One of our nicest customers, Marcia Preston, called me in the spring of last year and invited me to give the 2014 Ron Ravneberg Lecture to the Aldus Society of Columbus, Ohio. This very active group of book lovers founded their Society in 2000 and it has grown to a very significant size. As with any trip, I planned several stops along the way. My wife, Millie, and I left on a Wednesday morning and kept to my strict personal guideline of never driving more than five hours in a day. That placed us in Washington, Pennsylvania early Wednesday afternoon and gave us time to tour the LeMoyne House and learn about its history and role in the Underground Railroad.
The next morning, under threat of snow, we were off to Columbus to meet Ed Hoffman, an ABAA dealer in Columbus and President of the Aldus Society. Ed took us to lunch in the historic district of Columbus, gave us a tour of the town, bought us ice cream at Jeni’s Ice Cream (which was unknown to us Easterners), and then took us to the home of the collector who had asked me to speak. We spent a delightful few hours looking at books and then returned to the hotel to rest up for the night’s speech. Here I am waxing lyrically about Oak Knoll.
The crowd of 60 folks seemed to find it all entertaining, but maybe that had something to do with the many wine bottles available for one and all before the speech began!
The first stop on our way back was Erie, Pennsylvania (remember my five hour rule!) on the way to Buffalo, New York to see a collection of books. The snow storm on Thursday night did not stand in our way as these northern folks know how to clean up quickly. We saw the collection at Ron Cozzi’s Old Editions Bookshop & Gallery, a bookstore with lots of books to view and well worth a trip to visit.
While in Buffalo, I also got to visit my high school for the first time in almost 50 years. Good old Amherst High stands solid as a rock.
Next stop: Ithaca, New York, where yes, it snowed again, but not enough to keep us from finding the delightful hotel La Tourelle where we sampled Finger Lake wines with the owner and author Wally Wiggins and his son. Wally even gave Millie one of the books he had authored and added an inscription, which made her blush.
The last stop was the result of a spur-of-the-moment thought that it would be really nice to see Henry and Pearl Morris (Bird & Bull Press). We called them up and arranged for a lunch in Newton, Pennsylvania the next day. Henry recently sold us his collection of books as they had moved into a retirement community. Two months of retirement living was enough to convince them to move back into their old home on Jericho Mountain. This was unexpected news to us, but pretty logical if you know Henry and Pearl. We reminisced about old times and I told him that he appeared four times in my presentation to the Aldus Society! Here is one picture showing us together during the APHA award ceremony in 2008 where Henry and I each got an award.
Finally we returned to Delaware where we discovered the most snow on the ground of any of the places we had visited.
My first look at the famed Kelmscott/Goudy press owned by J. Ben Lieberman was in March of 1997 when I was invited by his son, Jethro, to buy many of the books in Ben’s library. There it was, standing in all his historic beauty, in a separate room. I knew all about this legendary press from Neil Shaver (Yellow Barn Press)’s The Liberty Bell on the Kelmscott Goudy Press, authored by Ben in 1996. I bought all the books along with the 20-some four drawer file cabinets that contained his detailed correspondence with fellow printers and his extensive files on all aspects of printing history and modern technology. The file cabinets went en masse to the University of Delaware who have organized them for interested scholars. The press was not for sale.
Now fast forward to March 2013 when I got an email from Jethro asking me if I would be interested in purchasing the remaining books that they had kept out from the 1997 sale. Rob and I went to New York and went through the books in detail and bought them (see the collection on our website). These were the books that had been kept out of the first group as they had more sentimental value to the family. And there standing beside the bookcases during our entire visit was the famous Kelmscott/Goudy press that I had seen 16 years earlier. When Jethro told me that he was retiring and wanted to move, I asked him what was going to happen to the press. It was to be sold! I lusted for the opportunity to be part of the sale of that press and told him that I thought it would bring a hefty price because of all the sentimental value attached to it. It was not to be. Jethro decided to let Christie’s handle the sale and they did a great PR job.
Standing this week in the atrium of Christie’s Rockefeller Center gallery, the press — a thing of dark, Dickensian iron musculature — looked like a rough guest who had shown up for tea. The great platen, with its clawlike flanges, was suspended at rest. But a glance at the pistons above made clear how much force that platen could exert on the paper and printing plate below.
-from the New York Times article that ran the day before auction
The press has just sold for $233,000, a spectacular amount, but then how can you determine a value for such an emotionally stimulating piece of antiquity? And I got to touch it!
Here’s the listing on the Christie’s website. The press’s new home will be at the Cary Graphic Arts Collection at RIT, where curator Steven Galbraith promises it “will have an active life… not simply as a museum artifact, but as a working press accessible to students, scholars and printers.” Read RIT’s press release about the acquisition.
