And thus the interesting ten-year saga of the John von Hoelle days began. John had been in the publishing business for many years and was one-fourth owner of Dyne-American Publishers, a much bigger publishing company than Oak Knoll. In those days of wild publishing acquisitions, his imprint had been bought out by ABC Publishing, a larger company. He was also a retired military officer, although he never was that comfortable talking about that early phase of his life. All I know is that he attended the annual meeting of the Association of Former Intelligence Officers in Washington each year and was busy writing a definitive bibliography on non-fiction Cold War espionage literature. John was a book collector with a collection of over 3,700 espionage novels. He decorated his office with photos of himself and friends in various third-world countries in appropriate costume. John had authored 14 books and had a special interest in early language (he could read and write ancient cuneiform and Egyptian hieroglyphics). I could never break him of the habit of calling me “sir.” I always felt a little funny being called “sir” by a man five years older than I am, especially when I was in my usual summer dress of tennis shorts (just in case someone called for a game, of course!).
John had a wealth of knowledge about the book industry although he had never really been in our type of business. He had certainly not experienced print runs of 500 copies before, as most of the titles he published in his prior business often had several zeros added to that figure. John brought experience, calmness, and the uncanny ability to solve problems. I knew that if I had a problem that needed fixing, John would fix it. He relied on me for the financial analysis and the selection of manuscripts; I relied on him for everything else (including the embellishment of a story when needed). He was the perfect representative for our company when doing trade shows or in contract negotiations with authors and vendors. He also designed most of the book layouts and dust jackets of our books. He had a ready smile and a pleasant personality, and he actually wore a coat and tie.
John quickly made his impact felt and 1996 saw us publish 14 titles, which was the largest number we had done in a single year. One of his special feats that year was to help get the final permission to reprint the Pforzheimer catalogue (77), a legendary bibliography that had never been reprinted. We waited forever to get the final signature on the deal because the decision maker, Ross Perot, was too busy running for President to get around to something as mundane as signing one of our contracts.
The other major event that happened in 1996 was my election as President of the Antiquarian Booksellers Association of America (ABAA). It also was the year that the Americans hosted the Congress of the International League of Antiquarian Booksellers in Los Angeles and San Francisco (trade show), so I was a very busy person. The ABAA represents one of the 20 countries that make up the International League of Antiquarian Booksellers (ILAB). My biggest goal was to use the new tool of the internet to help spotlight these two organizations, and sometimes I was probably overbearing on the subject (my French colleagues called me Mr. Internet with perhaps just a bit of sarcasm in their voices). But it also allowed me to do a great deal of foreign travel and form friendships and business relationships with people all over the world.
After returning from my visit to libraries and museums in New York, I have to say that they were nothing short of successful. The various head librarians, collection development administrators, and curators I met during my trip were all extremely interesting people, who I would love to see again if I happen to venture back to the Big Apple. I even came back a few books lighter, a task I have only been able to accomplish a few times in the past.
It was a breathtaking experience to be able to see the famous New York Public Library and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The architecture of both buildings, especially the Public Library, was amazing. The two university libraries I visited in the area were the famous Bobst Library at NYU and the extensive Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Columbia. This was a change of scenery for me as I am usually only visiting the academic sector on my trips. Someday soon, I hope to make it back to NYC again to visit the Grolier Club, as well as other important libraries and museums in the area to really promote Oak Knoll and our books. Even with all the work, this trip wasn’t purely business; I was able to stay at my Uncle’s house in Manhattan and visit other family and friends in the area. I definitely had a blast!
-Rob Fleck, Antiquarian & Library Sales
Millie and I had the two youngest grandchildren (of six total) over for the weekend as their parents flew to San Francisco for four days. Gavin is 3, and Liam is just about 6 (with his birthday this week), so I thought it was high time for Liam to begin his work career. His mother Jenni started working at Oak Knoll for 25 cents an hour, so this was a family tradition. His uncle Rob has worked in the business full-time for 3 years now.
