John cranked up the publishing program to 17 titles in 1998 and 23 in 1999. We were especially happy to publish Jane Greenfield’s ABC of Bookbinding (Bib. #84) as it fit in well with our other ABC book. Jane’s Headbands (Bib. #26) had appeared in a second edition with us in 1990 and still sells well today. Jane has recently passed away and will be missed by all.
We published Anthony Rota’s Apart from the Text in 1999 (Bib. #105). Anthony (and his wife Jean) and I went back a long way in the book business starting with the day he helped me purchase the remaining inventory of Deval and Muir. He was a Past President of the Antiquarian Booksellers Association (England) and was on the Committee and eventually President of ILAB. He often counseled me on the politics of this group and mentored me in every way he could. A dinner with Jean and Anthony (don’t dare call him Tony) was always full of great food, great wine, and charming talk. He tried to keep me from being too aggressive in my plans for carrying forward my ILAB agenda and sometimes I listened and acted in accord, and sometimes I didn’t. None of this affected our good feelings and trust for one another. We also published his autobiographical Books in the Blood (Bib. #179) in 2002, which is an excellent read.
The 26 titles published in 2000 was our new record for number of books published in a year, but what made it a special year was the publication of The Great Libraries: From Antiquity to the Renaissance by Konstantinos Staikos. Kostas Staikos is a well-known Greek architect and historian with an abiding love for the history of libraries. In his spare time, he had formed a remarkable private collection of books tracking the development of Greek printing throughout the world, rescued a Greek letterpress printing shop, and become part owner of a large, modern printing plant in Greece. To call him a true Renaissance man is probably an understatement.
One day Andy Armacost, our Director of Antiquarian Sales (1995-2004) fielded an incoming call from Mr. Staikos, who asked if we would be interested in publishing an English language history of the library that he had written and published in Greek. Andy turned the call over to John von Hoelle who listened with respect, but also with the reserve that must be used for all authors calling out of the blue with potential major publishing projects. We had no idea why this man had chosen to ask Oak Knoll Press to publish his book until a call later in the week by Nick Basbanes about another matter shed some light. Nick had visited Staikos in Greece to interviewe him for a book about collectors. His mention of Oak Knoll Press must have resonated with Kostas and resulted in that phone call.
Kostas’s book has become one of our all-time best sellers, which was surprising to us as the price of $125 was higher than most of our titles. It was so well produced and beautifully illustrated that it captured the spirit of our book world. It went into a second printing and laid the foundation for Kostas’s series entitled The History of the Library in Western Civilization, which will be six volumes when finally completed (Kostas is working on volume four at present [update—he's now finishing volumes 5 & 6!]). This work is an obvious labor of love by a dedicated bibliophile and scholar. Each of the three volumes to date has received critical acclaim from the library world.
After taking a break for a month to prepare for and recover from Oak Knoll Fest, we are now back to our weekly excerpt from Books about Books. The story continues…
A traumatic change in our lives occurred in 1998, when we moved the business one block up the street to the third floor of the massive building called the New Castle Opera House. We had moved from Newark to 414 Delaware Street in New Castle in 1979, up the street to 212 Delaware, down the street to a renovated 414 Delaware, and now we had run out of room again. We had a three-story Victorian building with a finished basement full of books and had to get them all to the third floor of the Opera House at 310 Delaware Street.
I had walked past this huge Opera House every day while walking to work. The building had been built by the Masons in 1879 and was typical of many such buildings that have survived to this day. The Masons would create an opera house with high ceilings and a stage on the second floor, meeting space on the third floor, and shops on the first floor that were leased to pay for the building. Each floor contained about 5000 square feet of usable space. Annie Oakley and other famous nineteenth- and twentieth-century actors and performers had danced, sung, and acted on the still-present, well-preserved stage. The first floor had seen a number of businesses come and go during the period I had my business in town including grocery stores, antique stores, and restaurants. There was a cooperative antique mall and tea room on the second floor. However, there was no elevator in the building and the very high ceilings (22 feet on second floor and 11 feet on the third floor) made the third floor a very difficult space to rent. The property owner was a very nice fellow who owned a large computer business in Pennsylvania and had bought the building as an investment property. He had originally worked as a stock boy in the grocery/convenience store that had been on the first floor, so he had fond memories of New Castle. He had spent some serious money preserving the building but it still lacked the essential elevator, modern air conditioning, and heating for the third floor.