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.
So when was the last time you were in Ithaca, NY? I decided on the spur of the moment to go to the National Book Auction’s August sale last weekend, as there was an interesting mix of older books, private press, and books from the Limited Editions Club. I had never met David Hall, the owner, but gave him a call and he steered me to a nice place to stay (La Tourelle). The books were available for viewing on Saturday, so I made the 5 hour drive through heavy rain in the Poconos to get there in time for a long look. I found out that the older books had come from my old friend Norman Kane who had passed away in March.
The sale started at 12 on Sunday and lasted about three and a half hours. The auction house is at the forefront of technology with real time online bidding through Artfact, which added to the excitement of the normal audience, phone, and mail bidding. I managed to get 64 of the lots including Norman’s bookpress, which I shall keep for myself as a reminder of him. I had a three hour dinner with David that night where we solved every bookselling problem in the world plus some. Then it was back to Delaware on Monday morning after lots of packing and a brief visit to John Spencer at Riverow Bookshop who is always worth seeing. Now stay tuned for many new additions to our stock!
One of the little known sidelines of Oak Knoll Books is Delaware history. If you are in an historically interesting state and love its history as I do, then your store should certainly reflect that interest. We currently have over 1000 titles in this section of our bookstore at present. And it just grew a lot recently!
We hadn’t purchased a large group of Delaware related items for a number of years but recently purchased three private collections. The largest was just purchased from a long time Delaware resident who was moving from his home in one Delaware town to the quaint town of Arden, Delaware. Arden has its own story as it was founded by Frank Stephens and Will Price in 1900 under the philosophy of Henry George as a single tax community.
And Delaware being what it is, the second smallest state in the union, I experienced the usual “do you know such and such” moment where it turned out that the collector had graduated a few years before me from the University of Delaware’s Chemical Engineering program and knew many of the professors that taught me back in the late 1960s. My first job out of college was at the refinery in Delaware City, Delaware. He had worked there when it was Tidewater before its purchase by Getty Oil. A number of his fellow workers had stayed on after the purchase and I knew them. He got a kick out of some of the stories that I told about the refinery including the one about John Paul Getty’s payphones in his personal English estate house meant to keep his expenses down. ‘Tis a small world.
Click here to see part 1.
Day 8. Finally another real book day! I walked back to the Kok store and spent a part of the day going through all the books in the rare book room and then walked on to De Slegte, which is a chain of new bookstores in the Netherlands with a rare book department in their main Amsterdam store. I found books in their store and abused my friendship with Ton and Marga by taking the books back to their shop to ship for me. (I have found a great way to have books shipped back to the US from overseas purchases: I use a company called UOcean, which picks up the boxes from the bookstore and sends them back to New Castle cheaper and faster than the various country postal systems. In this case UOcean picked up all my purchases from Wykham, Cox, and Kok, consolidated the shipment, and delivered directly to New Castle. I’ve used them in Australia, Spain, Germany, France, and many other countries.) And of course my trip to the Netherlands had to end with a great meal in companionship with one of the great friends I have met while doing ILAB and ABAA work, Jelle Samshuijzen. He is Oak Knoll’s web master and developer of our in-house database. I worked with him while he was web master for the ABAA and ILAB and love sharing a martini with him, a tradition that dates back almost two decades. He had found a new restaurant in Amsterdam that mixed Asian and European food in a superb manner.
Day 9. Had to get to Budapest in time for a Committee cocktail hour and dinner with the Hungarians and found that plane travel from Amsterdam directly to Budapest one way cost over $900. I kept waiting for a cheap flight to open up but the cheap airline serving Budapest went bankrupt the week before I made reservations. I finally flew LOT airlines, which is the main Polish carrier. I was served up many a joke by my friends about my chances of arrival in Budapest but they were all totally wrong. The flight to Warsaw and then on to Budapest went without a hitch. We were warned to be very careful taking the taxi from the airport to the hotel and only sign up with legitimate taxis. (This reminded me of Prague.) I found the right one who charged me in the Hungarian currency of Forint (they are part of the Euro zone but have not adopted the Euro). We met that evening with the Hungarian booksellers’ association for a “let’s get acquainted” dinner and had a welcome speech from Adam Bosze, their President, in perfect English and a passionate speech by the dean of Hungarian booksellers, Lajos Borda, in Hungarian. It was a very pleasant beginning.
