A lot of things have changed about my reading habits since moving to Amsterdam. The biggest shift came when I had to divest myself of most of the books that I’ve been accumulating more or less since middle school. This has had the obvious result of chopping down my TBR pile into a measly slim stack.
Compounding the problem is the fact that I’m reading a shit-ton more than I ever have before. At first it was because I was unemployed and had nothing better to do. Now that I’m slowly creeping into the freelance world of writing and editing, I’m reading even more than when I was out of work.
Not to be overly dramatic, but my book pipeline is drying up and I’m living my worst nightmare.
My friend Liz and I share a lot of the same tastes and habits when it comes to books, but once we had a conversation that revealed we stand on opposite sides of the great TBR debate. I’ve been seeing more and more posts in the bookish community about ways to variously “kill,” “tackle,” or “manage” your TBR list, so I think Liz stands with the majority in feeling a bit of stress when she considers all the great literature of the past, not to mention the millions of new titles published every year. No one person could ever conceivably get to them all, and that causes Liz and a lot of others to feel a squidge of existential pain.
I’m in the opposite camp. I take a lot of comfort in knowing that it’s literally impossible to reach the end and that I’ll always have something new to read. In theory at least…
In practice, lately it feels like book scarcity is a realistic consideration. I have to ration my new books like it’s war time and I haven’t encountered that feeling of “I was excited when I bought this but am feeling kind of ‘meh’ about it now” in months.
Here’s where I admit to you that in the past I have been known to acquire books via digital means that aren’t entirely 100% legal… It makes me feel like the worst kind of traitor, though, and it’s obviously not something I can continue if I want to have any traction in the book world. No more torrents.
‘But Katie!’ I can hear you screaming. ‘What about the library??’
Prepare to have your mind blown. The public library in the Netherlands makes you purchase, with money, an annual subscription to check out books.
Sure, the subscription charge is a nominal fee (€35 per year entitles you to check out books and media up to 8 items at a time, 50 max for the year), and it’s something I should purchase anyway, but it’s the principle of the thing and, besides, I’ve found a better way.
World, I introduce to you… the minibieb.
I remember the first time I took advantage of a leave one-take one honor system library. I was on vacation with my family in North Carolina and the inn where we were staying had a small room for reading. On the shelf was a copy of Little Women and, after confirming with my family several times that it was okay to take it and return it later in the trip (I’m a rule follower til the end, torrents notwithstanding…), I did.
Upon returning home, I was horrified to discover that my mom had packed the book in my suitcase and that I was now a thief and would probably never be permitted entry into the state of North Carolina ever again. ‘It’s no big deal,’ she assured me. ‘Lots of people have taken books.’ This only horrified me more, solidifying my membership in a nefarious mafia of book-takers.
‘They said you had to leave one if you took one!’ I moaned. ‘I didn’t leave anything! I only took! I stole it!’
I would not be consoled and so we wrapped up the book and mailed it back to its home in North Carolina. I received a very nice note from the innkeeper who basically told me I was a sweet girl and that it would have been no big deal if I’d kept it.
Despite that traumatizing experience of my youth, I have come to embrace the quaint charm of the leave one-take one library concept, and really of the honor system at large.
I think it says a lot about a community – of book readers and of neighbors – that something like a minibieb can exist and function. You need avid readers to properly maintain a minibieb because if there’s no interest, what’s the point? And you also need a group of people that understand the necessity of giving back. It keeps the shelves in fresh rotation, and if everybody only took, stealing copies of Little Women without mailing them back to North Carolina, the whole system would break down.
Thanks to a culture in the Netherlands that is generally trusting and a grant project from Fonds1818 that subsidized their creation, there are minibiebs all over the Randstad (Rotterdam, Amsterdam, Utrecht and The Hague). Last week, when the weather in Amsterdam was finally getting warmer, I set out in search of a few of them. Using the work of Mirjam Goudswaard (minibieb.nl and seventyeight.nl), I made a rough map of four known minibieb locations in the Amsterdam Oost and Diemen area near where I live.