The picture shows the young man with some Oak Knoll books in the background. He worked for one hour on Sunday writing number tags for our newly priced $5 books, and he proudly earned $2 for his job. (He promptly lost the $2, so I had to supply another $2 saying that I had found his money.) I see this as the beginning of a great career!
Any other children/bookseller stories out there? Let us know!
Another new idea for promoting Oak Knoll occurred in the fall of 1994 when we sponsored the first Oak Knoll Fest, using the second floor of the New Castle Opera House (more about this later). We thought that a good way to emphasize our specialty area of books about books and fine press printing would be to host an event that combined speeches, a shop sale, and tables of private press books with their actual printers standing behind the table.
That first Fest attracted ten private press printers. John Randle, the noted English private press owner of the Whittington Press, gave our key-note address on Saturday evening. We have held a Fest every year since and now attract an average of 40 private presses each year to this two-day event. Hundreds of presses have participated over the Fest’s fourteen-year history. The Fests have provided an excellent venue for customers to view our publishing titles and for Oak Knoll to solicit new publishing manuscripts. The Fine Press Book Association was founded by printers sitting in my living room during our Fest and has become the premier organization of private press owners.
Quickly jumping ahead to 2000, I must show you a picture from our Oak Knoll Fest VII in which Gloria Stuart of Titanic film fame came to New Castle. I’m sure that many a publicist would have died for this opportunity. Gloria Stuart had won an Oscar for her role in the 1997 movie Titanic, but not many of her movie fans knew her as a letterpress printer. She came to New Castle this year and “held court” in such a sweet and gentle manner that she captivated the hearts of all who met her. Our publishing sales went up during that Fest!
We published the seventh edition of ABC and Oak Knoll’s first reprint of Gaskell’s New Introduction to Bibliography in 1995, which completed our trilogy of the three most important bibliographical manuals, which also included McKerrow’s Introduction to Bibliography for Literary Students and Bowers’ Principles of Bibliographical Description.
However, there were the beginnings of troubled waters in late 1995. An unfortunate marriage to an American girl had made Paul’s life in America very difficult, so he took a leave of absence and traveled home, and in early 1996, he announced that he had decided to resign and return permanently to England. His resignation left us with a big void to fill. We interviewed many people in hopes of finding just the right person who could fit into our small publishing/antiquarian business (and do the work for as small a salary as possible!). I hired a young man who met these criteria, but he immediately proved the old adage of you get what you pay for. He was a disaster. Meanwhile, Paul had already returned to England. I then interviewed and hired John von Hoelle, one of the great decisions I have made in my life.
Check back next week to hear how the Press fared under “the good ship von Hoelle”!
Out of the Hitchcock section of the film class I took in high school came the pivotal idea I used in my marriage proposal.
Hitchcock and weddings? What kind of person could find anything worth learning about marriages from Hitchcock? Let me explain.
We had gone through several of the old classic films, such as Casablanca (fantastic!) and Citizen Kane (overrated in my opinion), when we finally began our section on Alfred Hitchcock, with Psycho and Rear Window. My teacher told us his common techniques, such as the cameos in his movies, and how he attempted to shoot each scene so artistically that each frame could have been a photograph. What stuck with me the most from that class, however, was the illustration she shared with us that Hitchcock discovered when he unlocked the art of suspense. Also known as Hitchcock’s Bomb Theory, which Hitchcock explained in an interview with Francois Truffaut, Hitchcock started with the scenario of two men having an ordinary conversation. If a bomb goes off while the men are having a conversation, the audience is surprised for a moment because of the bomb. However, if the audience sees the man place the bomb in the room before the conversation starts, then every moment of that otherwise ordinary conversation is charged with excitement.
Yet what does this have to do with proposals? Well, it has a lot to do with it if you intend to marry a woman who claims she can’t be surprised! My Kimberly is quite the nosey little girl, and she is also extremely aware of people’s attitudes and can usually tell if they are hiding something. Of course, when you want to propose to someone, you want the method to be a surprise, but if the surprise is discovered, then most of the effect is lost.
