A travel report from Rob:
My first visit to the Windy City couldn’t have been more enjoyable, although it only lasted a couple days. My first library visit was with Paul Gehl at the Newberry Library. They had a lovely exhibition (titled Plainly Spoken) organized by the Midwest Guild of Bookworkers, which showed 17 different bindings of sections of Julia Miller’s incredibly detailed bookbinding handbook Books Will Speak Plain. You can check out the online description here.
While visiting with Paul, I brought our copy of the 1824 edition of Peter Cottom’s Whole Art of Book-Binding. By total coincidence, a previous owner wrote on the front pastedown, in pencil, “Newberry Lib has 1811 English first”. This prompted us to do some searching and eventually we got to look at the first known manual of bookbinding in person. Needless to say, I was pretty excited.
The second stop was in Chicago’s South Side where I would meet with Alice Schreyer and Daniel Meyer of the University of Chicago. What followed was one of the most detailed library tours I have ever taken. The U of C library does not use off-site storage, quite the challenge for a collection of over 10 million volumes. So the library constructed an underground storage area in the Joe and Rika Mansueto Library, which houses a very advanced automated retrieval system complete with robotic cranes. This monster project took three years from 2008 – 2011, with the final volume being added in 2013.
The trip wouldn’t be complete without food! I went to the James Beard award-winning restaurant Blackbird (twice!), Buddy Guy’s Legends, and sampled a good ol’ fashioned Chicago deep dish pizza.
One of our nicest customers, Marcia Preston, called me in the spring of last year and invited me to give the 2014 Ron Ravneberg Lecture to the Aldus Society of Columbus, Ohio. This very active group of book lovers founded their Society in 2000 and it has grown to a very significant size. As with any trip, I planned several stops along the way. My wife, Millie, and I left on a Wednesday morning and kept to my strict personal guideline of never driving more than five hours in a day. That placed us in Washington, Pennsylvania early Wednesday afternoon and gave us time to tour the LeMoyne House and learn about its history and role in the Underground Railroad.
The next morning, under threat of snow, we were off to Columbus to meet Ed Hoffman, an ABAA dealer in Columbus and President of the Aldus Society. Ed took us to lunch in the historic district of Columbus, gave us a tour of the town, bought us ice cream at Jeni’s Ice Cream (which was unknown to us Easterners), and then took us to the home of the collector who had asked me to speak. We spent a delightful few hours looking at books and then returned to the hotel to rest up for the night’s speech. Here I am waxing lyrically about Oak Knoll.
The crowd of 60 folks seemed to find it all entertaining, but maybe that had something to do with the many wine bottles available for one and all before the speech began!
The first stop on our way back was Erie, Pennsylvania (remember my five hour rule!) on the way to Buffalo, New York to see a collection of books. The snow storm on Thursday night did not stand in our way as these northern folks know how to clean up quickly. We saw the collection at Ron Cozzi’s Old Editions Bookshop & Gallery, a bookstore with lots of books to view and well worth a trip to visit.
While in Buffalo, I also got to visit my high school for the first time in almost 50 years. Good old Amherst High stands solid as a rock.
Next stop: Ithaca, New York, where yes, it snowed again, but not enough to keep us from finding the delightful hotel La Tourelle where we sampled Finger Lake wines with the owner and author Wally Wiggins and his son. Wally even gave Millie one of the books he had authored and added an inscription, which made her blush.
The last stop was the result of a spur-of-the-moment thought that it would be really nice to see Henry and Pearl Morris (Bird & Bull Press). We called them up and arranged for a lunch in Newton, Pennsylvania the next day. Henry recently sold us his collection of books as they had moved into a retirement community. Two months of retirement living was enough to convince them to move back into their old home on Jericho Mountain. This was unexpected news to us, but pretty logical if you know Henry and Pearl. We reminisced about old times and I told him that he appeared four times in my presentation to the Aldus Society! Here is one picture showing us together during the APHA award ceremony in 2008 where Henry and I each got an award.