I was also on the lookout for a mysterious 5th bieb, whose whereabouts existed only in a rough sketch in my memory. I knew I had passed it twice, meaning it must be in my neighborhood, but I didn’t know exactly where. As it turns out, the mystery bieb is super close, and I found it without even really trying. I have a local minibieb!
My local is the first pictured in this post, and definitely ranked near the top in terms of selection and appearance. I had come on this voyage prepared to trade, and in no time swapped out something from my own collection for a book in English with a bright cover and an interesting title. I also found a copy of Cheryl Strayed’s Tiny Beautiful Things translated into Dutch and, figuring Dear Sugar columns would be a fun way to practice Dutch, I grabbed that too.
The next minibieb was in the Eastern Docklands and was also a stunning example of minibiebs at their best. The minibieb at Entrepothof was inside a heavy duty cabinet and boasted a set of instructions for first time biebers. I found a Margaret Atwood novel that I’d never heard of before, and in English to boot. Perfect.
The next minibieb on my list was somewhere on Czaar Peterstraat and, with no photo from minibieb.nl to guide me, I wasn’t sure exactly what I was looking for. In addition to the charming hutches and shelves that neighbors collectively maintain outside, there are also minibiebs that live inside restaurants, cafés, and North Carolinean reading rooms. I suspect the one on Czaar Peterstraat must have been of that interior persuasion because I didn’t see any sign of it from the street.
Sharing libraries inside businesses are a fantastic idea, but I’d excluded them from my journey. They’re a gezellig addition to a business, but for my purposes (amassing books as quickly as possible, thus staving off the inevitable march of time) they don’t really serve. Ideally, I’m looking for a pile through which I can rummage and add my contribution with minimal fuss.
The last two biebs on my tour required a little more sleuthing. The one on Mattenbiesstraat is hidden over in a part of the city that, while still municipally Amsterdam, might as well be another world. Haveneiland has its charms – super modern flats and townhouses with lots of glass overlooking nice IJmeer-feeding canals – but in comparison with the noisy old bricks of Amsterdam proper, it has a Stepfordish quality that creeped me out. Even for the middle of the day on a Tuesday it was eerily quiet and empty.
All of which is to say approaching the narrow space between two apartment doors, where the Mattenbiesstraat minibieb is located, was super awkward. Waltzing up to a new minibieb and rifling through its contents requires that you possess a certain degree of stealthiness or chutzpah. It might not compete in the same league as shark-diving or base-jumping, but, in the category of bookish endeavors, minibieb hunting is a pretty thrilling adventure.
Minibiebs are, by design, curious little fuckers and they tend to attract a crowd, especially my local in Watergraafsmeer. Even though the whole idea of a minibieb is centered around generosity and I was prepared to exchange my shit books for anything new I took, there was still a lingering illicit feeling of taking something for free. And in broad daylight no less!
By the time I approached the last bieb on my hunt – the one nestled into a front garden in Apollovlinder – I had perfected my strategy. After circling once with my bike and confirming the location, I parked at least a block away and made the approach on foot. I’m pretty sure no one gave two shits what this random short white girl was doing in their neighborhood, but I felt like a master spy nonetheless.
I walked down the sidewalk, la la la, adopting the unassuming pose of modern disaffectedness (eyes to phone). Then, just as I was about to pass by the minibieb, I paused and did a double-take, smiling like I’d never seen anything as charming and unexpected as the very same cute little library that I’d researched online, mapped, tracked and planned a complicated strategy to give the impression of having coincidentally stumbled upon.
If you’re into geocaching, you’ll probably enjoy hunting for minibiebs. It has all the best aspects of geocaching – the thrill of the chase, the glory of the find – plus FREE BOOKS.
I’ve been brainstorming ways to create a minibieb of my own, but with a top floor flat that’s a rental to boot, it might not be in the cards for me right now. Instead, I’ve decided to devote my life to the hunt for minibiebs. Even when I’m not able to find a book that strikes my fancy, the mere fact that they exist in the world brings me so much joy. It reminds me of all the best things about humans and, when faced with the prospect of wondering where I’ll get my next fix, helps me rest easy.