In early 2006, however, John told me that it was time for him to retire. I had known this time would eventually come (though I had been hoping he would work into his 90s!). But when he talked about the books he wanted to write and the travel he wanted to do, it was hard to come up with a convincing argument for postponing retirement. I then had to make yet one more decision. I was going to turn 60 in February of 2007, so perhaps it was time to think about slowing down and eliminating some of the stress in my life. I knew that my stress level could only increase once John had gone, as he was going to be hard to replace. My time at the beach house was so relaxing that I could visualize a lighter work load with more vacation time. I loved reading and collecting (especially in the field of Delaware history). Was this the time to sell the publishing business?
Months went by with different possibilities being discussed on a daily basis. I had a publishing director who wanted to retire and was only hanging on to keep me from being without a competent person to run that part of the business. It occurred to me that I had a smart young man named Mark Parker Miller working for me as a book cataloguer in the antiquarian side of the business, and that he might have the makings of a publisher. Mark had finished the course work for his PhD in art history and was in the process of writing his thesis. I had very good experiences in hiring art history graduates from Delaware (Andy Armacost being the prime example). I asked John if he would take a month to train Mark, and he gleefully agreed, finally seeing the beginning of his retirement on the horizon. The training took place in the spring of 2006 and Mark is now going full throttle with 24 books under his belt (with John’s help) in 2006, 16 in 2007 and 21 to-date in 2008.
A great help was the addition of Laura Williams in early 2007 as our Marketing Communications Specialist. Her skills at electronic marketing and PR have had a major impact on sales. [Update to 2010: Mark Parker Miller left Oak Knoll at the end of 2008, and Laura Williams has been enjoying her new role as publishing director for the past two years.]
So here we are in the year 2008 after 30 years of publishing in a very specialized field. The publishing world has changed a lot since I first started and will continue to re-invent itself in the future at an ever quickening pace. University presses are being told to make a profit for their universities, as the prestige of having a press is being diminished by hard financial times. As a result, more manuscripts are being offered to us. Oak Knoll has published books with CDs in the back and links to online databases, unknown technologies when we started. Short print runs and print-on-demand seem to be here to stay. Bibliography as a subject begs to be available online, as any good bibliography is always a work in progress. Where will this lead us?
Our marketing strategies have also changed. In the old days we bombarded our customers with letters—now we do it with email programs like Constant Contact. Our weekly strategy meetings are often more about the timing and extent of our email campaigns and an analysis of our Google statistics for the past week than planning the production of a book.
So how do I feel about our role for the next 30 years? Early this year  Oak Knoll Press was given the Institutional Award by the American Printing History Association in recognition of its services in publishing books that advance the understanding of printing history. When accepting this award, I reminisced about Oak Knoll’s past much like I have done in this short history and ended up telling a story of a recent sales call with a relatively new employee. The gist of that story was that the new employee was my youngest son Rob, who had graduated from college and was now working in the business. My other three children (Jenni, Paul, and Wendy) have each chosen other careers outside the book world. Oak Knoll may not end up being Rob’s life work, but for now—it is great to have him with me. Either way, I hope he will enjoy all of the fun, travel, and friendships that I have had for these first 30 years.
It’s always nice coming back from a book fair. It’s even better coming back when you consider it a success. Why was it a success you ask; well not only did we sell enough to meet quota, we also bought some very interesting items. One item was a rare Italian type specimen book printed in the mid 1800s in Savona, Italy. The second item was a very beautiful periodical printed in Norway with paper specimens spread out over multiple issues. All of this comes in the original publisher’s box holding all of the issues.
My father also got to hear Michael Suarez give a talk titled “The Ecosystems of Book History,” which was about the survival of the book and the role of booksellers in the future. Of course, he offered up his optimistic opinion during the Q&A session that the younger generations are still interested in the book arts, which gives a reason to believe that they have a future. In my personal opinion, I did feel that there were more younger people (college and grad school students) than usual showing up in our booth to take a look at antiquarian material. I guess the real question is: why is that? I feel that the resurgence of book arts classes at colleges around the world is creating this lust for antiquarian books among younger generations, but who am I to guess?
-Rob, Antiquarian & Library Sales
We are now opening our blog to your suggestions. We have been posting weekly excerpts from Bob’s Books and Books, as well as keeping you up to date with current events at Oak Knoll, but what else would you like to see? What types of posts are you most interested in reading? Please leave a comment with your ideas. We look forward to hearing from you!