I approached the owner and suggested that I would be willing to lease the third floor if he would put in an elevator and modernize the space. The third floor space was empty at that point and wasn’t earning the owner a dime. We worked out the details over the next number of months and signed a basic five-year lease with renewal options in the spring of 1998 with a move-in date of August, as that is when the elevator was to be completed. Hiring Office Movers, Inc., turned out to be a good idea, as the elevator wasn’t finished for another month after our move in and wouldn’t have been nearly as efficient as the moving van/huge crane/and men hanging out the third floor window scheme that they used. The move was disruptive to business, as might be imagined, as all the books had to be put away again in the new space.
The problem of owning an empty 414 Delaware Street proved not to be a problem at all, but a sales opportunity. While teaching at the Rare Book School in Colorado Springs in 1997, I had announced my intention to move my business in New Castle and thus could offer a ready made bookstore all set for a new owner. And the new owner would get the mentoring of an established business right up the street! This appealed to James Goode, one of the students, who bought the building and set up his book business specializing in the sale of rare books on architecture. James fit right into the social life of New Castle, but was more a scholarly author, researcher, and aficionado of the rose than a bookseller and moved back to Washington, DC, three years later, after selling the building to someone who made it into the Velocipede Museum it is today. The money I got from the sale was used to buy a nice beach-front property that Millie and I continue to enjoy.
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!
Previously in Books about Books: Bob hires Paul Wakeman as the first publishing director.
But not so fast! You may think it would be an easy thing to have someone from England come to work in a small business in New Castle, Delaware, but this was not the case. The trouble began when we applied for a permanent Visa and learned to our dismay that it might take years to get the proper permissions. We were told that we had to run job advertisements in a number of nationwide magazines in the industry in case there was some American with a desire to take a minimum wage job in the little, sleepy town of New Castle working for a neophyte publisher. We ran the ad and got no responses. We then had to wait in the long line of applicants for our case to be heard. Meanwhile, the months were slipping by, and neither one of us was getting what we needed. Calls to Immigration Services were a lesson in anger management.
One of the many better features of living in Delaware, the second smallest state in the Union, is the ability to reach your representative to Congress without the grief experienced in larger states. I decided to use the services of our Congressman, Bill Roth. His office promised to call the Immigration Services and—it must have been a miracle—Paul’s application was moved up in the line and approved.
I remember him flying into Philadelphia to start work in August of 1988 just as we were getting ready to move the business up the street. I picked him up from the airport and took him to a grand dinner at my favorite restaurant in Wilmington, Vincente’s, where we plotted the rapid growth of the publishing business and his adjustment to life in America while consuming too much wine. He had brought his cricket equipment with him so he would be in good shape for those long evenings and weekends in New Castle.
After using his brute strength to help us move the shop, he dived into the publishing business and produced a Christmas keepsake for the end of 1988, three titles in 1989, and five titles in 1990. Two of these were printed by the Bird & Bull Press in limited editions, which allowed Paul and Henry Morris to meet and develop a friendship. Another publication was a book on marbling done in a limited edition with his mother and the Plough Press as a co-publisher. We also published a new edition of Jane Greenfield and Jenny Hille’s Headbands, which continues to sell well to this day.
On a side note, I was becoming very active in the Antiquarian Booksellers Association of America (ABAA), first serving on the Board in 1982 and then becoming Chair of their Finance Committee in 1989 and Treasurer in 1990. Millie and I enjoyed the international congresses that the International League of Antiquarian Booksellers (ILAB) conducted and began to attend them in 1990, starting with the Tokyo Congress. This event led to many contacts in publishing that eventually paid dividends, proving yet again that the cross-over between the antiquarian book world and the publishing world is a very healthy relationship.
Check back next week for more from Books about Books!
Bookselling continued 1985 to 1988 with almost all sales occurring in the antiquarian side of the business and only three publishing titles produced. One of these was Dick Huss’s The Printer’s Composition Matrix, the first new manuscript we published for a larger audience. Many an afternoon was spent in Lancaster visiting this fine old gentleman at his printing company. Dick kept his personal collection of books on printing history there and still set type himself and did personal binding. He eventually sold me many of his books on printing history.
We also issued the second book in a series of reprints of important titles relating to printing and binding history (Bib. #12 & 17). In keeping with our theme of adding value to reprints that we published, we asked Paul Koda to write lengthy introductions to each volume, which he did with great skill. Paul was a librarian with a collector’s instinct who often guided us with his astute opinions.
As you can see by this chronology, Oak Knoll Press, with its 18 titles, wasn’t exactly exploding on the publishing scene up to 1988.
The Wakeman Years (1988-1996)
The fall of 1988 was a decisive time for the business. Our sales were good but needed to be better. I had to reach a decision on how to grow the business. Should I stay in the books about books field with its relatively limited number of expensive books, branch out into other fields which contained more expensive books, or capitalize on our reputation in this specialized field of books about books and increase the publishing program? History shows that I chose the latter.
