Warren Lee

Warren (1944-2017) has his roots in New York State, some 100 kilometres above New York City. He was born in 1944 during WW2. His father was serving in the US Navy on a submarine. Warren’s elder brother and sister also chose careers under the Pentagon flag. Even Warren’s name has a martial theme, according to Wikipedia coming from the notion of war, but fortunately it can also refer to a rabbit’s habitat – a much more endearing notion.

Frank Nijhof and Warren Lee open their bookshop in Amsterdam’s Staalstraat, 25 February 1989

Warren himself chose a much different path, mindful of Tolstoy’s War and Peace perhaps. He studied to become a teacher at the University of New Hampshire, but left prematurely, wandering with a friend through the States and ending up in San Francisco. There he found friendships that would last a lifetime. The USA was still involved in the Vietnam War, so in 1970 this group of friends crossed the Atlantic and settled down in the liberal Netherlands. Together they bought an Amsterdam canal-house on Reguliersgracht, which still belongs to one of the original group. (Life is full of surprises: designer Wim Crouwel and his first wife Emy had lived in the same house… David Quay, friend of both Warren and Crouwel, lived there too but much later.)

Across the canal Warren found a job with Nik and Maggie Schors, publishers and antiquarians. That’s where his life-in-books started. He travelled with their books to every corner of the country – for 25 years! 

(Another surprising fact, Warren bought an enormous table for 180 Guilders for his boss when the auction house G. Theodorus Bom closed its doors at nearby Kerkstraat. My mother had worked in the 1920s as a secretary with the auctioneer at that very table – my father restored old valuable books for that same auction room. My own roots are quite obvious…)

Renée Nijhof’s photograph of her brother on his wedding boat, 15 June 2005

…and Frank Nijhof
The 1985 Frankfurt Book Fair was a turning point for Warren. He met Frank Nijhof for the first time and they shared a frankfurter sandwich lunch together. Back in Amsterdam Warren bought two tickets for them both to go to a Shostakovich concert – these turned out to be ‘tickets for life’.

Frank Nijhof was a third-generation bookseller, but instead of working in the family bookshop in Zutphen, he joined Klompé in Arnhem, moved to Nijmegen and continued at the Bijenkorf in The Hague. When Frank met Warren in Frankfurt he was manager of the Premsela Bookshop near to the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam. (Another coincidence: when Frank left Premsela, my nephewSander Smit took over from him. It is a small world…)

The Nijhof & Lee bookshop in Staalstraat, Amsterdam

In 1988 Frank and Warren made a dream come true when they started their own bookshop Nijhof & Lee. A few years later it had become legendary – friend and colleague Hans Bockting summed this up when he said, ‘The best London design bookshop is in Amsterdam’, aptly capturing the role the two fulfilled: running a bookshop with an international reputation, based on their specialized expertise and their limitless devotion to the profession.

Nijhof & Lee was situated on the historic Amsterdam Staalstraat – in many ways a centre of sophisticated taste. Their bookshop provided a ‘delicatessen’ for lovers of photography, graphic design, contemporary art and product design. They were excellent hosts for all kinds of clients – generously sharing their knowledge with students as well as experts. There were always new books, with regular book launches and related events, attended by a fine clientele – always a full house, often spilling out onto Staalstraat.

Every square foot of the shop, including the tiny basement, was used to display new stock on tables, and the bookshelves were full of perennials and ‘must have’ objects. So well known was this 4 star emporium of bookish delights that it drew graphic design celebrities from home and all over the world. To name just a few of these illustrious designers: Pierre Bernard, Alain LeQuernec, Uwe Loesch, Lars Müller, Steven Heller, and Kari Pippo. Local patrons included Anthon Beeke, Wim Crouwel and Irma Boom. For those who couldn’t make the pilgrimage in person, Warren and Frank provided a postal service.

The Nijhof & Lee bookshop in Staalstraat, Amsterdam. The larger window in the side street always featured a theme, such as: Dandyism; a memorial to Benno Premsela.

Staalstraat was car-free, offering perfect pedestrian access from the ‘official’ city centre to the main shopping areas. A corner building rich with window space, Nijhof & Lee’s displays duly attracted passers-by. Frank (who was also a certified window-dresser) used the largest window for special thematic presentations often connected to their events. The first floor of the shop housed their antiquarian area, an absolute paradise full of rare books, posters and catalogues. Entry was by appointment only, under strict supervision. There was no room for comfortable chairs – real design lovers gladly endured standing having gained coveted access.

Frits Deys was the designer of Nijhof & Lee’s corporate identity from 1988 to 2011 / A series of sought-after Nijhof & Lee gift notebooks by Israeli designer Yanek Iontef.

In 1996 Nijhof & Lee started worldwide mail-order sales through their website. Clients from Japan, Australia, Latin-America and all over Europe used the rare books research service, masterminded by Frank from his tiny ‘cockpit’, using his keyboard to ‘fly over’ the entire world of books. More buccaneers than booksellers, for Warren and Frank buying was always the true attraction. They often bought books they desired themselves, not at all sure if they would ever be able to find a client for them to recoup their investment.