Finally we returned to Delaware where we discovered the most snow on the ground of any of the places we had visited.
My first look at the famed Kelmscott/Goudy press owned by J. Ben Lieberman was in March of 1997 when I was invited by his son, Jethro, to buy many of the books in Ben’s library. There it was, standing in all his historic beauty, in a separate room. I knew all about this legendary press from Neil Shaver (Yellow Barn Press)’s The Liberty Bell on the Kelmscott Goudy Press, authored by Ben in 1996. I bought all the books along with the 20-some four drawer file cabinets that contained his detailed correspondence with fellow printers and his extensive files on all aspects of printing history and modern technology. The file cabinets went en masse to the University of Delaware who have organized them for interested scholars. The press was not for sale.
Now fast forward to March 2013 when I got an email from Jethro asking me if I would be interested in purchasing the remaining books that they had kept out from the 1997 sale. Rob and I went to New York and went through the books in detail and bought them (see the collection on our website). These were the books that had been kept out of the first group as they had more sentimental value to the family. And there standing beside the bookcases during our entire visit was the famous Kelmscott/Goudy press that I had seen 16 years earlier. When Jethro told me that he was retiring and wanted to move, I asked him what was going to happen to the press. It was to be sold! I lusted for the opportunity to be part of the sale of that press and told him that I thought it would bring a hefty price because of all the sentimental value attached to it. It was not to be. Jethro decided to let Christie’s handle the sale and they did a great PR job.
Standing this week in the atrium of Christie’s Rockefeller Center gallery, the press — a thing of dark, Dickensian iron musculature — looked like a rough guest who had shown up for tea. The great platen, with its clawlike flanges, was suspended at rest. But a glance at the pistons above made clear how much force that platen could exert on the paper and printing plate below.
-from the New York Times article that ran the day before auction
The press has just sold for $233,000, a spectacular amount, but then how can you determine a value for such an emotionally stimulating piece of antiquity? And I got to touch it!
Here’s the listing on the Christie’s website. The press’s new home will be at the Cary Graphic Arts Collection at RIT, where curator Steven Galbraith promises it “will have an active life… not simply as a museum artifact, but as a working press accessible to students, scholars and printers.” Read RIT’s press release about the acquisition.
Ahh, the University of Delaware, my ol’ alma mater. Though I’ve maintained a relationship with UD through Oak Knoll’s connection to the Morris Library, I never thought that I would be back there, standing up in front of a class to give a speech.
Stella Sudekum, a business student, had asked my father if he would be interested in speaking to her Entrepreneurial class about starting and running his own business. He had a schedule conflict and asked if I wanted to give the talk instead. Since elementary school, I have always had a fear of public speaking. It wasn’t a ‘if I get up in front of a class I’ll hyperventilate’ feeling, but a fear nonetheless. That is why it was surprising when I said yes. Was it my subconscious wanting to overcome the fear of public speaking? Even after the talk, I still don’t know, however I’m still glad that I did it.
Now that I was excited to do it, it came time to prepare for zero hour. Practicing in front of a mirror is the traditional method of preparing for a speech, however I felt walking up and down the hallway was much more helpful. I only had a couple of weeks and I wanted to make sure I didn’t cut any corners in getting myself ready. It was through practice that I became comfortable with what I was going to be talking about.
When the day finally came, I parked my car and headed over to Gore Hall (where I had many classes myself). The class had two speakers that day, and luckily (or unluckily for my nerves) I was the second to go. What I thought that was going to be Rob Fleck fumbling over his words actually turned into a very detailed, organized, and energetic presentation about the history of Oak Knoll and where I was going to take it in the future. The presentation started off with my father’s education and the start of Oak Knoll Books & Press. The second half of the presentation focused on the exciting part: where I wanted to take the business in the future. Obviously we are in a digital age, and to focus on how to sell physical books (not ebooks, yet!) is a challenge in today’s world. However, I feel that there will always be a need for a physical book. To my surprise, I received many insightful questions regarding bookselling, publishing, Oak Knoll Fest and how to print books by hand.
