After six years working here in the publishing department at Oak Knoll, the time has come for me to say goodbye. My last day as the Oak Knoll publishing director will be November 21. I am about to start a new adventure: parenthood! My husband and I will be adopting a baby soon, so I am taking a few years off from full-time publishing work to take on something that is totally different, but probably equally challenging. I’m also planning to stay busy doing some freelance editing as well as working part-time as a bookkeeper for my church.
I have learned so much in my time at Oak Knoll, about books and also about work in general, since this was my first job out of college. Thank you, all of you, for making it such a pleasant and valuable experience.
Bob Fleck, president and founder of Oak Knoll, will be taking over the publishing director responsibilities himself, so please contact him at email@example.com if you have any questions about the transition or about any future projects.
All the best,
The new title New Castle, Delaware: A Walk Through Time by Delaware authors Barbara E. Benson and Carol E. Hoffecker reveals the evolution of the town of New Castle from its seventeenth-century settlement to the leafy, beautiful city of today. There is one chapter that the staff here at Oak Knoll particularly likes, which is the chapter revealing the history of the historic Masonic Hall/Opera House—the building that is now the home of Oak Knoll Books and Press. At the opening of the Opera House, there were over 10,000 people gathered around the building in celebration, probably the biggest crowd it has ever seen! There is some great history packed into this chapter, so check out this excerpt that reveals the story behind Oak Knoll’s building.
If you walk up from the river along Delaware Street soaking in the colonial and Federal atmosphere around you, a large, proudly imposing structure that clearly comes from another time confronts you and demands a second look. Glancing upward you will see a plaque attached to the middle of the top floor that displays symbols of the Masonic Order and the Odd Fellows and proclaims that the building was “Erected in 1879.” This is the Masonic Hall and Opera House, and it represents New Castle’s best example of the Second Empire style.
The Opera House was constructed at a discouraging time in New Castle. The state legislature had just enacted a law to build a modern New Castle County Courthouse in Wilmington. For the first time in its history New Castle would no longer be a county seat. Many of the town’s leading men were lawyers. How many of them would remain in town? In the face of this potentially serious blow, it took courage and optimism for the Masons and Odd Fellows to agree to vacate their meeting space on the top floor of the Town Hall and to build an opera house with lodge meeting rooms. The lodges appointed a joint committee to undertake the work. The leader was William Herbert, one of New Castle’s most active citizens, a businessman and politician who served in many county and state offices, including county sheriff and state treasurer. William Herbert was a booster determined to restore New Castle’s damaged civic pride.
The man chosen to design the opera house was Theophilus P. Chandler Jr. (1845-1928). Chandler was one of Philadelphia’s most professionally accomplished architects. The founder of the Department of Architecture at the University of Pennsylvania, he designed all manner of buildings including churches, commercial structures, and residences. He was the favorite architect of the du Pont family for whom he made a number of residential designs, including an addition to Winterthur.
During that year, Chandler worked on the New Castle Opera House he was simultaneously constructing the new courthouse in Wilmington, which was also in the style of the Second Empire. The courthouse in Wilmington lasted for only a generation and was razed at the end of World War I to make way for Rodney Square, but the New Castle Opera House still stands. Only an accomplished professional could have designed such a large structure, measures 50 feet by 100 feet at its base and standing three stories high. The tallest floor is the second, which housed a hall with a stage and seating capacity for 600 people. This grand room was capable of hosting meetings or traveling shows. The first floor contained retail shops, and the third floor provided meeting rooms for the Masons and the Odd Fellows.
The New Castle Opera House may not have rivaled the grandeur of the Paris Opera, but for a small American town it had lots of bells and whistles. It is built of brick decorated with rusticated flat stone pilasters and includes a projecting central pavilion, galvanized iron cornice, and quoined corners. There are sets of tall double-arched windows with semi-dressed stone block surrounds featuring keystone centers and caps at the bottoms. The roof edges are enhanced by fence-like balustrades. Four elaborate brick chimneys protrude from the hipped roof. Originally there was also a cupola on the center of the roof at the front of the building. It was removed as a safety hazard in 1950.
The building cost over $30,000, a large sum in 1880. When it proved too costly for the Masons and Odd Fellows to pay the mortgage, William Herbert assumed the debt personally. No wonder New Castle historian Alexander B. Cooper called him “the father of the building,” and went on to say that “it stands today largely as a monument to his memory.”
GRAND OPENING OF NEW CASTLE’S NEW HALL
Ceremonies of Dedication
Immense Display—Good Music
September 13, 1880
“This is a big day for New Castle, and celebrates a plucky and hopeful step in the town’s new departure,” said a Wilmington newspaper. A crowd estimated at between 10,000 and 15,000 people, the largest gathering in New Castle’s history, assembled to witness the dedication of the splendid new Opera House. The three-story building will serve two principal fraternal organizations: the St. John’s Lodge of Ancient Free and Accepted Masons and the Washington Lodge of Odd Fellows. To celebrate this event large contingents of lodge members in full parade regalia came by steamboat and railway from Philadelphia, Wilmington, and Salem and Camden, New Jersey, and other towns in the region. As bands played and steamboat whistles blew, the lodge members marched up Delaware Street from the wharf to the “imposing and ornamental Hall.”
Long tables laid out with sandwiches, pies, cakes, and fruit greeted visitors at the dock, next to the Town Hall, and in the public square. Buildings along all the major streets were “profusely and gorgeously decorated with flags and flowers.” The Opera House itself was festooned with signal flags lent for the occasion by the revenue cutter USS Hamilton, which was in the harbor. The day climaxed with the Rev. J.H. Caldwell’s sermon describing Biblical analogies such as the dedication of Solomon’s Temple. In the evening there was a grand ball led by William Herbert, the man most responsible for seeing the project through. Dancing continued until dawn.
The Wilmington press noted the special significance of the new building as a forward step for a town that was losing the county seat. For too long, according to one newsman, New Castle residents had relied on giving entertainments in the courthouse. Another writer contrasted the crowds that gathered for the celebration with the “vulgar curiosity” of the somewhat smaller crowds that had long met in New Castle to witness hangings and whippings. “New Castle has reason to be proud of her hall and of the exercises of yesterday. The day will long be noted in her annals as among the greatest she has known.” The hall, he predicted, would stand as a symbol of New Castle’s growing “spirit of enterprise and energy.”
Click here for more information on New Castle, Delaware: A Walk Through Time.
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 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!
Last week I watched The Proposal with Sandra Bullock. She plays a high-powered Editor-in-Chief at a major book publisher, and her character is the stereotypical boss from hell (at least at the beginning of the movie. By the end… well, I won’t spoil it for you). Whenever she leaves her office, her assistant sends an instant message to the rest of the company, warning them that “The witch is on her broom!” I hope that my fellow Oak Knollers don’t feel the same way about me! Although, in a publishing department of 2 full-time employees, total, my assistant doesn’t have anyone to warn!
But it’s always interesting seeing how Hollywood depicts the book world. This movie was more accurate than most—we see Bullock’s character looking through proofs at her home while eating breakfast (I’ve done that!), and we hear of her attending the Frankfurt book fair (I’d love to do that!).
Has anyone else seen any interesting portrayals of the book world on screen lately?
- Laura Williams, Publishing Director
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!)