
Because the Dutch market was then closed to us for importing new books directly from publishers, we found an office service in England that would accept delivery of boxes from a UK wholesaler. I’d get a call saying, “The staircase is full! Can we ship the books now?” Then a freight company would collect the boxes, do all the paperwork needed for customs clearance and send them to us. We had to open a UK bank account to pay for these services.
When sea containers brought the price of sea freight down, Sam would fill up a 40 foot-long container at least once a month, put a padlock on the outside doors and mail me the key. Roughly two weeks later, the container would arrive at our Spui location. After unlocking the padlock, loose boxes of books and magazines, color-coded per store, would tumble out. Also, cases of root beer, bubblegum, cake mixes and once, even a piano. At that time, no detailed bill of loading was required.
Sam never kept a list of what he sent. If we complained about the lack of local interest for some of his more exotic stock, his standard answer was: “Well, you’ve got it. Just sell it.”
And often those items sold much better than expected.
After 1983, when we bought the stores from Sam, we started placing orders with a regional distributor in Pennsylvania who would truck the boxes to Baltimore for onward shipment.
In the 1970s, a local company wanted to bring over the Sunday edition of The New York Times (NYT), mostly for personal use. Sam’s Amsterdam partner Mitch had been missing the paper, too, so the idea was hatched that ABC would ship over boxes of hot titles procured from a domestic wholesaler with the heavy yet low-priced Sunday NYT by air freight. In order for the plan to work, there needed to be enough NYT subscribers and enough boxes of fast-selling titles to keep the freight price per kilo down. By hand-stamping each copy of the newspaper with an advertising slogan, “Flown for you by Pan Am Airways,” this goal was achieved. Alas, as I recall, ABC was carrying the freight bills and charging them to the other partner, who reneged on payment. Another company picked up the Sunday newspaper business and we went back to sea freight for a while.
Somebody knew somebody (as these things go) who worked on the cleaning crew at Schiphol, where the newspapers coming in on transatlantic flights were thrown away. He scavenged whatever copies he could, and we took them off his hands, but the supply was not dependable, and customers were often frustrated.
By the time we were getting all our US stock by weekly air freight, the teenage daughter of our freighter would go to the corner drugstore in Queens on Saturday night and pick up 8-10 copies of the Sunday NYT and put them in a box for her father to drop off at the cargo terminal. The much-desired paper was here for our Amsterdam and Hague customers by mid-week. The daughter went to college, we went to another freight company, and the NYT went digital.
Our adjunct-director Jeroen handles logistics now. Don’t even ask him about Brexit—he had a headache for over a year. Goods that used to arrive from England in a week often take six weeks and cost much, much more than previously—although it’s still a fraction of US air freight costs. We’d love to go back to sea shipments, but customers are now so used to immediate fulfillment of their book wishes that a delay of two to three weeks would not be competitive.
We hope that greener flight fuel is on the near horizon. And that the UK will return to the EU. And that suppliers will never again change freight forwarders in December with one week’s notice and never ever again screw up our BTW number. Nor mistakenly send our freight, as happened once, to Afghanistan.