Overall, it was an extremely gratifying experience and it seemed to spark an interest in bookselling among the students in the class. Perhaps some of them in the audience will join the ABAA someday!
Here’s a video of the presentation. (Apologies in advance for the sound quality, especially at the very beginning. It gets better!)
It all started because my wife Millie wanted to visit her old homestead in Flat Lick, Kentucky, a tiny community founded before 1784 in the southeastern part of the state. She hadn’t been back for many years, so how could I refuse the request? However, being a true bookman, I immediately started thinking about how I could combine book adventures with family visiting.
I really can’t stand driving for long periods of time so each part of our trip had to be restricted to about 5-hour driving sessions. A really bright book spot in Kentucky is the University of Kentucky’s Special Collections and its curator extraordinaire, Jim Birchfield. That had to be our first stop. But Lexington was 11 hours away from New Castle, Delaware which meant I had to find a place halfway between to spend a night. MapQuest told me that Morgantown, West Virginia, was my halfway mark. I searched for a downtown hotel near the waterfront and found the Hotel Morgan.
The hotel was right next to the Morgantown History Museum so we visited that and were pleasantly greeted by a full printing shop set up, along with other interesting historical displays. I had forgotten most of my knowledge of West Virginia history (if I ever had it) so the history of this state was really interesting. After the museum, we discovered that one of the best restaurants in the city was on the top floor/roof of our hotel. The night was perfect, weather-wise, so we scheduled ourselves for dinner on the outdoor patio overlooking the town and Monongahela River.
The next day we left for Lexington to visit Jim Birchfield. At his recommendation we stayed at the Gratz Park Inn, a boutique hotel in the center of Lexington filled with horse racing memorabilia.
Jim picked us up the next morning and gave us a tour of UK’s Special Collections. We started in the very large, multi-roomed basement with the King Library Press, the famous printing office established by Victor and Carolyn Hammer in 1956. Dr. Paul Holbrook, who has been associated with the Press for many years, was there and gave us a personal tour and history.
Jim took us to lunch in the facility dining room and we swapped book stories as always happens when bibliophiles get together. It is so nice to talk with librarians who are just as involved with the love of books.
As we were leaving the dining room, Jim called us back and said he had the perfect photo opportunity for us. He brought us over to the wall outside the dining room and told Millie and I to stand there while he took a picture.
There we were standing in front of the portrait of Dave Roselle, former President of the University of Kentucky, but more importantly, former President of the University of Delaware. We had gotten to know Dave and Louise Roselle over Dave’s many years at Delaware. He was responsible for helping convince Frank Tober to donate his magnificent collection of literary forgery to the University. Dave is now Director of Winterthur after being coaxed out of retirement. I emailed him this picture and told him how many Kentuckians remembered him with great fondness. Kentucky named one of their buildings after him in 2011. Dave emailed back recalling his days in Kentucky.
The afternoon was spent visiting a few sights and a bookstore. We visited Mike Courtney at Black Swan Books where, of course, I bought a book! I wished that I had time to visit Glover’s Bookery but time ran out.
The next day saw us travel to Louisville which is only about an hour away from Lexington. I had done a great deal of business with a very pleasant bookseller in Louisville by the name of Charles Bartman. We had never met in person and all our business had been done via phone and email. While planning our trip and I asked him if it would be possible to visit him. He said that his books were in a garage attached to his home but that I was welcome to visit.
We were a bit anxious that Millie would be bored as I looked at books. Boy, were we wrong! Charlie and Bonnie met us at door and the conversation didn’t stop for a minute. They love to travel and so do we, so we had lots of foreign places to talk about. As lunch time approached, they said that they had prepared lunch for us rather than have us all go out and asked “Do you drink Cava?” These are my kind of people! I bought lots of books (nothing to do with the Cava I’m sure) and we just had a great time. This is what bookselling is all about – making new friends.
