Paul Breman: Bookseller, writer and publisher of black poetry

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The Independent Online

All booksellers are different, but Paul Breman was more different than most. Who else could combine black poetry and Renaissance fortification? He knew about both, not just as articles of trade; he had read all the texts and understood them, as deeply as their authors. He had very clear ideas on most things, and did not compromise on what he believed was right. With this independence went a dry, even sardonic wit, like old champagne. For those who could meet him on his own ground he was the best of company.

He was born in Bussum, a dormitory suburb of Amsterdam, in 1931. He and his father mitigated the miseries of wartime occupation by a competition to see which could read the Bible fastest; he then read it in the English Authorised version, which later stood him in good stead when he came to write about spirituals. From school he went to read Dutch and English at Amsterdam University, but, lacking a "classics certificate", he was barred from taking his degree.

He had already come to jazz, listening, clandestinely, to late-night broadcasts on the American Forces Network with fellow-students. In his last year at school, he was active in starting the Gooise Rhythm Club, which held lectures, record evenings and concerts for Dutch bands. At Amsterdam his interest in "negro poetry" took root; he guessed rightly that people used to the strict rhythm of the blues would take to more formal poetry as they reached higher educational levels; he discovered Langston Hughes, and his translations of the work of Hughes, Waring Cuney and W.E.B. Dubois were published in Podium, the leading Dutch literary journal.

After university Breman organised a cultural centre, with performances, lectures and exhibitions. In 1952 he married, and next year went to work at Erasmus, a bookshop selling new books on the ground floor with a second-hand department upstairs. There Abraham Horodisch was in charge, and with him Breman got his grounding in the book trade. They got on well; neither put up with unpleasant customers, nor encouraged unknown browsers; both detested hagglers. Between 1955 and 1958 Breman did 22 catalogues for Erasmus, 1,000 or more books in each, simply described.

He also kept up his connection with black music. With his great friend the jazz historian Michiel de Ruyter, he got to know all the visiting American musicians, and started writing, first articles, then books: Spirituals (1958) and Blues (1961).

In 1957 he married again, to Wil Vroom, a ballet dancer, and the next year they came to London, where Breman found work, first with Joseph's in Charing Cross Road, which he did not like. He was introduced to Ben Weinreb, and he put him in touch with John Carter at Sotheby's, who recommended him to Jacques Vellekoop, Dutch like himself, at E.P. Goldschmidt. There, Breman was immersed in 16th-century books, and learned to catalogue old books to a high standard; the 12 catalogues for which he was responsible, especially the last, on 16th-century French books, saw him "come of age" as a bookseller.

In 1963 he left to set up with Ben Weinreb the first antiquarian bookshop to specialise in architecture and its history at 72 New Oxford Street. Their first regular customer was John Betjeman, who would call every Wednesday after delivering his weekly article to Time and Tide round the corner. The business grew and they moved to 39 Great Russell Street, the old Stevens, Son and Stiles shop. The 25 catalogues that they issued set new scholarly standards for the description of architectural books; elegant typographical design was provided by Gillian Riley. The partnership with Weinreb lasted until 1967, when they sold their entire stock to the University of Texas and went separate ways.

Emptying the shop was, as Breman said, as if a tap had been opened at the bottom. What to do next? All this time he had kept up his interest in black poetry, and in 1962 started the "Heritage" series of black poets, beginning with Robert Hayden's A Ballad of Remembrance (which won first prize for poetry at the Dakar Festival of Negro Arts in 1962) and his own anthology Sixes and Sevens. The series finally ran to 27 titles by 1972; some authors later became famous, including Mari Evans, Dolores Kendrick, Audre Lorde, Clarence Major and Ishmael Reed. Breman's anthology of black verse, You Better Believe It, appeared as a Penguin in 1973. It was a lasting passion, even after he gave up active publishing.

No one else would have embarked on a career as an independent bookseller by issuing a catalogue exclusively devoted to books and manuscripts on the design of ornamental horse-bits. It was the first of a series, again designed by Gillian Riley, in a tall narrow format ideal for a catalogue on obelisks, which he never quite got around to. There were ultimately 47, the subjects as original and various: ideal cities, books printed by the great 16th-century Italian calligrapher Ludovico degli Arrighi, the work of Frank Lloyd Wright, and, increasingly, military architecture and engineering.

In 1980 he got his first Amstrad, and began to roll his own catalogues, with number followed by date (a system that drove quite sober librarians to drink). In 1989, having himself become confused, he did a recount of all his catalogues, made it 143, and started again, adding poster design and landscape gardening to the mix; the last was 172, on the 16th-century poet and spelling reformer Giovan Giorgio Trissino.

In 1967 he met Jill Norman, author and editor of cookery books, and they set up house in a wonderful Victorian warren in Hampstead. They shared an interest in good modern design and good food and drink. Its kitchen, with sumptuous range, round glass table and z-shaped chairs, was at once spare and welcoming to their many guests. Jill cooked memorably; her husband, who took such things seriously, shopped at the Gare du Nord for oysters, brought back in string bags. Latterly, physical movement was increasingly restricted by disability, but the spirit, the wit, a catholic affection for families and friends, stayed undiminished.

Nicolas Barker

Paul Breman, writer, bookseller and publisher: born Bussum, The Netherlands 19 July 1931; married 1952 Maria de Waard (one son; marriage dissolved), 1957 Wil Vroom (one son; marriage dissolved); 1976 Jill Norman (two daughters); died London 29 October 2008.