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Foto: Stefan Johnson
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Bookseller Frans Roggen: "Everyone has become very well-behaved here"

Sija van den Beukel,
11 november 2022 - 08:58

Second-hand booksellers have been inseparable from the Oudemanhuispoort since 1880. Frans Roggen (75) is the longest-serving bookseller here. Every day, he sees students and especially tourists coming through the Poort. "What students want to buy is Winnie-the-Pooh and Harry Potter."

In the late 1990s, Frans Roggen found himself in the book stalls in the Poort. It started when he filled in for a colleague who was a long ways away. Gradually he got his own stall and an independent contract with the UvA, which rents out the spots.


When he started 25 years ago, there were a lot of junkies hanging out in the Poort. "When I came in the morning, it was full of them. Then there was the smell of weed in the Poort and you had to be careful that nothing got stolen. But everyone has become well-behaved here."

"If someone dies, a bookcase or even a small library sometimes becomes available"

He gets his books from well-known furniture dealers. "If someone dies, a bookcase or even a small library sometimes becomes available." He also still occasionally visits a friend from the clearance world on Waterlooplein. Sometimes passersby bring him bags of books, but if he doesn't like them he drops them off at the thrift store.

 

Winnie-the-Pooh

Roggen basically likes difficult books. His bookstall is filled to the brim with them. "I prefer to sell non-fiction. And history. I'm always interested in Greeks and Romans. And texts in the original language.”


When someone asks, "What's a good book now, a great story?” Then Roggen advises, "Read a good Russian author, read Chekhov. Tolstoy might be a bit highbrow. Then students sometimes look at me like I’m out of my mind."


Roggen —who himself once studied law and economics—used to have more of a claim on the philosophy university and law school. That's less so now. "The lawyers are gone. What I sell to students is Winnie-the-Pooh and Harry Potter. But not in English, which is where the focus is."


The bulk of visitors who stop by are tourists. Roggen says he has been photographed thousands of times. "My daughter told me the other day that I'm in a travel guide from Peru."

The bookstalls were supposed to close for a year and a half because they were going to work here with hammers and pneumatic drills"

Marlboro man

In the smoke of his cigarette, Roggen recalls anecdotes. Twenty years ago, many American and Japanese tourists used to pass by. For example, there was an American who wanted to buy a leather Bible from 1794. "When I told him I was selling the Bible for only fourty euros, he got very nervous. I had to sign a customs declaration that I had sold it to him and that it was not stolen. He left with trembling hands. It's now in a display case somewhere in America," Roggen chuckles.


Or his encounter with the Marlboro man. "It was a Saturday morning. I was unpacking pretty early when a tall guy in a cowboy hat and boots came up to my stall. Leathery face, blue eyes. I thought, damn, that's the Marlboro man. A whole story ensued. He had been in Amsterdam for two weeks; he had enjoyed it. He talked about the coffee shops and the canals, the museums; wonderful. And now he wanted to buy a souvenir. Whether I had any art books. Now I just happened to be working on a stack of books with Rembrandt's drawings. He looks inside one. "Oh, this is wonderful, great, amazing. I'll think I'll buy it." He picked up his wallet and looked at me very seriously. "Are you sure he is a well-known artist?"


Roggen calls it the "cultural mismatch between Americans and Amsterdam.” In recent years, he no longer sees American tourists. According to him, because of the "extermination of the American middle class," or the gap between rich and poor that has widened. "Either they are rich and go on museum tours, or they don't have a penny and they're in the coffee shops. Occasionally, I do miss them, those Americans."


Personal theory

And then there is the renovation of the Oudemanhuispoort that has been hanging over the booksellers' heads for years. "The bookstalls were supposed to close for a year and a half because they were going to work here with hammers and pneumatic drills. Never heard anything more about it. What we are really waiting for is the renovation that will give us floor heating here," Roggen jokes.


According to Roggen, it's because there would be asbestos in the part of the Oudemanhuispoort built in the 1960s. "My personal theory is that a couple of people went through that building once and saw that if you put one hammer in the wall, all the asbestos will come out. Then you won't be finished until 10 years down the road. We don't go through that anymore."