Staalstraat was once part of the Jewish quarter of Amsterdam. The neighbourhood was a no-go area during WW2 under the German occupation. Only Jewish families lived at Staalstraat 13. One family of four lived in a space smaller than Warren and Frank’s shop. In the same space the father ran a small tobacconist shop – without any tobacco. In the middle of 1942, during a nightly raid, all the inhabitants of the building’s four floors were arrested and later murdered in Auschwitz. Frank Nijhof painstakingly researched their names. (Later an official registrar confirmed his findings.)

1995: 50 years of Liberation, an installation by Ronald klein Tank, and the publication in a limited edition of 50 from Frank’s research, with portraits of former Jewish residents of the building.

When Holland celebrated 50 years of liberation in 1995, an installation by Ronald klein Tank was hosted at Nijhof & Lee’sbookshop from 1-7 May. Through the front door a continuous projection of shadows was shown of stand-ins of all who had lived there: men, women and children. Those portraits also formed part of a mini publication. It was a fine, very moving effort. Hats off to Frank! 

Warren and Frank very much appreciated the faithful customers who took the time and effort to visit their shop. They also reached a much wider audience by travelling with their books to design-related congresses, symposia, lectures, auctions, and exhibitions in The Netherlands and internationally. They built up a network of good contacts through professional organizations including AGI, ATypI and BNO (Association of Dutch Designers). They attended many such occasions, their van packed with books and magazines hosting a bookstand during conference breaks. In that way they were able to take part in ATypI Rome, Prague, Copenhagen, Helsinki and Lyon. With designers Piet Gerards and Hans Bockting, Warren staged a presentation about 25 Dutch designers in Bucharest in 2007. All this activity took much energy.

Nijhof & Lee bookstand at ATypI congress Lyon, 1998
Bill Viola visiting. Window showcasing his work, 1998

Nijhof & Lee’s solid reputation led to them being approached to host their bookstore in the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam and Breda’s Graphic Design Museum by its first director Peter Rijntjes. The reputation of their bookshop has been extolled in numerous articles by leading design journals all over the world. The stack of magazine clippings that Warren has collected is testament to this.

A unique celebration of Nijhof & Lee took place from October to November 2008 with an exhibition at Rotterdam’s Vivid gallery. The title 80 20 100 referred to Wim Crouwel’s 80th birthday, the foundation of Nijhof & Lee twenty years earlier in 1988, and an exhibition of 100 items of design by Crouwel. Very sadly this took place with mixed feelings, just a few weeks after the death of Frank Nijhof. David Quay designed the fine catalogue that accompanied the event that became both a celebration and a commemoration.

The Nijhof & Lee bookshop in Staalstraat, Amsterdam. The larger window in the side street always featured a theme, such as: Wim Crouwel 80. On the right, the door to ‘Valhalla’, the antiquarian floor.
Exhibition catalogue for ‘80/20/100’ (design: David Quay), Galerie Vivid, Rotterdam, 2008

A tiny corner, just behind the front door of their shop, was – quite unintentionally – the cause of a regrettable slip in Nijhof & Lee’s business conduct. Not much larger than a square metre – this space contained all kinds of tourist goodies, information, city guides, maps, postcards etc., and drew in a frequent flow of passing strangers – mostly not aware of the special nature of this idyllic spot for designers. These tourist customers required extra attention, but the income from that particular corner of the shop was very limited. Frank and Warren decided to move into an empty shop across the street, to be able to supply not only the tempting array of graphic posters and fine art, but also the ‘tourists goods’. The costs of this were considerable (rent, interior refurbishment, and personnel) and far outweighed any extra income it attracted. It was a serious drain on the business and simply doomed to failure… In the end they had to say goodbye to their employee John. Fortunately, he had just become 65 – time for his retirement.

In 2008, Frank Nijhof became seriously ill and had to undergo major surgery at the OLVG-hospital, where he was lovingly nursed for months. Through the whole ordeal he managed to keep his charming cheerfulness. In the last stages of his illness he was moved to the VU University Medical Center, where after several days in Intensive Care he soon passed away. The ‘profession’ showed its sadness and profound respect at the cremation service. This amicable man had so many friends and admirers who would not miss this chance to say farewell. 

Frank Nijhof in the bookshop

Warren had been living in The Netherlands for 40 years and decided all of a sudden to show his gratitude for being a ‘co-citizen’. He filled in the required documents and on the sunny day of June 3, 2014 he was amongst a ‘crowd’ of emigrants and their families from many different countries in a huge reception at Amsterdam’s city hall. This was a fortnightly ritual, elegantly staged by the municipality, with movies, patriotic stories, and the ‘swearing-in’ ceremony officiated by the mayor, with each new citizen repeating the oath on stage. Some had considerable difficulty with the language. Not so Warren: he said after such a long time he spoke Dutch better than the Saxe-Coburg Belgian royal family and their ministers (admittedly, that’s not saying too much…). At the end of the ceremony we all toasted the fact that Warren recognized HRH Willem-Alexander as his own King now. If those attending were quick enough they could enjoy some special Dutch snacks. Warren didn’t renew his US passport anymore. To receive his new Dutch one he had to return later on after much official paperwork had been finalized. A cheerful group of his dear friends joined him on Reguliersgracht in the house where he first lived in Amsterdam. He was surprised by many appropriate gifts, including orange underwear and a door-high Dutch flag (easily available at the supermarkets due to the approaching World Cup football championships).

