It is with great sadness that we announce the passing of my father, Robert D. Fleck, Jr., proprietor of Oak Knoll Books & Press. He was our helmsman – our captain – our leader in this world of books-about-books. Having founded Oak Knoll Books in 1976, Dad’s legacy is anything but short, and heavily decorated with awards, honors, and leadership positions. His love for his family & friends, local history, and (of course) books was unsurpassed. His determination and poise under pressure, no matter how severe, was something that we should all aspire to. He was an important man in the field of bookselling, but I’ll always know him as the loving father that he always was.
Books were his life, and his life was books. He will be greatly missed.
Love you Dad,
*This blog entry transcribed from an email and Facebook post sent out September 23rd, one day after his death in the early morning of the 22nd.
An Interview with Alastair Johnston, Author of ‘Dreaming on the Edge: Poets and Book Artists in California’
Q: Why did you write this book?
A: The California Historical Society, where I used to be a volunteer, had a contest to find the best unpublished manuscript about some aspect of California history. I thought about it, and realized no one had ever written an overview of the book arts in the state, at least not since Louise Barr in 1930.
Q: How long did it take?
A: Three years. I wrote the first seven chapters in a rush to enter the CHS competition, but came in second. Not bad considering it was only a quarter of the book. But in addition to the three years of writing I had been thinking and even writing about this for a lot longer.
Q: What was your entry point?
A: Probably when I came to California in 1970 and found a poetry book by Jack Spicer, whom I had never heard of, that introduced me to the whole small press world.
Q: Did you continue in chronological order?
A: No, I conceived the chapters as stand-alone articles: the one about WET magazine started out as a book review on the booktryst blog, but then I kept rewriting and expanding it. I tried to make the tone light and journalistic and not academic. Once I had the framework I could see where I needed to go back and do more work. I also tried to limit it to one or two key books per artist to keep it focused and not go off into a whole history of each subject.
Q: I know you have already written quite a lot on this topic; what did you expand on and what new things did you bring to the book?
A: Over the years I have learned more and more about Auerhahn, White Rabbit, Zephyrus Image — small presses about whom I’ve have published bibliographies — also Semina magazine, Everson and Waldport, plus printers Graham Mackintosh and Dave Haselwood. Jack Stauffacher, who is now in his 90s, and the poets Philip Whalen and Joanne Kyger would relate to me personal stories or anecdotes which I stored away.
Q: What were your best discoveries?
A: Everyone has heard of Gelett Burgess and his Purple Cow. I went through his papers at The Bancroft Library and found not only letters and unpublished articles, but a prototype for an artist’s book called “How to Look Eleven Years Younger!” Someone should make a facsimile of it. Burgess wrote a great collaborative novel with his friend Will Irwin called The Picaroons. I was browsing the Will Irwin pictorial collection at Stanford and found a tintype photo of him identified as “Will Irwin and friend.” There are not many photos of Burgess as a young man, but there is a silhouette in the Lark and I found later photos and tweaked them in Photoshop to be the same size and orientation until I could make a certain identification. So that’s a remarkable find. At CHS I had a great time going through Haywood H. Hunt’s archives: there were so many wonderful photos of him, he must have been a real character. He is the one who had a secret bar in the back of his printshop.
Q: Were other discoveries as exciting?
A: I sent a draft manuscript to Victoria Dailey who writes very perceptively on the Southern California art scene and she told me about people I had overlooked — two in particular: Ida Meacham Strobridge and Merle Armitage. I had looked at Merle Armitage’s work but it has a New York imprint. It turns out he didn’t think that Los Angeles had enough credibility as a publishing center in the twenties so got a friend in New York to loan his imprint. There’s a story I retell of the printer of his monograph on Edward Weston setting fire to a forme to warm it up enough to take the ink properly. As Victoria Dailey herself wrote, “in an ironic twist three of the best artists in Southern California were not painters, but were Armitage, a book designer; Paul Landacre, a printmaker; and Edward Weston, a photographer.” So you have to alter your viewpoint. In fact you could also point to the presence of George Gershwin and film director Delmer Daves as key cultural figures in LA in the late 20s and early 30s. There was a lot of richness in art and architecture there in the 20s and 30s, particularly because of Hollywood and the arrival of German expatriates like Galka Scheyer, Thomas Mann, Richard Neutra and Rudolph Schindler.
