Botlek Stores on the Theemsweg in Rotterdam.Image Raymond Rutting / de Volkskrant

    It was a trip that crew members of container ships invariably had at the top of their list when they docked in the port of Rotterdam: a visit to Botlek Stores. Known in all corners of the world, the ‘ashore’ department store had everything that would make a sailor’s heart beat faster. Snacks and alcohol, but also fitness equipment, suitcases, tobacco and sex toys. For the home front there were souvenirs for sale in the form of Barbie dolls or perfume – all duty-free.

    In short, Botlek Stores was a household name. There are videos on YouTube of Filipino and Chinese sailors as they elatedly board the shuttle buses specially made available by the store, only to get back on board with their loot even more elated.

    All that joy has now come to an end: Botlek Stores is no more. On August 2, a number of employees successfully filed for bankruptcy, after arrears had arisen in the payment of wages. ‘The investigation into the cause of this is still ongoing’, is all that curator Justin de Vries of the Rotterdam law firm LVH can say about it.

    Good business

    Botlek Stores was founded in 1960 by Harrie Dekker (‘HG Dekker senior’), a handy entrepreneur who initially settled down in Rotterdam’s Sint Jobshaven with the Toko Sint Job shop during the reconstruction years. ‘There were many cranes in that area and in between were all men, mainly Asians, who could go to the toko for a sandwich, dockwork items or souvenirs,’ says Tom Dekker (67), Harrie’s son.

    When the neighboring industrial estate De Botlek was expanded with a petroleum and chemical port, Harrie Dekker sensed new opportunities. He had two buildings built in quick succession, one on the Botlekweg and later on the Theemsweg, where he, according to the same ‘seam shop’concept ran a shop. Business went so well that the store was expanded with an extra floor. After Harrie’s death, the eldest son Peter took over the helm in 1984. Tom also remained involved from the sidelines: Botlek Stores was the pride of the family.

    But after decades of success, things started to deteriorate. Shipping companies had significantly reduced their workforce to keep their heads above water. ‘Of the ten to fifteen men who were still on board, half were working and the other half were sleeping a bit, because they had just finished a night shift’, says Tom Dekker. “The rinse got very thin.”

    Ships were also shorter in port, so that the crew had less time for trips to shore. And then, to make matters worse, the corona pandemic broke out and the sailors were no longer allowed to disembark at all. Botlek Stores temporarily closed its doors.

    Casino, night club, ladies

    Owner Peter Dekker had already sold his store before the last crisis. After years of nobody reporting, he eventually ended up with Bas van Poppel, a businessman from Wassenaar. Van Poppel wanted to steer a new course, which, according to Tom Dekker, can best be described as ‘megalomaniac plans that were not feasible’. ‘A casino, nightclub, ladies – everything has been reviewed.’

    According to Dekker, prices were thrown up and employees were only partially paid or not at all. A former employee, who does not want his name in the newspaper for fear of reprisals, confirms this story. The company, he says, has succumbed to mismanagement.

    Reports from the Court of Rotterdam show that at least two employees managed to get their overdue salary paid out through legal means. Bas van Poppel could not be reached for comment on Tuesday; the numbers listed on the store’s website have been taken off the air.

    On February 22 of this year, the Fiod issued a press release about searches in a home and three business premises in Wassenaar, Rotterdam and Valkenswaard. Two suspects were arrested, including ‘a 57-year-old owner of a company that supplies ships and their crews’.

    The Fiod suspects that the suspects resold VAT-free goods that were delivered to ships on paper, in reality at a bargain price to supermarkets, night shops or private individuals. “With this fraudulent construction, the Dutch state may have missed out on at least 1.6 million euros in excise duties and VAT,” the press release said.

    A spokesperson for the Fiod, who does not want to confirm whether it is indeed Botlek Stores, says that the investigation is still ongoing and that the suspects have now been released.

    Greed

    It is ‘very sad’ that Botlek Stores is disappearing from the Rotterdam port area, says Dennis Woodward, who as harbor pastor cares about the fate of the sailors. According to him, the store fulfilled an important social function, at a time when the isolation among crew members was increasing.

    He points to the decline in the number of sailors’ houses: meeting places on shore, where seamen can go for a cup of coffee, a listening ear and free WiFi. ‘For crew members, Botlek Stores was a real outing: away from the ship for a while.’

    According to Woodward, the store has not wanted to take on the welfare function that sailors’ homes fulfill under the new management – ​​despite his attempts to use the shuttle buses for trips in the area or by setting up a chat corner. “They were mainly interested in dollars, not people,” Woodward says. “Unfortunately, Botlek Stores has succumbed to greed.”

    It hurts that the shop that his father once set up with so much verve has come to an end in this way, says Tom Dekker. ‘In all those years we have never had an angry customer and now the store is closed. It will be a great loss to sailors.’

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