Day 10. This is the real work day. The Committee of ILAB started the meeting at 10 and it lasted all day. It would amaze the average bookseller in ILAB how much time and energy is spent by the volunteer booksellers who run the organization. The current Committee of eight comes from eight different countries (Netherlands, USA, Australia, Denmark, Austria, France, Germany, Switzerland) with an executive secretary from France and a web editor from Germany. Email makes it possible for them to “talk” every day, and they do. The actual “Members” of the League are the countries but they only get together once a year in the fall so it is up to the Committee to steer the ILAB ship on the right course on a day-to-day basis. Issues such as export/import, stolen books, ethics, and promotion of the book and manuscript world in this digital age concern them every day. We ended the day with another fabulous dinner with our Hungarian bookseller friends.
Day 11. We now have a chance to see some of the sites of Budapest. Adam Bosze takes us to the castle overlooking the river followed by an outdoor lunch in a restaurant. We then go back to see booksellers along “booksellers’ row” near our hotel. I manage to buy a few books while trying not to get confused by the conversion of Forints to Euros to Dollars. Adam’s main job is as an interviewer for the equivalent of a PBS Hungarian TV station where he covers the arts. He scheduled five of us for TV interviews, which were filmed in one of the bookstores. I’m not sure how many of the Hungarians will understand our English, but Adam says he will take all of our comments and edit them down to about a six-minute segment. And, of course, we all have another great dinner.
Day 12. Adam has a surprise for many of us. He wants us to join him on the subway to go to a secret place for a late breakfast/coffee. Off we go to one of the last standing leftover cafés from the communist days (1989 was the end of communism in Hungary). He especially notes how we will probably be mistreated, abused and ignored for service just like in the old days of communism. One of the Hungarian booksellers explains to all of us what life was like under communism – how did it effect getting a home, finding a car, dealing with the government. And to think that was just 23 years ago. Tom Congalton (current ILAB Vice President, owner of Between the Covers here in America) and I go to visit one of the younger Hungarian booksellers and I buy interesting examples of 20th century printing from him. Adam then takes me (and the Poulsens from Denmark) to visit Lajos Borda who I mentioned was the dean of Hungarian booksellers. He speaks Hungarian and German so Adam is our most effective translator. It turns out that Borda has a publishing program which also includes some beautifully printed and bound limited editions. I am so impressed with his work that I ask him if I can try to sell a set of his works to an American library. I get a great smile and a handshake after Adam finishes his translation. I hope I have found a new friend through the book world. Some of the committee had to fly home this day so we gradually lose friends throughout the day, but, of course, there are still enough of us left to enjoy a fine dinner and a glass of wine or two that evening.
Day 13. This is a Sunday, and I’m now by myself as the last of the committee flies home one by one during the morning. Tom and Heidi Congalton are off to do the London Book Fair. I decide to use the sunshine filled day to go back to the Danube and take one of the 1 hour boat cruises up and down the river to see the sites. I see all the long river cruise ships tied up at the various docks after letting off their passengers to view the city. I walk all over the city enjoying the buildings and watching the people. My last dinner is spent by myself, which is something I really enjoy doing on occasion. I have a very leisurely meal in one of the streets that caters to outdoor eating with a bottle of wine and ponder upon the good life of an antiquarian bookseller.
Day 14. Home I go. Budapest to Heathrow using British Air and then on to Philadelphia with all flights on time. After 14 hours of traveling I quickly get through customs, find my bag and walk through the gate where they collect the customs forms. I am ready to see my wife Millie as I am beat. But wait – one more adventure. For the first time in seven years (according to the TSA personnel), I set off the radiation counter strapped to the belt of the young lady collecting my customs form. I had recently gone through successful seed implants for prostate cancer and had been warned that there was a faint chance I could trigger such a machine. The doctor had provided me with a card which described the procedure I had just completed and gave the date which was supposed to be my “get out of jail free” card. Unfortunately the TSA hadn’t had such a case for such a long time they had trouble getting the special Geiger counter to work correctly. After a hour of waiting while calls to headquarters took place, I was allowed to leave with apologizes all around. At least I know that the security at airports works!
And now I’m anxiously awaiting all the books to come in. I hear they have been mailed and I’m really excited to work on them and maybe even offer them to one of you reading this blog.
One of the joys of being a bookseller is the chance to take occasional trips overseas as part of my business. My latest adventure was a two week, three country trip by plane, train, car, and boat to England, the Netherlands, and Hungary (with an airport layover in Poland). I saw lots of old friends and made some new ones, bought books, finalized a publishing deal, and ate many great meals.
The main purpose of the trip was to participate in the International League of Antiquarian Bookseller’s (ILAB) Committee meeting in Budapest. The Committee that runs the day-to-day affairs of the League (8 booksellers, an Executive Secretary and the Web Editor) meet in the Spring of each year. This year they chose Budapest as Hungary is the newest country in ILAB and the Committee wanted to show support for the Hungarian organization and get to know the booksellers better. I’m not an officer any longer (President from 2002-2006) but was elected a President of Honour in 2008, which means that I get to go to the meetings and offer a bit of advice on occasion.
