Flanders’ only gay bookshop reopens in new location


The LGBT community in Flanders lost its only gay bookshop last year, but now it’s reopened as Kartonnen Dozen, with a promising new location

Cardboard boxes

Are you in the market for some rainbow flip-flops? How about a calendar featuring hot, scantily clad guys? Or the latest book by Emma Donoghue?

What do these things have in common? They are all part of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) culture, which means you’ll find them at Kartonnen Dozen, Antwerp’s new bookshop dedicated to all things queer.

Though “new” is a bit misleading. Kartonnen Dozen (Cardboard Boxes) is the reincarnation of Het Verschil, Antwerp’s original gay bookstore, which closed last year. Het Verschil had been open for 19 years and was the only such bookstore left in Flanders. But it fell prey to the same phenomenon that is threatening many independent bookshops: loss of sales due to internet shopping and streaming services.

Antwerp resident Bart De Smedt opened Het Verschil in 1996 on Minderbroedersrui in the city centre. In the first few years, it was only open three days a week.

Location, location, location

“But we eventually had to move to a larger space across the street and open seven days a week because the market just exploded,” says Johanna Pas of the new Kartonnen Dozen. “There were so many new products, and our DVDs were especially popular. But over the last few years, the DVD market has plunged.”

The shop was also in a part of Antwerp’s city centre that has suffered a loss of foot traffic over the last few years, she says. Pas, who worked at Het Verschil for 16 years and is now co-owner of Kartonnen Dozen, hopes the new location will breathe fresh life into the business.

It is so important for people to find reflections of their own lives and who they are

- Johanna Pas

She couldn’t have dreamed of a better spot: The shop is on Draakstraat, just around the corner from Het Roze Huis (The Pink House), Antwerp’s gay and lesbian community centre. Managed by Flanders’ queer support network, Cavaria, Het Roze Huis has a ground-floor cafe, Den Draak, which is popular with the LGBT community and neighbourhood residents alike.

Upstairs and across the street are offices and spaces to hold events. Kartonnen Dozen on the same street creates a triangle of queer stops. “If we can’t do it here, we can’t do it anywhere!” says Pas with a laugh.

Readings and workshops are indeed attracting more people than ever before. And she thinks that there’s a larger customer base in such a residential neighbourhood.

Ode to Lanoye

Those familiar with Flemish literature will recognise the name of the shop right away. It’s named after Tom Lanoye’s 1991 coming-of-age novel in which he recounts his own fledgling attempts to connect with other boys.

“That book had a lot of impact on people in Flanders, so we named the store after it as a reference to how much influence novels can have,” Pas explains. “A lot of straight people read that book, so he found a way to let them see and feel what it’s like to be gay, to grow up gay here.”

Kartonnen Dozen sells both new and used books, fiction and non-fiction, in both Dutch and English. Books can also be ordered on its website. It has a smattering of gifts and an excellent selection of DVDs.

Pas is realistic about how bookshops in general are struggling, but insists that these kind of spaces  are crucial as a meeting place. And it surrounds one with a sense that their culture is alive and well.

“It is so important for people to find reflections of their own lives and who they are,” she says. “It’s been important to me through the years to find references to how I can live. For me, I find that in books and movies. So that’s what I want to give to other people.”