-The Oak Knollers
The always present problem of lack of space reared its ugly head yet again in 2001—we had run out of room in spite of our expanded 5000 square foot third floor lease. This is such a sickness with booksellers. They can never be happy with the space they have and must keep expanding. John published 21 titles in 2001, and we had bought a large antiquarian collection, so space was at a premium.
We decided to lease half the first floor of our building and move our publishing fulfillment and shipping to that floor and even pretend to have a real bookstore presence. We moved in and John found a huge assortment of blue metal shelving being sold at a very good price by a warehouse. We bought the shelving and installed it on the first floor. These bookcases were handy in keeping a small number of each publishing/distribution title arranged by stock number and readily available for order fulfillment. Most of the inventory was kept in a large warehouse in the Newark, Delaware, area as New Castle is not very truck friendly, and we had no docking area at our Delaware Street location. New Castle is a charming city but doesn’t have much in the way of retail street traffic, so street sales didn’t increase much. However, the rent was very reasonable, and we had a lot more space.
Meanwhile my “other job” became closer to a full-time position as I was elected President of ILAB during the Scandinavian Congress of 2002. Millie and I have been to many Congresses, but this whirlwind trip through Sweden, Finland, Norway, and Denmark was one of the best.
John managed to get out another 21 titles in 2002 and followed up with 21 more in 2003, 21 in 2004 and 18 in 2005. I must admit that I did not have as much time to give him as I had before taking on the Presidency of ILAB, but he was becoming an old hand at our type of publishing.
And of course, the strangest thing happened—we ran out of space again in 2005. The antique mall and tea shop had left the second floor, leaving it as empty space. I really didn’t need to be on the first floor, so I discussed the idea of leasing the entire building from the owner and taking on the responsibility for one monthly rental payment for the entire building. I would need to find appropriate sub-leases for the first floor to partially defray my costs. He agreed, and John yet again got a major task—find renters for the first floor, and move our operation from our half of the first floor to the second floor, thus adding 2500 square feet to our space. If we worked it right, we could significantly increase our space and reduce costs by sub-leasing the entire first floor, while moving books out of the Newark warehouse to further reduce our overhead. As usual, John accomplished this task in record time, and now our inventory shares the second floor with Annie Oakley’s ghost.
Our relationship with Staikos grew exponentially as we got to know and trust each other. John was a comrade to Kostas in their mutual love of the history of the growth of language, and they went to a number of conferences and archeological sites together. I decided to visit him in Athens while on one of my European trips and scheduled a flight from London to Athens in March of 2003 to spend time with him. As many of you probably remember, that is exactly when the Iraq War began and the Greeks were not in favor of what the US had done. Kostas picked me up at the airport and a normal 40 minute drive took over three hours because the entire city of Athens was rallying against the war.
My arrival day was especially interesting as Millie and I had donated a large collection of books to the Bibliotheca Alexandrina in Egypt and the Egyptian Embassy in Athens had planned a large reception in our honor that evening. Kostas and I got to the hotel and I barely had time to change into better clothes for the reception which was luckily across the street from my hotel at the Embassy. I was awarded a very large medal by the Greek supporters of this library at the reception and the Egyptian ambassador was the picture of charm and culture in what had to be an awkward situation.
Kostas was the perfect host and showed me the city as it was my first trip to Athens. I was invited to his home for dinner that night which again proved a bit strange as he lives right next to the President of the Greek Republic and soldiers were everywhere as I attempted to get there for the dinner date. After a number of checks I was pointed to the correct building where I was warmly welcomed by Kostas and his sister. I was shown parts of his personal collection which were soul-stirring to an antiquarian bookseller. When it was time for dinner, Kostas pointed me to a chair and commanded that I sit there. Not aware of the social etiquette of the Greek dining experience, I sat as instructed and had a glass of wine as booksellers are known to do. Kostas, with that impish smile I have grown to enjoy so much, then quickly opened the curtains in front of me and there, under floodlights, was the Acropolis. I was stunned with the magnificent view.
My next visit to Kostas was immediately after a Prague Committee meeting of the ILAB in 2007 when Millie and I flew to visit him. We did some serious work on publishing projects while Millie toured the city. His charm was apparent and showed Greek hosting expertise with great aplomb. It was Millie’s birthday and he planned a very nice birthday dinner at one of his favorite restaurants. Our relationship with this man continues to grow as we utilize his letterpress shop to print books for our publishing program and publish new titles that he writes for us.