Day 1 and 2. One lovely part about New Castle, Delaware, home of Oak Knoll Books, is how close it is to the Philadelphia International Airport, which operates as a hub for US Air and British Air. I took the late direct flight to London’s Heathrow Airport on British Air and got in at 10 in the morning. I have been staying in a small boutique hotel in South Kensington simply called Number 16 for many years as I can just hop on the tube (Piccadilly Line) and be at the South Kensington station about 40 minutes later. The hotel is very small but in a great location and has great ambiance. I spent the rest of the day checking out the neighborhood and making sure I had lined up a restaurant for the evening.
Day 3. I have bought many books from Howard Mather at Wykham Books over the years but had never sat down with him for a meal to get to know him better. He specializes in my kind of books (books about books), so I had emailed him a number of weeks before leaving and asked if we could have lunch together. He gave me directions to his warehouse location in Wimbledon Park so I took the tube from South Kensington and arranged to meet him at 10:30. So how the heck was I to know that Wimbledon and Wimbledon Park are two separate tube stops! After a half an hour of scouring the neighborhood I finally asked a street cleaner how I could have missed the location. He looked at my directions and quickly spotted the word “Park” after Wimbledon and said I had gone one tube stop too many. A cell phone call got me back in Howard’s good graces, and I eventually found him. Off to lunch we go, in an ancient long hooded English convertible that my “full figure” barely squeezed into. We then had a pleasant two-hour lunch getting caught up on mutual friends and past experiences. There is nothing like a bottle of wine to help one figure out the future of the book business.
Days 4 and 5. One of my buddies in the book business is Tony Cox, who operates Claude Cox Books in Ipswich. When Oak Knoll bought the Randeria collection in England a number of years ago, Tony was a great help and bought the less expensive store stock as part of the deal. He has stayed with Millie and me in New Castle and extended an invitation for me to stay with him for two nights while I was in England. He has a great store in an ancient building with lots of books about books and is always worth a visit while I’m in England. I took a taxi to the Liverpool train station and caught a train for Ipswich. Tony picked me up at the station and took me to the shop for a quick book fix. We then headed off to his home, which is a 17th century house with rentable holiday space. And – lucky for me – he had gotten in some books about books collections that had not yet made it to the shop but were available for browsing and instant pricing. He is my kind of man.
Day 6. When I was planning my trip, I was considering various options for getting to Amsterdam from England. I noticed that there was ferry service twice a day from Harwich, England, to Hoek (Netherlands), and asked Tony what he knew about it. Harwich was an easy drive from Ipswich, and Tony offered to drive me to the ferry port on Sunday morning. The ferry trip was long (7 hours), but when you consider all the problems in flying and the fact that my travel day was a Sunday without much else to do, I thought it worth a try. When we arrived at the port, I was amazed at the size of the ferry as it looked more like a cruise ship! I hadn’t been on a ferry like that since cruising around the Baltic Sea during ILAB’s Scandinavian Congress. This car-ferry line operates once in the morning and once in the evening. They have staterooms, casinos, restaurants, entertainment, and great views if the sea is calm. For less than $200 for the entire trip, I decided to take the optional stateroom upgrade (necessary if you take the evening trip). I scouted out the ship and quickly spotted the best restaurant on board, where I reserved a table right on the water. The seven hours flew by in one of the most pleasant trips that I had taken for quite a while. When I arrived in the Netherlands, I walked to the close-by train station and got on the train to Rotterdam and then transferred to the train for Amsterdam. I had some help with directions during that part of the trip as I bumped into a Los Angeles restaurant owner making his first trip to the Netherlands who had, in turn, made friends with a young Dutchman on his way home to Amsterdam. We travelled as a threesome to the central station in Amsterdam, which was an easy walk from the hotel I had chosen with help from Ton Kok, a Dutch bookseller friend of mine. It was right on the edge of Amsterdam’s famous red light district so walking around the neighborhood proved to be quite a sight seeing adventure!
Day 7. I had various business propositions to talk over with people at the University of Amsterdam and started the day with a leisurely walk around the city followed by lunch with Cees de Jong, who is a book packager and designer. He has recently put together a book on the Jan Tholenaar Collection of type specimens published by Taschen. We walked to the University, and I met the people working on an upcoming Oak Knoll Press distribution title (John Lane, Diaspora of Armenian Printing). I also talked over some business with the rare book librarian. I then had time to walk to Ton and Marga Kok’s bookshop in Amsterdam, which is a huge establishment full of interesting books. When the shop closed, Marga and Ton and I walked to a famous Amsterdam restaurant (Haesje Claes) and met Irene and Arnoud Gerits (current President of ILAB) for dinner.
Click here for part 2.