We were then off on our 3 hour trip to Flat Lick, taking back roads through scenic hills. Millie got to see her aunt, brother, and various cousins, and catch up with the local gossip. She was especially nostalgic about her old school building which now stands abandoned and for sale. I wanted to show a picture of her standing in front of it with the caption “Millie considering a major renovation project” and see if we could get her relatives interested but then had second thoughts.
Finally it was time to say goodbye to all the relatives and head back to Delaware. We decided to travel the Virginia route on the way home so out came MapQuest again and there was Lexington, Virginia at the halfway mark. We drove through the Cumberland Gap following the reverse course of Daniel Boone, through Tennessee and up to Lexington, Virginia. We had time to tour Washington and Lee University and its museum devoted to Robert E. Lee (and George Washington). The bookstore there had a rare book section of books for sale concerning Lee and Washington. I think this is the first time I have ever seen a selection of rare books for sale in a museum bookstore.
We had drinks at the restaurant next to the hotel and Millie quickly struck up a conversation with two locals. They told us about a restaurant in the historic part of Lexington. We got to the restaurant, got the last table on the outdoor porch overlooking the main street, and thoroughly enjoyed ourselves. The cadets from Virginia Military Institute were all dressed in their uniforms and enjoying the beginning of their new school year – some cadets enjoying it more than others by the sounds of it.
The next day took us up Virginia to Washington and Baltimore. We had lunch in the historic town of Havre de Grace sitting on the patio while watching the Susquehanna flow by. It was a perfect ending to a perfect trip.
I met my wife at the University of Delaware during the fall semester of 2005. She was an out-of-state student from Staten Island, NY and during our time off from school we would travel up and down the New Jersey Turnpike to visit each other. In my case, anytime I approached exit 9, I knew that I was almost there (I took exit 10 for Staten Island). I had never stopped there other than to get an emergency fill-up of my car’s gas tank.
Fast forward eight years later and I finally get to stop in New Brunswick to see the campus of Rutgers University.
As I say goodbye to the employees of Oak Knoll , I get a familiar tune stuck in my head as I make my way down the elevator.
“On the road again,
Just can’t wait to get on the road again”
Upon my arrival, I met Ronald Becker, Head of Special Collections, and Timothy Corlis, Head of Preservation, for a lovely lunch at the faculty cafeteria.
Afterwards we headed back to the Archibald S. Alexander Library where I received a tour of Special Collections as well as the preservation room. Rutgers has an outstanding collection of New Jerseyana and an impressive collection on the history of the railroad.
In the preservation room I was introduced to their newest toy: a high resolution, floor-to-ceiling mounted preservation camera. I was also shown how boxes are custom made for a variety of materials, including Rutgers’ lovely collection of woodblocks as well as a Civil War-era officer’s hat.
After my tour I showed some New Jersey-related material that I brought with me and Ron picked out some items to add to the library’s collection. I took a few exhibition catalogues and made my way back to the shop.
My next adventure will be in mid-October. I’ll be visiting Temple University (and perhaps another institution which I will reveal then as well), so keep an eye out for another travelogue!
So when was the last time you were in Ithaca, NY? I decided on the spur of the moment to go to the National Book Auction’s August sale last weekend, as there was an interesting mix of older books, private press, and books from the Limited Editions Club. I had never met David Hall, the owner, but gave him a call and he steered me to a nice place to stay (La Tourelle). The books were available for viewing on Saturday, so I made the 5 hour drive through heavy rain in the Poconos to get there in time for a long look. I found out that the older books had come from my old friend Norman Kane who had passed away in March.
The sale started at 12 on Sunday and lasted about three and a half hours. The auction house is at the forefront of technology with real time online bidding through Artfact, which added to the excitement of the normal audience, phone, and mail bidding. I managed to get 64 of the lots including Norman’s bookpress, which I shall keep for myself as a reminder of him. I had a three hour dinner with David that night where we solved every bookselling problem in the world plus some. Then it was back to Delaware on Monday morning after lots of packing and a brief visit to John Spencer at Riverow Bookshop who is always worth seeing. Now stay tuned for many new additions to our stock!