Not wanting to risk it, I followed Hitchcock’s principle. The day I proposed to her, I told her in the morning that I was going to propose to her sometime that day, and then the activities began! I first took her to High Tea at an English tea house, followed by a walk amidst the lovely autumn trees at Winterthur, and ending at my house, where I finally proposed to her and made her an exquisite dinner with filet mignon, a special green bean recipe, and rice.
She loved it! We just had our one-year engagement anniversary on August 8th, and we agreed awhile ago that we would always try to celebrate it by replicating a part of it (I cooked the dinner again). I was so glad that the principle of suspense vs. surprise held true, and she said that it did make a big difference throughout the day.
-Tim, Bookkeeping and Customer Service
Feel free to share your proposal story or any life lessons you’ve learned from books or film!
Today, I am getting ready to take on the Big Apple. I will be spending four nights in Manhattan visiting New York University, Columbia, Morgan Library and Museum, New York Public Library, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. This is the third time I will be embarking on library visits solo, and this visit I am fortunate enough to be staying with my Uncle who lives in New York City. In between visits, I will have the opportunity to visit with friends and family alike, all of which will make my trip worthwhile and fun.
But on to the more important matters–the visits. My first visit this morning will be to the Morgan Library and Museum, which I have not personally visited yet. This library houses one of the world’s greatest collections of artistic, literary, and musical works. Afterwards, I will be heading over to the ever famous NY Public Library—and there is just not enough space to write about all I will get to see there. On Wednesday, I will be visiting Columbia and NYU. My last stop on Thursday will be to the MET, which is what I am looking forward to most as I am eager to show them some interesting pieces in American Folk Art.
Overall, I am excited to show all of what Oak Knoll has to offer. I am well prepared, focused, and determined to make these visits a success. Wish me luck and I will be back next week!
The end of 1992 also saw the start of a long process of publishing with St. Paul’s Bibliographies, the English company owned by Robert Cross that I had mentioned previously. We had established contact with Robert a number of years before and stocked his titles in our New Books Department. He had started St. Paul’s in 1979 after a distinguished career in the publishing field. Robert knew everybody worth knowing in the English publishing scene and proved quite adept at seeking out dormant rights for important bibliographies from other publishers. He often took those bibliographies and found that special breed of authors known as “bibliographers” and got them to revise an older bibliography or provide a new one. This was quite a feat as the royalty payments for such small print run books often added up to the equivalent of only pennies an hour for all the time spent in doing the bibliography. I believe bibliographers deserve a special place in heaven for their unselfish efforts.
Robert had established the Winchester Bibliographies of Twentieth-Century Writers series with me as co-publisher in 1992 and taken on the publishing of the Publishing Pathways series, which had strong and continuing sales. We saw each other quite frequently on business but always with social times together and developed a mutual respect and friendship. He had been using one of Fred Ruffner’s companies, Omnigraphics, to distribute his titles in America and I suggested to him in early 1993 that the Cross-Fleck relationship had reached the point where Oak Knoll should take on these books as part of a distribution arrangement. The idea was suggested to Ruffner through Cross’s contact at Omnigraphics, Jim Sellgren. The idea was met with favor, and the entire inventory of books was shipped to Oak Knoll under a partial purchase and partial consignment arrangement in October 1993.
We published eight new titles in 1993 and seven in 1994. I found a new way to increase our publishing program—distribution for other organizations. In late 1994, we were asked by the Caxton Club of Chicago to help sell copies of their Club History as part of our publishing list. We worked up a very straightforward contract with our attorney. Oak Knoll would not pay any of the production costs, but would hold inventory of the book and pay the Club 40% of the retail price of the books when we got paid (all discounts to booksellers and distributors came out of our share).
