Sunday, October 19, 2014

Posada Art Books, a Dutch miracle in Brussels

[1] Posada Art Books. A photo I took of Ada en Martijn Oleff in front of their shop, at Spoormakers straat 50 rue des Éperonniers in Brussels on 22 September 1980.

by Huib van Opstal

‘The spark hit me… A fascinating world…’
STEPPING INTO his bookshop, Martijn Oleff instantly gave you the feeling you were an old friend. I bet he did that to every customer of Posada, the shop he and his wife Ada Roorda ran in Brussels, the capital of Belgium. Their Posada began in 1974 as a small gallery specialized in art prints (‘grafiek’) and was named in remembrance of a Mexican artist-engraver who published and sold his raw prints and pamphlets in his own shop too, José Guadalupe Posada (1852-1913) – with the added attraction it contained Ada’s first name.

[2] Mexican newspaper boys. Niños voceadores de periódicos on the cover of a stapled booklet, engraving on type metal by J.G. Posada, c.1900; sent out as a Posada Art Books mailing around 1979.

POSADA ART BOOKS moved house twice, but all three addresses were located in bilingual Brussels. The first in 1974-81 was at Spoormakers straat 50 rue des Éperonniers, zip code 1000, at the heart of the city. A shop that soon morphed into a very special type of bookshop that offered what was called ‘Art visuel (livres neufs et d’occasion),’ every type of art publication in any language, new or used. A spicy detail is that the Belgian book trade at the time saw selling modern art and books in foreign languages in Brussels as suicidal. But Posada Art Books became a thriving business: a Dutch miracle in Brussels.

[3] Posada mailing. Six thematical book lists folded into El purgatorio artistico, engraving on type metal by J.G. Posada, c.1900; sent out as a Posada Art Books mailing around 1979.

DUTCH BOOK HISTORIAN Piet J. Buijnsters published his latest book in 2013, when he was 80 years of age, a history of the antiquarian book trade and the love of books in Belgium, a work applauded as a ‘trailblazer’ — titled Geschiedenis van antiquariaat en bibliofilie in België (1830-2012). In this 432-page book Buijnsters included 35 of his personally conducted interviews with Belgian antiquarians and collectors. In the Summer of 2010, one of these was held at Posada Art Books in Brussels with an antiquarian who already knew the days of both his bookshop and his life were numbered: Martijn Oleff, who spontaneously gushed out a wide range of names and details that once inspired his career. Almost ‘a long monologue’ according to Buijnsters.

[4] First Posada logo. A stylized symbol looking like a mirrored S. Was it Mexican? A good-luck sign? A labyrinth?

ADA S.B. OLEFF-ROORDA. Martijn and Ada, both born in 1941, came from the Netherlands (or Nederland, or Holland), he from Rotterdam, she from Scheveningen (part of Den Haag, or The Hague). They met in their teens and after some international stints in the book and print trade in the Netherlands, the US, Mexico and Spain, decided to try their luck in Belgium in 1974. They did their business in Dutch and French, and spoke some German, English and Spanish as well.

MARTIJN CORNELIS OLEFF (born 10 October 1941, Rotterdam, Zuid-Holland — ‘Oleff, that’s Scandinavian’ he told his interviewer), first worked as a biochemical analyst at Organon in Oss, Noord-Brabant, much to his dissatisfaction. In the early 1960s he stayed in Spain for many months. He then began to work as factotum for the small publishing company of Ad Donkers in Rotterdam, at the same time following a two-year correspondence course in Bookselling & Publishing. Just-married, he and Ada headed for the US where he landed a job with art book seller Wittenborn and Co. in New York.

[5] Art book seller. George Wittenborn managing his paperwork in the 1960s.
GEORGE WITTENBORN (1905-74, Jewish, fled from Germany in the 30s) with his wife Joyce Phillips (from England) in the US mainly dealt in imported art books, the latest titles from the finest European publishers from Germany, France, the UK, Spain, Italy. The Wittenborns. also published books and since 1956 used every inch of available wall space of their Madison Avenue shop as their ‘One-Wall Gallery.’ Martijn Oleff couldn’t resist mentioning that artists Roy Lichtenstein and Andy Warhol were frequent visitors at “Wittenborn and Company, 1018 Madison Avenue.
‘Working with Wittenborn, the spark hit me… A fascinating world… I got to know many other book traders, and major customers and museums too.’ Martijn Oleff  (in: Buijnsters, 2013)

[6] Don Quichotte. ‘A ‘calavera’ or skeleton-view featuring Don Quixote, a broadsheet print by José Guadalupe Posada, engraving on type metal, c.1900; published around 2 November — All Souls’ Day or “the Day of the Dead” in Mexico.

