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May 29, 2015

In the photo: A customer examines an interactive art display.

All is not madness on Amsterdam's Dam Square.

Amidst the tacky tourist come-ons on the Dam, the soulless stretch of global chain stores on Kalverstraat, and the sci-fi horror show that is now the Rokin while subway construction is underway, there lies a tower of calmness, cleanliness and serene Dutch sensibility. Scheltema is not only the bookstore of your dreams, it is a place where you can stop, breathe, and even think!

Founded in 1853 by Mr. Jacobus Hendrik Scheltema, the company is not exactly new, but its building certainly is. Designed to be a corner stone for the new commercial development on Rokin Street, the 10,500 square ft., five-story building mimicking 16th century brick architecture, has only been open for about one week. In fact, the red carpeted ramp out front where such local celebrities as author Herman Koch were welcomed during the grand opening has yet to be dismantled. Books are still being unpacked, and the whole place exudes the fragrance of fresh paint and clean, new paper.

So perhaps it is not fair to make comparisons, however on the eve of the closure of Chapter's bookstore in downtown Vancouver, it's interesting to note where Chapter's lost their way, and what makes this place feel so right. First of all, with the exception of a selection of fashionable reading glasses by the front reception, there are no tchotchkes and other merchandise for sale. The mandate is clear. Books are their thing and Scheltema displays them intelligently, laid out neatly face forward on circular display kiosks and shelves throughout each floor. 

Secondly, You don't have to hunt and search for a chair or step stool to perch on while you mull over that 10 lb. coffee table book. At Scheltema they invite you to linger and read via long communal wooden tables, desks, and comfy sectional sofas, each one prominently set out in the center of the floor space, and each bedecked with a large floral arrangement worthy of a 5-star hotel lobby. No one has turned them into personal office cubicles (at least, not yet), and quiet prevails. No screaming, sticky fingered children running amok. No piped in music from Hell. Just spaciousness, floods of natural light from skylights and views of the Amsterdam skyline from the windows. Plus there are public interactive art displays, a working demo kitchen in the cookbook section, and here and there (most likely faux) antiques such as sailboat models and grandfather clocks to soften the modernism. 

And yes, there is an in-house cafe, but it's no Starbucks. In this branch of Belgium's Vascobelo, a black and white-uniformed server brings you your coffee with a little chocolate truffle gratis on the side. 

There's an old joke, "If you are going to go to heaven, remember to take a magazine", but here that won't be necessary.  Scheltema stocks a wall of periodicals too. In fact, Vascobello offers a table heaped with international newspapers and the latest upscale magazines, free for your reading pleasure while you visit.

Well, pinch me.

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