Q: You are pretty tough on the Grabhorns and John Henry Nash.
A: I let their contemporaries explain the fundamental contradictions in their work. And I wanted to change the narrative which up to now has been about them as the exemplars of California presses. In the Nash-Grabhorn era it was still an elite world, financed by private patronage, but things changed in the forties with Bern Porter and in the fifties with Henry Evans, who are the true fathers of the small press movement. Then in the ’60s and ’70s we have the Women’s movement and even the NEA grants that funded small presses, as well as the obsolescence of letterpress as a commercial technology which led to artists adopting it.
Q: You tell some of these stories almost as if you were a fly on the wall, which is remarkable given the over a hundred-year span of the subject.
A: The oral histories of printers recorded by Ruth Teiser were inspiring to me, so it was important to get voices into the narrative. I met Saul Marks and Ward Ritchie, both of whom were born in 1905; I remember drinking with Lawton Kennedy (born 1901) in the 70s, but I don’t recall any of the things he told me about John Henry Nash and co. But I interviewed a printer named Thomas MacDonald (for the Book Club of California Quarterly) years ago and he had worked for Nash. In Santa Barbara I met a publisher named Wallace Hebbard, who had published a book called The Wild Gardens of Old California in 1927. His book includes six seed packets and, damn me, if I didn’t forget to mention it in the chapter on Brautigan’s Please Plant This Book, so obviously there will have to be a revised edition.
Q: Speaking of revisions what else did you omit?
A: I left out Gemini G.E.L. and Crown Point Press, since they are essentially fine art printmakers and not bookmakers. I did write something about Martín Ramírez, an accidental Californian, and one of my favorite artists, but couldn’t justify his inclusion. Obviously people will have their own perspective on what should or should not have been included. I tried to steer away from the pricy private press books that are so stultifying, not to mention hard to get to see. Many of the younger up-and-coming book artists will wonder why I forgot to mention them; mainly I did not want to just have lists, either of names or titles, but wanted to string together a narrative.
Q: Apart from courting controversy, did you encounter any problems in the production or compilation of your work?
A: Only in tracking down rights-holders for the images. The S. Clay Wilson chapter was a struggle. I wrote Ten Speed Press for permission to use an image and it turns out they were sold to Viking who are owned by Penguin. I got a letter from Penguin saying I would have to wait 6 weeks for a reply. After six weeks they asked again what it was I wanted to use (a small image in black and white); I explained the context and they sent me an invoice for $200 and I decided to forget it, and look further. I knew about Wilson’s edition of Grimm’s tales, which I had not examined and found there was a far more interesting story behind that, and wrote up Malcolm Whyte who is another neglected figure in the history books. So it worked out for the best, and Penguin, who didn’t even know they owned the rights to Ten Speed’s books, got nothing for their non-involvement.
Q: You found so many strange and wonderful books, do you own them all?
A: No, by no means. While I am not as compulsive as some of my friends, I do hoard old newspaper and magazine clippings, and turned up a Rolling Stone article on Ed Ruscha from 1971 that I had kept. But then when I volunteered at the CHS I discovered George Harding, the first librarian, had clipped every newspaper article he came across that mentioned someone in the graphic trades, even if it was just “So and So, printer, died at home in Eureka, May 1931.” It gave you a name and a date, and they were all filed in individual folders. I went through them all and put them in new acid-free folders. Despite the tedium, I found it occasionally inspiring and of course read every article in the process. One joy of volunteering is you don’t have to justify your time.
Q: One final comment to you as the designer: readers should be delighted by the many nice-sized images that make the book so appealing visually.
A: I wanted to see them well enough to read the small print — our eyes are not so good as we get older!