WANDERINGS. While working and living in the US for two years, in New York, Martijn developed an interest in Mexican culture and began to collect the metal cut prints of J.G. Posada. Since their residence permits expired after two years, he and Ada drove to Mexico to set up a bookshop there, for some gallery owner — a failed project. Back in Europe Martijn worked a couple of years at Editorial Blume in Barcelona, Spain — abruptly ended by Sigfrid Blume’s bankruptcy. Then, around 1970 in Ada’s hometown The Hague in the Netherlands, they set up Edition Unida and published ‘multiples & graphics’ (‘grafiek’) of modern artists. When their financial backing fell away they tried their luck in the South, in neighbouring country Belgium, in the city of Brussels. In April 1974 they opened their first Posada shop at Spoormakers straat 50 rue des Éperonniers, initially using the rented premise as a small gallery to sell the remainder of their art prints — which didn’t work out as expected.

SELLING old and new fine art books became their core business, although they kept selling art prints and multiples. Martijn was always snooping around for good old stuff, in other shops, at the Vossenplein place du Jeu de Balle flea market in the old city of Brussels, at trade fairs. Posada as a bookshop really took off when it acquired the complete stock of bookseller Hankard.

[7] Cheese market. A walk along the Spoormakers straat rue des Éperonniers, a view towards the Kaasmarkt rue du Marché aux Fromages, c.1905 photo.
[8] Cows and cheese. A walk along the Spoormakers straat rue des Éperonniers — a closer view of the Kaasmarkt rue du Marché aux Fromages, the location where the cheese market was held, c.1905 photo.
[9] Adverts. A walk along the Spoormakers straat rue des Éperonniers, a view of the large wall advertising at the Kaasmarkt rue du Marché aux Fromages, with already a glimpse of number 50 in the distance, on the left, 1905 photo.
[10] Corsets and lace. A walk along the Spoormakers straat rue des Éperonniers — the shop at number 50, c.1910 photo. When Posada Art Books left here in 1981 the shop was taken over by Wijnand and Mieke Plaizier who specialized in posters and cards.

AFTER SEVEN YEARS at Spoormakers straat 50 rue des Éperonniers Martijn and Ada moved their shop to a larger space around the corner, their second Posada shop, at Magdalena steenweg 27 rue de la Madeleine, in 1981. Finally, seven years later again, they moved to the adjoining building at number 29, their third Posada shop and a truly glorious location, in 1988.

Six years earlier, Belgian graphic artist Ever Meulen was commissioned to make a brand new Posada Art Books logo, in 1982.

[11] Bilingual streets. A 1970 list of all street names in the Brussels area in both Dutch and French, with zip codes, titled Lijst der openbare wegen van de Brusselse agglomeratie met aanduiding van de postnummers; Liste des voies publiques de l’agglomération Bruxelloise avec indication des numéros postaux. Paperback, size A5, 315 pages, plus 46 pages of later added modifications (in the shape of 9 inserted booklets, 1970-81), published by the Belgian Postal Administration and untouched by designer’s hands.

PART OF the larger kingdom of the Netherlands until 1830, Belgium split itself off by a nationalist revolt and became the present kingdom of België or Belgique situated between the Netherlands and France. But its population still bickers on about its multiple languages. Today a larger half of around 60% of Belgians speaks Flemish (Dutch, also in dialect). A smaller half of around 39 percent speaks Walloon (French, also in dialect) — even German speakers claim one percent. Today, a linguistic frontier officially splits the country in two: only Dutch spoken in the North, only French spoken in the south. On top of it, Brussels, its capital right in the middle, is bilingual with all street name signs lettered in Dutch and French, crammed in any size of sign, no matter how long the text runs. But this French-Dutch agglomerative wall dictionary is never read in full. To turn a blind eye to the opposite language, to half of the names, is standard procedure. Denial is the second name of most Belgians.
[12] Bilingual street name sign. ‘Spoormakers’ or ‘éperonniers’ were makers of spurs.
‘With customers from both sides of the linguistic frontier, I wasn’t troubled by the linguistic conflict in Belgium. But some customers had a problem with it themselves. Resulting in customers standing outside, before the shop window, waiting until the Flemings inside left, or vice versa!…’Martijn Oleff  (in: Buijnsters, 2013)

YOUNG and Dutch, I was working as art director-designer for a Dutch bi-weekly pop music paper — Muziekkrant Oor — when chief editor Jan-Maarten de Winter and I commissioned a series of section logos from Eddy Vermeulen for the year 1978. Eddy was a top-notch graphic artist from 1946 who worked in Brussels under his trade name ‘Ever Meulen.’ A few years later I managed to connect Martijn Oleff with him to have an illustrated Posada logo done.