In August of 1977, I had reached out to a very fine private press in Loughborough, England, called the Plough Press. Geoffrey Wakeman had been taught letterpress by Philip Gaskell at The College Press in Glasgow. He was an expert in the field of changing printing and illustration technology and issued privately printed books in this field often illustrated with special leaves demonstrating the techniques he was describing. His wife Frances partnered in the press and operated a rare book business under the name Frances Wakeman, Bookseller. I first wrote to them asking if I could buy some of their limited edition books. This letter led to wonderful visits with the Wakemans, first in Loughborough and then in Oxford.
Their youngest son Paul, following in his father’s and mother’s love of the book business, got a degree at Watford College of Technology with a specialty in publishing in 1986. I got to know this young son and much admired his book knowledge and his personality. After obtaining his degree, Paul worked for Macmillan Publishers in London, but upon his father’s death in 1987, he resigned from Macmillan and the London life and went back to Oxford to help his mother during this troubling time. On my next trip to England, I visited Oxford to discuss the possibility of having Paul come to Delaware to work at Oak Knoll to help move the publishing program forward. We worked out the terms, and both of us were ready to start on an exciting new beginning.
Trouble ahead! Tune in next week to read about the unexpected complications that arose before Paul could get started.
The third Oak Knoll publication was also a Christmas keepsake (for 1980) and was an excerpt from Lawrence Block’s The Burglar Who Liked to Quote Kipling, relating a humorous story of what happened to a book thief when caught in Rodenbarr’s bookshop.
This pamphlet was printed by hand by Henry Morris of the Bird & Bull Press. Henry and his wife Pearl were new-found friends in 1980, and Millie, my wife, and I had one of our first dates going to Henry and Pearl’s moving party, as they bid farewell to Elm Street in Philadelphia. It was a great party, involving lots of wine and funny speeches that made no sense whatsoever. But it started a relationship that lead to many publications and the establishment of a friendship that continues stronger than ever.
As is typical with all bookselling businesses, Oak Knoll kept running out of room. From our start in 1976 in the second floor bedroom of my Newark home, we had moved to the renovated two car garage and then to New Castle. The first floor of 414 Delaware Street in New Castle proved to be too small as well, so Millie and I moved our home and the business up the street to 212 Delaware Street in 1985.
This historic house (the Booth house, named after Delaware Chief Justice James Booth) was built in stages with the first section built in 1713, a wing added in 1795, a lawyer’s office added for the Judge and then his son (both Chief Justices) in about 1830, and two additional sections after that. Four rooms had been added behind the lawyer’s office. We bought it in August 1985 from a DuPont attorney whose wife had used the four side rooms for a daycare business.
Millie and I had looked at this house three years earlier but didn’t have the money to buy it. This time around we successfully convinced the bank to lend us the money to buy the house, with the proviso that we would move the business into the daycare center space and sell 414 Delaware Street. Once in there and functioning, I saw that if we could rent out 414 Delaware Street, we could hold on to both properties. Our friend and banker Gordon Pfeiffer had stood by us since the beginning and he came through once again. Renters were quickly found and the old 414 property stayed in the family. Our youngest son, Rob (keep that name in mind!), had been born in July, so he got to live in two homes in his first month.
I also had a new employee start in May of 1986, my father. He just retired this year (2008), thus earning credit as the Oak Knoll employee with the longest tenure. My father and mother moved to New Castle from the Chicago area when my father retired as Director of Research for the Griffin Wheel Company, and Dad immediately started working for me at the bookstore. He was our inventory management person and major fixer-upper. His eldest son (me) happens to be hopeless at mechanical things, so his fix-up skills became an important part of his job description. And when the occasional cash flow problem occurred, I knew where a short-term loan could be procured.
Bob Sr. passed away in June of 2009, and he is greatly missed here at Oak Knoll.
Check back next week for more of Oak Knoll’s history, including the hiring of our first publishing director. If you can’t wait, check out the book on our website.
The second Oak Knoll publication was about as ephemeral as one can get: a 1979 Christmas keepsake printed by John Anderson at the Pickering Press. I had developed a friendship with John, a noted typographer whose small private press books were some of the best contemporary examples of fine printing.
Over the years John and I had alternating lunches between Maple Shade, New Jersey, and New Castle, Delaware, and I got to hear some of the classic tales of typography in action. (His best tale was of Beatrice Warde and the animated talk she gave to a group of Philadelphia printers. Beatrice’s talk was so animated that one of her breasts fell out of her dress, and she nonchalantly placed it back with a smile).
