Obituary: Ben Weinreb

Nicolas Barker
Wednesday 07 April 1999 00:02

"BOOKSELLERS ARE all manner of men and women: some are driven by restless ambition to fortify themselves with warehouses full of stock, buying and selling the rarest and most valuable editions. Others tread a quieter path, content to be the caretakers of books on their unhurried journey from one reader to the next." So Ben Weinreb began an obituary he wrote of Justin Clarke-Hall, whom he saw as the epitome of the second category: the first is his own self-portrait.

In one respect it flatters him: he was, first and last, a "runner", one who buys books from one place and runs to another where he knows he can sell it. The warehouses were never his, but rented cheap on short leases. As he ran, in his mind Time's winged chariot (or the bailiffs) was never far behind. But what books he had, and how many of them! He was never afraid to pay a steep price for a book whose merits he alone saw, hoping that he could find someone to share his view. No library, no accumulation of old periodicals, was too big to put him off, while his fertile mind devised its next resting place.

Weinreb was born to immigrant parents in Halifax in 1912; his mother died soon after his birth, and his father was interned as an enemy, so his early years were spent in the Princess Christian Training College for Nurses at Withington, Manchester. His father married again in 1917, and in 1926 the family moved south to Coulsdon. Weinreb went to Whitgift's School at Croydon; he was no scholar, and his formal education stopped when he left.

His first job, at 25 shillings a week, was as assistant in the theology department in Foyle's Bookshop, Charing Cross Road, to Dr Duncan, whose reverence for scripture in any form was such that he could not bear to consign any book that came his way to the regularly stoked inferno in the basement that was Foyle's brisk way of dealing with the unsaleable. Dr Duncan's tottering piles were an awful warning, but also an irresistible temptation. But, in the event, other temptations lured him away. It was then that he began to run: he bought a presentation copy of Max Beerbohm's Herbert Beerbohm Tree for sixpence and sold it to Bain's for five shillings.

Books were not his first metier, rather, the stage. He tried his hand at theatre interviews for The Era, and wrote for it the first ever piece about the photographer Angus McBean. He joined a local repertory company at Watford as assistant stage-carpenter and small-part actor, at pounds 2 10s a week; he asked for more and, "as neither my carpentry nor my acting were up to professional standards", he was sacked. The Green Line bus took him up to London in the spring of 1935 with hope, five shillings in his pocket, but nothing else with which to face the future.

He found his way to Parton Street, where David Archer kept a small bookshop dedicated to poetry and left-wing politics. The year before, Archer had earned himself not money, for he was quite improvident, but a permanent niche in fame by publishing Dylan Thomas's 18 Poems. His partners were wary of further extravagance, and when Weinreb appeared at the door he was hired at pounds 1 a week to mind the till and the shop, with the use of the attic bedroom, occasionally shared with Thomas. "My memory is understandably confused," wrote Weinreb, "but I recall us sometimes unsteadily climbing the rickety stairs together and other occasions when the still of the early hours would be shattered by loud knocks upon the street door accompanied by Dylan's deep-throated bellow and I would get up and throw him the key."

Philip Poole, still the doyen of pen-sellers, occupied the first floor, and the basement held Stanley Brothers, who distributed Esmond Romilly's journal of public-school rebellion, Out of Bounds. He had been an earlier tenant of the attic, and Weinreb admired him greatly, then and later.

David Archer's bookshop was not isolated in its politics. Next door was Lawrence and Wishart, the Communist publishers and booksellers. Across the road was Meg's cafe, where the students from the Central School gathered, with Charles Madge, Geoffrey Grigson, John Cornford (to be killed next year in the Spanish Civil War), George Barker and David Gascoyne. Above the cafe Roger Roughton lived and published Contemporary Poetry and Prose, to which Picasso and Dal contributed as well as Gascoyne and Dylan Thomas.

In July 1935, to celebrate the Silver Jubilee of King George V, Weinreb filled the window of the shop with tins of "Golden Humbugs" and anti-royalist pamphlets. Next year, the money ran out and he began to drift away, returning from time to time when Winnie Barham took over the shop and opened a cheap lunch cafe in the basement. This lasted till the Second World War when the shop closed, and he helped her pack up the last copies of 18 Poems to be passed to Bertram Rota, to be paid for when sold.

By this time Weinreb had married Kay Lazarus, the textile designer, and they moved to a flat in Hampstead. Then came the war. He was not cut out to be a soldier, and remained throughout a lance- corporal in the Education Corps, though some time was spent congenially helping Carol Reed make war documentaries. His wife moved to the south coast, and they rented a cottage in Felpham, opposite William Blake's.

After the war, he started his own business, Dipsas, carrying books to and fro on a huge delivery bicycle. In 1952, they had to return to London, and Weinreb betook himself full-time to "running", no longer from bookseller to bookseller, but to private customers, of which he had now built up a clientele. Collectors like Geoffrey Keynes (Blake came in useful here) appreciated his nose for finding exactly what they needed and the energy with which he pursued it, sharing their delight in treasures found.