[13] Posada logo design. Some of the initial pencil sketches by Ever Meulen, 1982 — with the germ of the triple-A idea…
[14] Pencil sketch. Logo, final design sketch in pencil by Ever Meulen, with the triple-A idea developed into a mask-like lettering.
[15] Final version. Hand-lettered, in Indian ink.
[16] Printed version. Used in a variety of print products in 1982-2011.
THE WAY Martijn Oleff with his jolly walrus mustache is portrayed in Ever Meulen’s final logo design for Posada is spot on: when a customer walked into his bookshop Martijn would look up as an old friend… in the midst of some intense research… Then offered you coffee with a smile, and books and papers in every shape or size. And whatever book or artist you mentioned, he always shared some stimulating insight about it – producing more and more printed works you’d never seen before. Strips or bandes dessinées were limited to just half a shelf and he jokingly agreed “to hell with comics!” — the incredible shrinking medium with its zealots and their restrictive definitions. Reaching mainstream audiences with comics was already on the wane in the 1980s.

[17] Already a memory. The third Posada shop on the cover of a Dutch book about the Belgian antiquarian book trade, by Piet J. Buijnsters, published in 2013.
2010-2011. In his final working year at the Magdalena steenweg rue de la Madeleine, Martijn Oleff reminisced about his international dealings in the past with:
…art book dealers like Heneage, Batterham, Sims & Reed in London, Perkins in Oxford, Laget in Paris, Vloemans in The Hague, Brouwer in Amsterdam, Ursus and Rietman in New York, Walter König in Cologne, De Nobele in Paris, and many others…Martijn Oleff  (in: Buijnsters, 2013)

THE GETTY. He took pride in having the library of the New York Getty Museum as a regular customer. He collected typewriters and ornamental prints (1830 and later). Published an occasional little catalogue himself and was blessed with Ada doing all day-to-day administrations. They lived in nearby Duisburg, halfway Brussels and Leuven-Louvain, arrived in the center of Brussels by car, six days a week, around seven o’clock each morning, and had their daily dinner at noon around the corner, in a cosy restaurant, often taken visitors with them.

[18] Martijn Oleff. Tribute in Elsevier magazine (detail with photo by Jan van de Wel).
FINAL. A final interview with Martijn and Ada in the Dutch weekly Elsevier under the header ‘A world bookshop’ (een wereldboekhandel) concluded in late 2010: ‘They’re tired’ (ze zijn moe). The new internet possibilities changed all book searching and selling. When closing shop in May 2011 Martijn was approaching seventy and physically already suffering unspeakable diseases. He finally passed away in Duisburg around ten o’clock in the morning of Tuesday 10 June, 2014. His cremation was the following Saturday, in silence; twenty of his family members were present at the funeral service.

[19] Closed down. The shopfront the week after, early May, posters in four languages, Dutch, French, French and German, saying: ‘Posada art books will be permanenly closed from May 3, 2011. We thank our customers and our colleagues for their friendship and loyalty.’

[20] In fond memory. Martijn Cornelis Oleff, bookseller, b. 10 October 1941, Rotterdam, Nederland – d. 10 June 2014, Duisburg, België.

Piet J. Buijnsters
Marcel Cattoor
Eddy Vermeulen
Jan-Maarten de Winter
Mieke & Wijnand Plaizier
Universiteit Gent
Elsevier Weekblad
Carla Joosten
Ada S.B. Oleff-Roorda

In late 2011 the premises at Magdalena steenweg 29 rue de la Madeleine were rented to chocolatier Neuhaus, who offers chocolat only in an interior setting of cold glass and marble. The old-style interior has been knocked out. 

Go back to the interiors of all four floors of the Posada bookshop in early 2011 via dozens of photos HERE.

See Martijn in Posada in early 2011 HERE.

See the website initiated by Martijn Oleff, Les Polyèdres, set up by Remy Bellenger HERE.

…Venez chez moi, je vous montrerais mes Polyèdres…Alfred Jarry, Ubu Cocu

See the present Plaizier shop HERE.

See Ever Meulen HERE and HERE.

See the 2013 book by Piet J. Buijnsters, Geschiedenis van antiquariaat en bibliofilie in België (1830-2012) at Vantilt publishers HERE. 


  1. Thank you for this post. Having been abroad for a few years I didn't know what happened to Posada Art books. The fact it wasn't there anymore stoke me by surprise last year. I felt so sorry - never had imagined this special place should disappear one day. It was indeed the most beautiful and welcoming art books shop I ever been in.
    Rest in peace Martijn Oleff, you did such a marvelous work for such a long time. I'll never forget your patient help, accurate advises and incredible collection nor the way you nourished my interest for modernist magazines. Kind regards to Ada. Daphné (Antwerp, Belgium)

  2. Thank you for this very interesting read. I was happy to discover the past of Posada's owners and sad to hear of Martijn's passing away.