I moved my business from Newark to New Castle in December 1979. John and Emily Ballinger moved up from North Carolina and bought into the business, and their down-payment was just enough cash to allow me to buy 414 Delaware Street from Herb Tobin, a legend in New Castle lore. Herb was the last in line of the family butchers and knew every reputable historical fact (and many disreputable) about the city of New Castle. This Victorian storefront had been a butcher’s shop during its entire life before I turned it into a bookshop.
The building had great “history” to it, which meant there were cracks and creaks everywhere, and when winter came, the drains froze. There was a typical New Castle basement—low headroom and dirt floors—and the original slaughterhouse behind the house came with my purchase and was quickly converted into a wine storage area. We had a first floor shop, and I rented the second and third floor to the Ballingers as their living quarters. It is a wonder that we all managed to work and store the books that we had in the four rooms on the first floor.
The Ballingers had different ideas about running a business than I did, and they departed in 1982 for Williamsburg, Virginia, and the Bookpress, another antiquarian book business.
Tune in next week for more from Books about Books: A History and Bibliography of Oak Knoll Press.
Two years later, to my family’s amazement, I was still in business! My goal had been to make Oak Knoll Books the one-stop shopping place for customers who sought “book about books,” whether it was out-of-print or newly published. Stocking other publishers’ books had great potential for financial disaster, as the 40% discount I received made for a very small profit margin and the inventory had to be turned over quickly. However, goodwill was generated as my customers appreciated the effort we put into keeping them informed of the newest books in their field. This made them think of us for the out-of-print titles they wanted.
In those days, there were a few publishers of books about books who concentrated on producing reprints of the classic titles. Specialty dealers like me were experts at knowing what out-of-print titles were in constant demand by our customers and owed it to them to seek out these reprints.
An English firm called the Holland Press had been purchased by new owners and was aggressively reprinting important titles in my field, so I wrote to them for a catalogue. The catalogue arrived and was full of just the kind of books my customers wanted. I had my secretary (my one part-time employee, Karen) write to them in February 1978 inquiring about a number of their upcoming titles. One week later, an answer came back from Stephanie Hoppen (co-owner with Richard Leech), which concluded with an intriguing paragraph indicating that they were looking for someone in America to handle a reprint of the classic bibliography of printing by Bigmore & Wyman. I hand-scribbled a response onto the letter, and a number of letters and phone calls later, I arranged to buy into the print run. For the first time, Oak Knoll appeared on a title page! They also allowed me to buy their other titles at a substantial discount and market them exclusively in America. After a few meetings with them in both London and New Castle, I found out just how jovial this publishing business can be. The English publishing world is filled with long lunches with good cheer and much wine!
Tune in next week for more from Books about Books: A History and Bibliography of Oak Knoll Press.
Starting this week, each Friday we will post a short excerpt from Books about Books (Oak Knoll Press, 2008). The book begins with an essay by Bob about his adventures in publishing, and concludes with a bibliography of Oak Knoll publications through 2008. We hope you enjoy!
Thirty years ago I made the life-changing decision that I should try my hand in the world of publishing. Was I breaking new ground in the antiquarian bookselling business? Hardly! Any of you who have read the history of bookselling know that the professions of bookseller and publisher have been intertwined for centuries with large out-of-print booksellers often having equally large publishing programs. This method of doing business has all but died out today. The following experiment in biography will tell you the story of how our company has tried to resurrect it.
I went to college to study chemical engineering (BChe from University of Delaware, MS Chemical Engineering from University of Virginia) and worked as an engineer for a number of companies from 1971 to 1976. As soon as I had money to spend, I started collecting books and formed large collections of Hemingway, Faulkner, Steinbeck, and books about books. In 1976, I was asked to transfer to Allentown, Pennsylvania. I looked at my job and looked in my heart to determine what I really enjoyed doing. I decided to go with my heart, and on a Monday in early March, I became a rare book seller. I had absolutely no training at the feet of a renowned bookseller, so I made all the usual mistakes of a novice in the field. All I had going for me was my love of books and reading and some hidden skills in business that I had discovered along the way. I made a decision that I was not going to follow the usual path of dealing in the modern literature that I had collected and immediately sold off or traded my personal collection for inventory in the field of books about books. This neglected field of books on the physical production and distribution of books, supplemented with examples of fine printing seemed to be a relatively unbeaten path without much competition. For better or worse, I sank all my limited resources into developing this niche market.
Check back next Friday to see what happens next! (Or if you can’t wait that long, order the book!)