De Heksenkelder

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First Dutch women’s bookshop and café

In the summer of 1974, Dorelies Kraakman and Sylvia Bodnár came up with the idea for a feminist bookshop in Utrecht. In the thriving women’s movement, the lesbian lovers signaled an enormous need for ‘documentation’. Unfortunately books about women, emancipation and feminism could hardly be found at the time in general and left-wing Utrecht bookshops such as Broese or De Rooie Rat (1972-2015). That is why they founded the very first women’s bookshop in the Netherlands: the Heksenkelder (Witch’s Basement).
Towards the end of the 1960s, a new generation of feminists took action for women’s emancipation. From the beginning of this ‘second wave of feminism’, lesbians were involved in groups such as Man Woman Society (Man Vrouw Maatschappij / MVM, 1968) and Dolle Mina (1969). Regrettably they encountered regularly heteronormativity in the women’s movement. Lesbian feminist initiatives therefore often pursued a dual agenda, against discrimination based on sex and sexuality. This certainly also applies to the Utrecht women’s bookshop De Heksenkelder, which has been called Savannah Bay since 1984.

‘The Witch’

In 1970, the first feminist bookstores opened in the United States. Sylvia Bodnár (1946-2010) and Dorelies Kraakman (1946-2002) knew about this and wanted to realize something similar. However, their plans involved more than a store. There should also be a cafe, spaces for meetings of emancipation groups, exhibitions of female artists, discussions, theater, music and a play area for children. That multi-complex opened on 3 December 1975 at Oudegracht 261. At streetlevel was cafe De Heksenketel (Witch’s Cauldron / Bedlam) and in the wharf cellar bookshop De Heksenkelder (Witch’s Basement). In the scene the two together were soon named ‘The Witch’ (De Heks).
With ‘The Witch’ Bodnár and Kraakman strove for ‘human emancipation’. That ideal was generally formulated, but lesbianism played a central role in their feminism. Bodnár and Kraakman therefore sought contact not only with groups such as MVM and Dolle Mina, but also with COC and Group 7152 for lesbian and bisexual women when developing their plans for a bookshop with café. From the opening of the store, an important part of the offer consisted of books in the category ‘lesbian existence’, and the women who collectively ran the cafe and bookshop almost all identified as lesbian.
Around 1980 the founders started doing other things. Bodnár had started her own publishing house, ‘Vrouw Holle’ (‘Frau Holle’ from the fairytale of the Brothers Grimm), and became a radio presenter. Kraakman left for Amsterdam to study history. She co-founded the Amsterdam Lesbian Archive (1983), the Mama Cash fund (1983) and co-founded the Department of Gay and Lesbian Studies at the University of Amsterdam.

Savannah Bay

In the early 1980’s, the collective of ‘the Witch’ fell into a crisis about the course to be followed and finances. The women from the bookshop eventually split off. In November 1984 they opened the women’s bookshop Savannah Bay at 13 Telingstraat. The new name was taken from a play by the French writer Marguerite Duras.
Lesbian books were also widely available in Savannah Bay. The store was also still run by a collective of mainly lesbian women. However, the collective crumbled in the 1990s, when feminism went “out” and benefits agencies pressured volunteers to seek paid work. The store ran into financial difficulties, but on February 1, Marischka Verbeek, one of the last remaining collective members, took over Savannah Bay.
Verbeek gave Savannah Bay a restart. She transformed the women’s bookshop into a general bookshop and meeting point for everyone interested in literature, gender, diversity, and LGBTI+ themes. In June 1997, Verbeek opened a book department for gay men. Ten years later, in 2007, it was the first bookshop in the Netherlands to make room for a transgender department.

More than a bookstore

The store always did more than only sell books. From the beginning, activities and events have been organized from, for and with the supporters.
‘The Witch’ already provided meeting space for numerous emancipation groups and exhibitions. Lectures, discussion, music and games evenings were organised.
In the 1980s, Savannah Bay and other women’s bookshops in the Netherlands organized feminist book weeks to stimulate more attention for women’s books. The local program of the first women’s book week in 1985 included a day of lectures on lesbian existence, organized in collaboration with the Lesbian Archive Utrecht. In 1989, Savannah Bay organized the last women’s book weekend about ‘New Lusts’, focusing on the topical issue of whether SM sex could be classified as lesbian and feminist at the time.
When Savannah Bay expanded the target group with gay men in 1997, a structural collaboration with rainbow partners in the city of Utrecht started – such as COC, Midzomergracht and PANN. During the first Pink Spring in 1997, Savannah Bay organized a literary afternoon: Uit de BoekenKast (pun of ‘Out of the closet’ and ‘books’). This event has become a permanent part of the annual Midzomergracht Festival for sexual diversity. After the election of Utrecht as Unesco City of Literature (2017), Uit de BoekenKast took on a new form and content as Queering the City of Literature. Fragments of texts written by queer writers are hung in the city to stimulate participants and passers-by to reflect on the question of what it means to move through the public space of Utrecht as a queer body.
In 2009, Marischka Verbeek and the many Savannah Bay volunteers received the Annie Brouwer-Korf Award, an award for projects and individuals who contribute to the acceptance and visibility of the LGBTI+ community in Utrecht.
Since then, the LGBTI+ profile has further strengthened. For example, from 2009, the bookshop became the postal address for COC Midden-Nederland, after it lost its own building. COC held office hours and meetings in the space behind the bookshop. Other LGBTI+ organizations also use the store as a place for meetings, gatherings, support groups, storage and mailing address. Clubs like the Stichting Transman (a foundation for transgender men, 2010) and intersectional-feminist publishing house Chaos (2017) were founded almost literally on the shop floor of Savannah Bay.
Since 2013, Savannah Bay has been the Pink Point of Utrecht, or the information point for LGBTQIA organizations and activities in the city.


Marischka Verbeek and Marijke Huisman




Astrid de Beer, ‘Kraakman, Theodora Elisabeth’ in: Digitaal Vrouwenlexicon van Nederland. URL: https://resources.huygens.knaw.nl/vrouwenlexicon/lemmata/data/Kraakman [25/12/2018]

Timo Houtekamer & Lex van Rens, ‘De Heksenkelder werd Savannah Bay’, Oud-Utrecht 93:3 (2020) 59-62.

Marijke Huisman, Suzanne Balm, Suzanne van der Beek, Timo Houtekamer, Onessa Novak en Lex van Rens, Savannah Bay. Geschiedenis van een bijzondere boekwinkel, 1975-2019 (Utrecht 2019)

Marijke Huisman, ‘Emancipatie van de mens’. LGBT-activisme in feministische boekhandel De Heksenkelder / Savannah Bay’, Historica 43: 3 (2020) 16-21

Jann Ruyters, ‘Heldin van het lesbische leven. In memoriam Sylvia Bodnár’, Trouw, 28 juni 2010, https://www.trouw.nl/nieuws/heldin-van-het-lesbische-leven~b98d93b7/

Anthe de Weerd, ‘Feministische brouwsels in borrelende Heksenketel. Bier en boeken in Utrechts eerste vrouwencafé’, Oud-Utrecht 83: 2 (2010) 80-84.