Arno & Arne

Arno & Arne


In the historic center of Leiden, on a corner just across from the Pieterskerk, you’ll find a bookshop called Burgersdijk & Niermans that’s been in business since 1894. In fact, the same spot has been closely associated with books since the 14th century, when it was the location of jurist Philips van Leyden’s “Templum Salomonis” library. Appropriately enough, Burgersdijk & Niermans specializes in rare and collectable books, with a focus on classical antiquity and philosophy. Twice each year, in May and November, Burgersdijk & Niermans holds auctions that bring a wide array of old and new books, manuscripts and prints into contact with private collectors and book-collecting institutions from around the world. The current owners of Burgersdijk & Niermans, Arno de Bruin and Arne Steenkamp, have been in business together for 36 years, and their shop is an old-school bastion of calm and genteelness.

 Arno: “We know each other from a bookshop where we both worked in the mid-‘70s. It was a bookshop called De Kler. I worked there for several years, Arne a bit shorter. And then we met each other again at [Leiden University]. We both studied Dutch language and literature. And all of a sudden there came the idea to start an antiquarian book shop. Just around the corner in the Salomonsteg, we started an antiquarian book shop called Blaeu. Named after the printer [Willem Blaeu] who is also famous for the world atlases. That was in 1981. And we did that for five years. Carla my wife also worked with us. It was the three of us.” The shop was open from Wednesday to Saturday “and we all had a work day. Arne did the Wednesday, and I did the Thursday and Carla the Friday. And on Saturdays we [rotated] … We [were still students] at the university, but we also ran the business.”

Arno: “And then in 1986 the former owner of [Burgersdijk & Niermans] asked if there was the possibility that we could buy this shop. Because the shop and the auction weren’t going too well at that moment.” Burgersdijk & Niermans has been in continuous operation since 1894. “Well, it was a big hassle to obtain this shop, and we had to go to the bank, and we only had our blue eyes and no money (laughs).”

Arne: “So we had to do a lot of work with the bankers to get the money to buy the place and to restore it … We had to renovate the whole building. To restore this room, for example.” We’re sitting in a large room, lovingly restored to its original 18th century specifications. Workers spent three months restoring the plaster ceiling’s four seasons motif. “It took us seven years to get [the building restoration] job done … The roofs were all leaking. It was in a very bad condition at the time we bought it.”

Arno and Arne own the two-storey building that houses Burgersdijk & NiermansArno: “You see the sign outside [which reads] Templum Salomonis ... the temple of wisdom … a 14th century jurist had his library here … there’s only one book left [from his library], and that’s at the university library now.”

Arne: At the Blaeu bookshop, “we only did retail sales of books. We bought libraries or single pieces, and they were sold at our shop … And we had a window on the Pieterskerkhof where we displayed books which we regularly changed. That business went very well. But we didn’t know anything about auctions at that time … So when we bought [Burgersdijk & Niermans] we had to learn about auctions as well.”

In recent years, Burgersdijk & Niermans has published a number of books about Leiden’s history, as well as a booklet [“Dicht op de Muur”] about the poetry that appears on walls around LeidenArno:“That’s a very popular book. We took it over from the city of Leiden, and we’ve sold over 30,000 copies of it. Tourists who come to Leiden like to have it … tourists from Russia are impressed that we have this poem by Marina Tsvetajeva on our wall” on the outside of the Burgersdijk & Niermans building.

Neither man initially planned a career in the book businessArne: “We don’t come from a book dealers background. But I started off working as a pupil in high school … at De Kler in Leiden during holidays … that set off the interest. And of course we also bought books ourselves [for their personal libraries].”

Arno: “After high school I didn’t know what to do. And someone gave me the opportunity to work there [at De Kler] and I liked it. And we had the luck that at the time we came there was a new owner, and he gave us lots of freedom to learn at the shop … It was a nice learning process to be there.”

The Internet brought dramatic changes to the bookshop businessArno: “In the early ‘80s when we started, we had a lot more collectors, people were traveling across the country with backpacks to buy books and bring them home. But that’s changed, people are buying over the Internet … it seems there’s not as much interest in first editions … the young ones, the kids, aren’t interested in that anymore.”

The Internet is a mixed blessing. Arne: “It facilitates business … we have customers all over the world now … we used to have customers only in Europe. But we now deal with people in Mexico and all over.”

Arno: “We were quite early adapters of selling books on the Internet. At the beginning it was incredible, you could sell anything. The whole world was laying at your feet. But that’s changed so much. There’s so many bookshops now on the Internet. It’s like a very big pond and everyone’s fishing in there, and prices are going down, too.”

Arno: “I think it was much nicer when all the people came in here to buy books … and now they’re doing it behind their desk at home. I think it takes the romantic feeling about collecting books away, it’s gone.”

Both men still enjoy coming to work. Arno: “It also depends on the collections … if we’ve seen it so many times, we don’t get excited about it anymore … but other times we get [new] libraries in and it’s exciting.”

Arne: “The most exciting part is going into the field and buying … we evaluate the library at first, and it’s really an adventure … we look for quality. And books should be a bit rare, hard to find.”

What’s the secret to their long partnership? Arne: “We have our own special ways of doing business. Arno is very good at the financial part of the business. And I do more of the contacts with the clients for the auctions … I am more involved with evaluating and organizing collections for the auctions.”

Arno: “We’re not sitting on each other’s backs (laughs).”

Arno is now 64 years old and Arne is 58. Arne lives with his wife in Oegstgeest, while Arno and his family live just a block away from the bookshop. How much longer would they like to stay in business? Arne: “[Retirement] is not something I look forward to. Not at all. As long as there are interesting deals to make, which shouldn’t necessarily be here in this auction room. Buying and selling is something I always like to do. Getting it for one price and selling it to another party.”

Would they want a potential buyer of Burgersdijk & Niermans to continue their legacy? Arne: “That would be nice. But we don’t think that will be possible. It will be very hard. Because we had a former colleague here in Leiden … who owned the antiquarian department of Brills on the Nieuwe Rijn And he tried to sell his part of the business back in the ‘90s…”

Arno: “…And it was already hard at that time. He wasn’t successful [in selling his bookshop business] … so in the end he decided to auction his collection. And it was a very good business that he had.”

Arne: “He was a specialist with a lot of customers in the Middle East. It was a really excellent bookshop … but he couldn’t find somebody who had the money and the brains. Because that’s the important thing … he was asking [the equivalent of about EUR 1 million at today’s value] for his shop … but he couldn’t find that person.”

Are antiquarian bookshops part of a bygone era? Arne: “This is a gentleman’s business. It would be nice if we could pass it on, but we doubt it.”

Arno: “It’s still fun to work with each other and with our colleagues. That’s nice to do. And the customers we get in are generally also very nice. So we still have fun in being here.”

Arne: “But we also like to be successful in terms of selling books. So there has to be some kind of outcome at the end of the day. We don’t like sitting here and not selling. That’s difficult for us sometimes, when the shop isn’t visited by customers over the day. That’s not inspiring, to say the least.”

Arno: “If we have 10 or 15 customers a day that’s rather busy. But when we have the auction twice a year then you know why we are all doing this.”

Arne: [The auctions] “really gives us the temperature to know if this is still viable.”

Burgersdijk & Niermans is located at Nieuwsteeg 1 in Leiden. Information about Burgersdijk & Niermans is available at