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.
An interview of Rob Fleck was recently posted on the Fine Books & Collections column titled “Bright Young Things” by Nate Pedersen. In this section, Pedersen interviews young booksellers about their adventures in the exciting and sometimes challenging life of
bookselling. Rob reveals his collecting interests, what he likes most about the trade, and more.
For me the one thing that I love more about the book trade more than anything else is simple: the people. Going to book fairs is one of my favorite tasks to do for Oak Knoll. Many members of the ABAA/ILAB are extremely caring, nice, interesting individuals that all share the same interests. Very few of them don’t go out of their way to help you if you have a problem. Not to mention the countless amazing stories about bookselling and book collecting that are told around a shared bottle of wine.
Click here to read more of Rob’s interview.
Being one of the newest Oak Knoll members, this made Fest XVI my first fest, and what an experience it was! A great experience, of course—with lots of work, lots of books, and lots of people! You could have fooled me that rare and antiquarian books are such a niche market with the large numbers of rare book connoisseurs running from table to table in an effort to see and admire every book on display.
As assigned photographer for the event, I was able to join those crazy book lovers moving from table to table, where I took a photo of each exhibitor standing next to their fine showcase of books. It was such a neat affair to be able to talk to each of the exhibitors, really find out about their work, and feel like I was a part of such an extraordinary event.
Even with as much fun as I had as taking photos and making sure everything went in sequence, still Bob’s party was one of the best events of the weekend. Flowing wine, never-ending appetizers, and the chance to enjoy the beautiful New Castle scenery was every minute splendid.
Check out some of the pictures I took!
-Danielle, Publishing and Marketing Assistant
The Flecks (Millie, Rob and and I) are off to Italy tomorrow to participate in the International League of Antiquarian Bookseller’s (ILAB) Congress and Bookfair. This will be Rob’s first Congress—Millie and I have been doing them since 1990 (Tokyo, Cologne, Amsterdam, Los Angeles, Vienna, Edinburgh, Scandinavia, Melbourne, Madrid) and have met wonderful friends over the years. This year, Millie, former head coach of the A.I. DuPont High School cheerleaders, will take up her pom-pom again and lead the cheerleaders for the rest of the world when they try to beat the local Italian team (all booksellers of course). Rob will be a forward on the team and I will be cheering. We will keep you posted.
-Bob, President and Owner
Yes, I will miss my lovely girlfriend, but who can pass up a chance to visit Bolongna for a week and a half while participating in the ILAB Congress Book Fair? I’m extremely ecstatic about going to my first Congress! Being the cook at my house, I’m also particularly excited about the food experience that I will indulge myself in. Bolognese sauce was originated in Bologna, and has given me a sense of what to expect when I touch down. I also recently bought a Nikon D40 DSLR camera which I will use on my trip for documentation. See you when I get back!
-Rob, Antiquarian & Library Sales
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!
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!)
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.
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!)