Based on the success of this deal, I decided to see if other organizations might be interested. There are many organizations that want to produce manuscripts by their members but do not know how to market a book or sell into the library market. Selling to this market was a specialty of Oak Knoll, so it made perfect sense to offer this service along with advice on retail price, print run, and production costs.
The American Antiquarian Society elected us their distributor in August 1995, the Bibliographical Society of America in May 1996, the John Carter Brown Library also in May 1996, the Library of Congress (selected titles) in June 1998, and the Bibliographical Society of the University of Virginia in January 1999. Since then we have signed up the Manuscript Society, the Typophiles, Catalpa Press, the Bibliographical Society (selected titles), and many other organizations. These distribution deals have increased our publishing list to over 1000 titles of which only about 300 are Oak Knoll Press publications. Booksellers and distributors love this arrangement, as they can deal with one business instead of fifty when fulfilling orders for customers.
Check back next week for more from Books about Books!
Paul got down to work in earnest, and 1991 saw six new Oak Knoll Press publications, including our first joint venture with The British Library (The Doves Bindery by Marianne Tidcombe, #29 in the bibliography). David Way, the Publications Director at The British Library, was a friend of Robert Cross, the owner of St. Paul’s Bibliographies, and quickly became a friend of mine. To this day, we still co-publish many of our titles with The British Library. For about half of these joint publications, David’s staff sees the book through the press, and we buy part of the print run and the North American sales territory (and the opposite for the other half). This way, we can do twice as many books with the small staff that we each have, which is a very efficient way of doing business! David has access to one of the finest image collections in the world with The British Library at his command and also has many excellent readers for the manuscripts that are submitted.
Another special project that year was the re-issue of Percy Muir’s Minding My Own Business (Bib. #32) with a new foreword by Barbara Kaye Muir, Percy’s widow. This wonderful bookselling memoir is one of the best glimpses at bookselling in England during the twentieth century and should be required reading for anyone aspiring to be a bookseller. I traveled to the little village of Blakeney on the west coast of England to meet Barbara (on the smallest train I have ever seen outside an amusement park). She was an author in her own right with many books to her credit, including two more memoirs devoted to bookselling that we published. She hosted a charming lunch full of book talk and good wine, and poured me back on the train for its short ride to Ipswich on the way back to London.
The next landmark in Oak Knoll Press’s history was in 1992 when we finally got the rights to John Carter’s ABC for Book Collectors. This book had been substantially revised by Nicolas Barker, who had managed to keep Carter’s humor while revising and adding new terms. It had grown considerably from its 1952 first edition. If you only have one book about books in your library, this is the one I continue to recommend. I lusted after having this book as part of our publishing program but the rights situation was very complicated. Carter had willed his estate to Eton College with Nicolas Barker as Executor. Somehow, we had to get Eton College to see the need for a new publisher and a new edition. Nicolas used his intimate knowledge of all involved to get the rights back from Harper Collins and Knopf (previous publishers) and award them to Oak Knoll. We reprinted the sixth edition, and it became a best seller for us with a seventh edition appearing in 1995 (co-published with Werner Shaw) and an eighth edition in 2004 (co-published with The British Library), each going through multiple reprints (all carefully documented on the copyright page).
Check back next week for more from Books about Books!
Millie and I just returned from a very pleasant weekend spent with Tom and Heidi Congalton (owners of the rare book business, Between the Covers). They have a beautiful home in Cape May Point within a block of the Delaware Bay. Tom and I managed to solve all the problems of the book world over a few glasses of wine on Saturday night.
Tom and Heidi are leaving for the Colorado Antiquarian Book Seminar where Tom has taught for a number of years and participated on their Board. The seminar is a great educational experience for anyone who wants to be a bookseller. I was on the faculty of the School one year as the specialty dealer. It was during this time I met a student who eventually bought my old book store building and moved his business to New Castle.
That’s all for now. I’m off to work on the latest collection to come into the store (from India – more later!)