As an undergraduate student, I studied a plethora of innovative fields: creative writing, film history, investigative journalism, social media, persuasive writing, and researched the complex minds of Alfred Hitchcock and Stanley Kubrick. As an English major with a concentration in film studies and a minor in journalism, I aspire to have a career in film and television production. One may wonder why I chose an internship with a publishing company given my experience with all things media. I made the decision to intern with Oak Knoll Books because I wanted to learn the business behind books. Since I was a English major who read countless books over the course of four years, I always had an interest in how the books I read were published and distributed. I have always had a keen interest in press releases, book signings, and publishing companies. I know writing a novel requires a lot of work, time, and energy; then trying to find a publisher was an even bigger challenge. Hence why I came to Oak Knoll, to figure out the difficulties and intricacies behind book publishing. Throughout my time here at Oak Knoll, I expect to be challenged. I also expect to gain knowledge, a new set of skills, and a new outlook and appreciation of the world of publishing.
When I first set foot into Oak Knoll I was enamored by old historic New Castle. Being a Delaware native, seeing this part of New Castle in all of its glory was an awesome experience. Walking down Delaware Street was a pleasant surprise. Oak Knoll is such a quaint, historic, hidden, and antique gem which New Castle should be proud of. It has a feel of an old classic book store with its hardwood floors and brown bookshelves holding collector’s items. When I am not surrounded by the paperbacks and publications of Oak Knoll, I can be found at home in the kitchen whipping up a meal for my family. Whether it’s stuffed French toast topped with bananas foster or, at dinner time, grilled chicken parmesan with angel hair pasta, cooking is definitely a nice break from struggling through Adobe InDesign. When I am not in the kitchen, I can be found binge watching Netflix.
My name is Caroline Beston, and I am a rising senior studying English, with a concentration in creative writing along with a Theater minor at the University of Delaware. At UD, my coursework has focused on literary studies in genre fiction and writing workshops in short fiction and poetry. I have done research on women writers in 1930s science fiction magazines, taken courses on vampires and zombies, and worked as a teaching assistant for a course on dystopian fiction. Some of my creative work has been featured in campus literary magazines. In my spare time I enjoy playing the cello, knitting, and working with a local organic food co-operative.
One of the career paths I am considering is publishing, and I wanted to work for Oak Knoll to learn more about the industry. I hope the opportunity to work for Oak Knoll will teach me new skills in the marketing arena and give me first-hand experience with the publishing process as a whole. My first day has included a lot of creative and detail-oriented work, which I can’t wait to continue. I’m excited to work more with design, branch out into digital marketing, and not let Adobe products rob me of my sanity.
Hot off the press, downloadable on our website. Click on the cover to check out new and forthcoming books, as well as popular and important titles in every category.
Oak Knoll attended the welcoming of Mark Samuels Lasner’s newly acquired copy of the Kelmscott Chaucer to the University of Delaware’s Morris Library. Mark talked about his experiences with that famous book at various points during his life and collecting career. Bill Peterson, noted authority and co-author of The Kelmscott Chaucer: A Census, revealed some little-known facts about the decoration and printing of that remarkable achievement. After the formalities, a reception featured blue-green champagne matching the Morris-designed cloth binding and a cake reproducing the title two-page spread from the volume in icing.
Hello everyone! My name is Kim, and I’m a senior at the University of Delaware, studying English and Japanese. I started interning in February, and came to Oak Knoll not knowing anything—about antiquarian books, publishing, software, anything. The past few months at Oak Knoll have been nothing short of enlightening, as I was introduced to new tools, genres, and lovely people.
Oak Knoll is truly a vast store of knowledge. Paging through books in my down time only gave me a glimpse of all that Oak Knoll has to offer; the very best, in my opinion, were the adorable miniature books! It was particularly joyful to me to find Japanese books and see how even the Japanese language has changed, or find antiquarian copies of books I’ve read in school. An illustrated version of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight was one of my most cherished finds.
Interning at Oak Knoll has given me a chance to refine skills I already had and learn a plethora of new skills, too. Oak Knoll has encouraged me to embrace my sense of creativity and to not be afraid to try new things. They have certainly pushed me to not be afraid to branch out and to broaden my skill set, or to get my hands dirty and experiment with new software and technology.
At Oak Knoll, I got a chance to see every side of the business. From designing advertisements, to making mailers, to poking around the store, and to printing and stuffing envelopes, I’ve really gotten to explore everything that Oak Knoll has to offer. I’m infinitely grateful for the opportunities Oak Knoll has afforded me and I’m eager to take these new skills with me wherever I go.