But more and more he came to specialise in books on architecture, an enthusiasm that grew with and out of his love of London (he had been early fired by Steen Eiler Rasmussen's paean to the city). It was an elderly builder in Islington who told him that everything a builder needed to know was in Vitruvius that set him to work collecting editions of the great classical treatise, and with them his first stock. John and Eileen Harris were early helpers, and Paul Breman, then at E.P. Goldschmidt, soon to become his partner, helped with the cataloguing.

He acquired a small store-room at 72 New Oxford Street, and his first regular customer, John Betjeman, who would call every Wednesday after delivering his regular article to Time and Tide round the corner. The books that he bought were doubly paid for, accompanied as they were by the liveliest lectures on what they were about.

In 1960 Weinreb, now living at 60 Great Russell Street, opposite the British Museum, was able to acquire his first proper shop, the old premises of Stevens, Son and Stiles at 39 Great Russell Street, vacant since the whole area had been bought up by the Government in anticipation of the expected southward addition of the museum. He took the lease, with an uncertain future, at a mere pounds 500 a year, and in the same year issued the first of 60 catalogues, which have become reference books in their own right.

There, in addition to the ground-floor shop, was a piano nobile where he could display his handsomest folios (an inseparable delight and inconvenience of dealing in architecture books). In 1966 he put on an exhibition to celebrate the publication of Sir John Summerson's Inigo Jones. In the attic was a workshop where Ted Gray worked when not teaching at Rada, furbishing and turning out quite respectable-looking bindings; the Times Furnishing Company would buy anything that looked like that to fill the period cases that they sold in New Oxford Street.

Weinreb was an incorrigible buyer of bulk himself - witness the thousands of old boys' magazines that he bought from George Jeffery in the Farringdon Road, all on the point of disintegrating, and finally managed to sell; the English, at Richard Hoggart's suggestion, to Reading University, the American to the University of California at Los Angeles.

In 1968, Weinreb himself was the subject of an even bigger bulk purchase. The University of Texas offered, through an intermediary, to buy his whole stock. Unbelievably, the deal was done. There was no catalogue, but a price was agreed, and gradually the whole building was emptied. It was as if, Paul Breman graphically put it, a tap had been opened at the bottom. In 1970, when I went to Austin, the books were still in their cases, waiting to be opened. They have since become one of the main strengths of that remarkable library.

After that, Weinreb had no real need to work. The great challenge of his old age was presented by Phyllis Lambert, whose Canadian Centre for Architecture in Montreal and the formation of its library became his principal occupation; he was especially proud of this connection. Apart from that he diverted himself; occasionally mean in small matters, he was absurdly generous in large ones, and much of his time was spent helping friends, or anyone who shared his enthusiasms. He moved his business to the other side of Great Russell Street, and briefly opened another shop, selling prints in partnership with Rob Douwma.

He was always on the lookout to help the young, and the number of the "sons of Ben" (and daughters) who got their first jobs from him is legion. Julia Elton and Hugh Pagan are two who graduated from his employment to start their own businesses. Perhaps his happiest partnership was with Christopher Hibbert, with whom he compiled The London Encyclopaedia (1983), an alphabetical companion to the history and architecture of the city, strong in anecdote, into which all his knowledge, historical and topographical, was poured. Something of his seemingly endless vitality dwindled when his wife Joan died in 1992, but he kept up with his old haunts and friends, delighting in others' achievements. In 1993 he collaborated with his photographer son, Matthew, writing the words to his photographs in London Architecture.

Once a runner, always a runner - Ben Weinreb was a small, stocky figure, permanently in a hurry, a ready smile creasing the beard that had now turned white, a Mercury of the book trade, who never lost the signs of his early passion for drama. He loved London and knew every inch of it; he also knew almost everything that had happened there, and what he did not know he invented, which was often better.

Few booksellers leave a permanent mark not only on their trade but also on the subject matter of their wares. He was one of that few. It is no exaggeration to say that he found the raw material of architectural scholarship bricks and left it marble. Unlettered though he was, and dependent on others (a debt always acknowledged) for the catalogues by which he will be remembered, he had an instinctive grasp and understanding of what was important. Not only the Canadian Centre for Architecture, but libraries all over the world, have been his beneficiaries. A new generation of architectural historians has come into being, fuelled by the material that he discovered.

The books that he sold in such quantity, as well as his catalogues, will be his memorial.

Benjamin Weinreb, bookseller and architectural historian: born Halifax, West Yorkshire 5 February 1912; married 1937 Kay Lazarus (one daughter; marriage dissolved), 1957 Joan Glover (nee Kingdon-Rowe, died 1992; one son, one daughter); died Henton, Somerset 3 April 1999.

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