Spui on Fridays

If in Amsterdam, the open air book market at Spui must not be missed

For a booklover, Friday at the Spui in the heart of Amsterdam is like nowhere else. This is the most beautiful, lively and relaxed secondhand book market in all Europe. Every Friday, about two dozen bookstalls are anchored in the middle of the square early in the morning. The bookstalls with their white plastic sloping roofs and glassy, transparent polythene partition walls merge into the rest of the square as if they were a permanent part of the scene, though they are there only for a day. It is a lively square, lively without being noisy. Trams trundle and cars pass by the edge of the square and across a nearby crossing, and there are people walking or cycling through the square all the time and yet it is all rather quiet and unobtrusive. Trams and cars do not seem to disturb you. Actually, you do not notice them until you are really close to them. There are tall trees, aged with knots in their trunks in the square and along the surrounding roads and what every book browser must find most comforting are the wooden benches thoughtfully anchored under the trees here and there. After you have browsed through the books at a market like this and found and paid for your day's finds what you look for wearily is a bench to sit on and leaf through your treasured purchases. The benches are the most considerate part of the Spui. I do not know any weekly open sky book market that has been designed so thoughtfully.

Actually, I do not know of any market other than the Spui that has been purposely designed to be a book market on Fridays and an art market on Sundays. The market, I learn from Ever van Kuijk’s beautifully illustrated large size book Spui, Amsterdam, has been conceived and designed by the architect Simon Sprietsma. The granite cobbles for the pavement came from Portugal, bluestones from Belgium and bricks from the Netherlands itself. No asphalt for Sprietsma. They say that when some women with high heels complained that they found it difficult to walk through the uneven cobble stones, the architect is said to have remarked that actually women walked more beautifully since stones replaced the asphalt of earlier times. Street lamps here are designed to throw indirect light and there stand at several places in the square waist high litter baskets that look like miniature stainless steel tree trunks. The best part of the whole scene are, of course, the benches that “accentuate the bend in the square.” Frankly, the bend in the square never came to my attention until I read about it Kuijk’s book. I do not have a great eye for design except on the cover of a book. What I look for after an hour or so in a book market is a bench where I can sit comfortably and rest my back as I leaf through the books just purchased.

Most books at the Spui bookstalls are understandably in Dutch but one can find books in several other languages like French, German, English, Japanese and Indonesian Bahasa. After Dutch, English language books are the commonest. That is true of almost all weekly used book markets in Europe. Many of these books come with the English speaking tourists from all over the world who leave their books in their hotel rooms or B&Bs. Most of these are contemporary thrillers. A book of poems, a play or a non-fiction bestseller too is not rare to find. Once in a while an English language booklover can find a really great gem of a book at a throwaway price like the one I found in a row of books at a stall at the Spui: John Motley’s four-volume History of the United Netherlands (1860-67) in a beautifully handcrafted leather binding, aged and rubbed with constant use over long years. I was actually looking for something like this there that day. Motley is a great historian of the classical mould. Among Indian historians, the only one who has written in that classical style is Prof. Mohammad Habib, father of the contemporary historian, Irfan Habib who, like his father once, is also a professor of history at the Aligarh Muslim University. Those who have read his essay on Muhammad Ghazni will know what I mean. A great historian is almost a statesman, said Motley, which was so true in his case because he really was a statesman too besides being a historian. Another useful find at the Spui was a bunch of marbled papers from the early 19th century in great condition and a few binding covers torn from ruined books which too had beautiful marbled paper paste-ups. These were a real find because I been looking for such papers to use in some of my old book bindings that needed to be repaired. I had come across some such papers at an auction but they went for a sum far beyond my reach.

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