3 June, 2014  – Warren Lee swears loyalty to the king of The Netherlands HRH Willem-Alexander when receiving his Dutch nationality.

Their visit to the marriage registrar, on June 15 2005, hadn’t helped Frank and Warren to get a mutual zip code. Warren stayed above the shop in Staalstraat, while Frank lived in South Amsterdam on Pieter de Hooghstraat – ‘living apart together’. This situation came to an end when Frank was terminally ill. Warren went ‘south’… Frank was given leave from the hospital for his last birthday. Visiting on this special occasion, a distant cousin was astonished by the long, high room crowded with bookshelves – and considered it such a waste of space.

The shameful financial fiasco in banking of 2008 took the naive outside world by surprise. This destructive state of affairs soon impacted on the graphics industry, causing an unprecedented erosion of activities. Printers, finding their order books empty, tried to survive by firing employees and often entered into blatant competition. Advertisers, shifting from print to television had already harmed the design profession. Design agencies also had to lay off staff. In the fight for a precarious existence, many designers were forced to chance their luck as freelancers. All this, of course, had immediate repercussions in the closely related bookselling sector. In Staalstraat the same ice-cold financial wind blew. Budgets for buying books were cancelled and fewer customers visited Nijhof & Lee.

A unique co-operation amongst professional friends resulted in this award-winning brochure in support of Nijhof & Lee during bleak times. Designed by Bockting Designers.

These developments didn’t occur overnight, but still at great speed. For Warren Lee they happened at the worst possible time – so soon after the loss of Frank his partner in life and their shared passion for the book trade. Emotionally he was alone, albeit with a circle of friends and the small ‘crew’ of the shop, the young sales-assistant (‘little Frank’) – still an apprentice – and his part-time financial ‘conscience’ (Giny). All tried to help him overcome the disaster. A group of experienced professionals, friends of Nijhof & Lee, got together to produce a remarkable pamphlet, as a lifeline. Bockting Designers turned it into a unique publication.

Working in a bookshop is physically demanding – like a gym with all that dragging, lifting, stooping, packing, unpacking, and arranging books six days a week; and the daily walk to the post-office with a heavy load (a car was not an option from that location). To have withstood this regime for forty years is a significant attainment in bookselling circles. Warren’s achievement was recognized by the national booksellers organization when they awarded him the Golden Book Pin in 2014. Warren was presented with the KBb Golden Book Pin after the first ‘Wim Crouwel lecture’ (by Joost Elffers), in the auditorium of the UvA (Amsterdam University). He had already received the Silver version ‘at half time’ after 20 years.

The KBb Golden Book Pin was presented to Frank on his last birthday 28 June, 2008. It was Warren’s turn in October 2014. 

The connoisseurs’ paradise on the first floor of Staalstraat was moved to a little known corner of Amsterdam, with the remarkable name of ‘Zakslootje’, that no Amsterdam taxi-driver has the knowledge to find. Warren rents a small ‘atelier/warehouse’ there, where he keeps and manages his archive – an enormous collection of posters, books, and photographs. Another secret place that one can only see by invitation or plea.

Meanwhile, the economic bad weather continued, causing ever-growing problems for Warren’s Staalstraat shop, and at 18:00 on 1 March, 2010 he closed it for good. The very last visitors to Nijhof & Lee were Anthon Beeke, my wife Elly and me. All the non-graphic books had been sold off. Garrelt Verhoeven, chief curator of the ‘Bijzondere Collections’ (BC) of the UvA, started negotiations for the acquisition of Nijhof & Lee’s graphic books. The agreement was completed in February 2011. Large-scale refurbishing of the UvA buildings had taken place not long before this. Now part of the ground floor space had to be refurbished to accommodate Nijhof & Lee’s shop-within-a-shop. BC organizes several (typo)graphic events a year in their café area – exhibitions, talks and professional meetings.

From 2011: Nijhof & Lee’s special collections c/o the University of Amsterdam

It is located in the prestigious Turfmarkt but on the ‘quiet’ side of main street Rokin. Although only about 500 metres away from the former Staalstraat shop, some former patrons have difficulty finding their way there. The ‘new’ Nijhof & Lee has its own modest storefront – unfortunately not comparable to the original Staalstraat shop. 

It is 2015. BC-part-timer Warren Lee is clearly deciding to finish with the business. Big archive boxes, 21 in number, arrive at his home, full of the evidence of two lives devoted to the colourful world of books.

Author of the original text: Ben Bos, June 2015
English translation and editing: Ben Bos, David Quay
Final editing: Freda Sack
Portrait photo: Aatjan Renders