written by Lynn
Forty years ago this February, I landed at Baltimore airport in the worst snowstorm they’d had in 10 years. On the way to our host Larry Boltansky’s home, the freeway was closed and we had to shovel the station wagon out from under snow to get to a side street. It was meant to be a quick trip just to sign ABC’s ownership papers and to meet suppliers. The contracts were agreed upon, the Powers of Attorney from my husband and sister were in my purse, all signs were green for our family to take the bookstores over from the Boltansky family. Then, the snow storm hit….
I was the third manager of the ABC stores after Mitch Crossfield went back to Baltimore in 1974 and Leo Bretholz came to take his place until 1977. Leo had fled Austria in 1938, was captured and escaped from internment camps seven times and leapt from a railroad car on the way to Auschwitz before collapsing in France and being cared for by a nun.
After emigrating to the US in 1947 and settling there, he was a little wary of returning to Europe, but did so for two years. After he and his family returned to the US, former owner Sam asked me to keep things running. He or his son Larry would come over once a month to
fix and check on things, see what was needed and be in touch with staff.
They were good bosses, gave us lots of room to operate and to dream up new plans, even facilitating them. They included us in their family, as we included them in ours. Many a dinner was shared at Amsterdam’s Café Iberia or fish restaurant Lucius. They always brought a case of beef salami with them from the US or smuggled dried fruit plates for all the staff members in between the boxes of books in sea containers. They flew me over for family celebrations and sometimes hosted our whole family during summer vacations.
Sam’s office was in his pockets. He wore polyester knit pants with zip pockets, which bulged above his knees, keys clanging when he walked. When he got an idea or thought of something To Do, he’d write it on one of the index cards he kept in his pocket. While visiting the bookstores, he’d pull out his cards and we’d work through them, one by one. Although telephone calls were expensive, if something urgent came up, I could always call and Sam could hear by my voice if it was an update call or a call for help.
When we opened the new stores in Eindhoven and Groningen in 1979 and 1981, his son Larry took over the monthly visits for several years. He kept a list on a clipboard that reinforced his extensive memory. By then we had fax machines, so urgent messages could be answered quickly or clipped onto a board for decisions later.
Car trips to the outlying stores were always quality times with Larry, who wasn’t yet really working in the family business but just helping his father out. Because we knew each other’s families and friends well, we always spent time catching up on personal as well as staff news. But by 1982, Larry’s business of repurposing neglected buildings for lease by government offices was demanding more and more time, and Sam no longer wanted to travel so much. Because we had agreed that, when they were ready to sell the business, I would get first right of refusal, Avo and I set about trying to get financing to take over the business. (Avo’s work at VluchtelingwerkNL had stopped.)
By then, with two kids and four stores, life was full. My sister Rachel, with a degree in business administration, did an internship with the Boltanksys in Baltimore, then came over to take over the administration. She was also to become a partner. Unfortunately, none of the several banks we approached were willing to take a chance on us, afraid that we’d pull up stakes in the night and return to our countries. Nor were they willing to lend money based on an inventory of only English language books, although the fact that sales had been enough to pay A-location rents for 10 years might have been an indication that the inventory was current and in demand.
We had to tell Sam sorry, we couldn’t make the deal.
He tried to sell it via some contacts of his lawyer, but those Americans didn’t want to take a risk on a foreign business far from their control. Sam came back to us with an offer for a management buyout, payable over five years. We had to go back to the banks to finance the initial payment and managed by mortgaging our apartment, Avo’s stamps and the children’s shoes. And so, I got onto a plane to sign the papers in February 1983…..
Now you’re probably imagining the formal contract signing taking place in a well-appointed lawyer’s office, everyone nicely dressed, champagne toasts all around to celebrate.
That’s not how it went.
Because of the snowstorm, the center of Baltimore was closed to traffic. Sam’s lawyer (picture a man of Danny DeVito dimensions, always smoking a too-big cigar) suggested we meet at Johns Hopkins University because it was accessible and closed due to the snowstorm. We met there in a parking lot and went into a building and picked a classroom (the door was open, but no one else was there). We all trudged in wearing winter coats and galoshes, Sam in his fur-lined aviator hat, dripping snowmelt where we walked. There was no desk or table large enough for all of us, so we sat on the floor along one wall. Lawyer Sheldon ran through the contracts with us, then passed the copies one by one to Sam to sign. Sam passed them to me to sign, I gave them to Larry. When finished, Sam stood up and said, “Let’s go.”
And we did. Larry and I went to New York to introduce me to some suppliers there, and Larry treated me to a night in the St. Regis Hotel as a sort of celebration. I wished that Avo and Rachel could have been there, too, but was grateful for the Boltansky family’s generosity and grace.
Back in Amsterdam, Avo made up the monthly checks for the payout, and gave me a watch to mark the final payment in 1988. I still wear it every day. We needed to close the Eindhoven and Groningen stores early, but the Boltanksys forgave that part of the payout and Sheldon even renegotiated our loan to the bank so that we could keep the stores going.
In 1986, we moved to the much larger location at Kalverstraat 185, which increased their payout. Our mutual trust was warranted, and our family friendship continues to this day.
Maybe it’s usual for family businesses to be as personal as ABC was and is. We’re not able to say because we’ve lived only this way for 50 years. The tone set in 1972 is still audible in undertones, carried now by a different family and staff and still apparently interesting for the readers who are our customers. The KISS principle (Keep It Simple, Stupid) is still one of our mottos. Another is “Bookselling with a Personal Touch.” That one we breathe in and out together.