And thus the interesting ten-year saga of the John von Hoelle days began. John had been in the publishing business for many years and was one-fourth owner of Dyne-American Publishers, a much bigger publishing company than Oak Knoll. In those days of wild publishing acquisitions, his imprint had been bought out by ABC Publishing, a larger company. He was also a retired military officer, although he never was that comfortable talking about that early phase of his life. All I know is that he attended the annual meeting of the Association of Former Intelligence Officers in Washington each year and was busy writing a definitive bibliography on non-fiction Cold War espionage literature. John was a book collector with a collection of over 3,700 espionage novels. He decorated his office with photos of himself and friends in various third-world countries in appropriate costume. John had authored 14 books and had a special interest in early language (he could read and write ancient cuneiform and Egyptian hieroglyphics). I could never break him of the habit of calling me “sir.” I always felt a little funny being called “sir” by a man five years older than I am, especially when I was in my usual summer dress of tennis shorts (just in case someone called for a game, of course!).
John had a wealth of knowledge about the book industry although he had never really been in our type of business. He had certainly not experienced print runs of 500 copies before, as most of the titles he published in his prior business often had several zeros added to that figure. John brought experience, calmness, and the uncanny ability to solve problems. I knew that if I had a problem that needed fixing, John would fix it. He relied on me for the financial analysis and the selection of manuscripts; I relied on him for everything else (including the embellishment of a story when needed). He was the perfect representative for our company when doing trade shows or in contract negotiations with authors and vendors. He also designed most of the book layouts and dust jackets of our books. He had a ready smile and a pleasant personality, and he actually wore a coat and tie.
John quickly made his impact felt and 1996 saw us publish 14 titles, which was the largest number we had done in a single year. One of his special feats that year was to help get the final permission to reprint the Pforzheimer catalogue (77), a legendary bibliography that had never been reprinted. We waited forever to get the final signature on the deal because the decision maker, Ross Perot, was too busy running for President to get around to something as mundane as signing one of our contracts.
The other major event that happened in 1996 was my election as President of the Antiquarian Booksellers Association of America (ABAA). It also was the year that the Americans hosted the Congress of the International League of Antiquarian Booksellers in Los Angeles and San Francisco (trade show), so I was a very busy person. The ABAA represents one of the 20 countries that make up the International League of Antiquarian Booksellers (ILAB). My biggest goal was to use the new tool of the internet to help spotlight these two organizations, and sometimes I was probably overbearing on the subject (my French colleagues called me Mr. Internet with perhaps just a bit of sarcasm in their voices). But it also allowed me to do a great deal of foreign travel and form friendships and business relationships with people all over the world.
Another new idea for promoting Oak Knoll occurred in the fall of 1994 when we sponsored the first Oak Knoll Fest, using the second floor of the New Castle Opera House (more about this later). We thought that a good way to emphasize our specialty area of books about books and fine press printing would be to host an event that combined speeches, a shop sale, and tables of private press books with their actual printers standing behind the table.
That first Fest attracted ten private press printers. John Randle, the noted English private press owner of the Whittington Press, gave our key-note address on Saturday evening. We have held a Fest every year since and now attract an average of 40 private presses each year to this two-day event. Hundreds of presses have participated over the Fest’s fourteen-year history. The Fests have provided an excellent venue for customers to view our publishing titles and for Oak Knoll to solicit new publishing manuscripts. The Fine Press Book Association was founded by printers sitting in my living room during our Fest and has become the premier organization of private press owners.
Quickly jumping ahead to 2000, I must show you a picture from our Oak Knoll Fest VII in which Gloria Stuart of Titanic film fame came to New Castle. I’m sure that many a publicist would have died for this opportunity. Gloria Stuart had won an Oscar for her role in the 1997 movie Titanic, but not many of her movie fans knew her as a letterpress printer. She came to New Castle this year and “held court” in such a sweet and gentle manner that she captivated the hearts of all who met her. Our publishing sales went up during that Fest!
We published the seventh edition of ABC and Oak Knoll’s first reprint of Gaskell’s New Introduction to Bibliography in 1995, which completed our trilogy of the three most important bibliographical manuals, which also included McKerrow’s Introduction to Bibliography for Literary Students and Bowers’ Principles of Bibliographical Description.
However, there were the beginnings of troubled waters in late 1995. An unfortunate marriage to an American girl had made Paul’s life in America very difficult, so he took a leave of absence and traveled home, and in early 1996, he announced that he had decided to resign and return permanently to England. His resignation left us with a big void to fill. We interviewed many people in hopes of finding just the right person who could fit into our small publishing/antiquarian business (and do the work for as small a salary as possible!). I hired a young man who met these criteria, but he immediately proved the old adage of you get what you pay for. He was a disaster. Meanwhile, Paul had already returned to England. I then interviewed and hired John von Hoelle, one of the great decisions I have made in my life.
Check back next week to hear how the Press fared under “the good ship von Hoelle”!
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!
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!
Previously in Books about Books: Bob hires Paul Wakeman as the first publishing director.
But not so fast! You may think it would be an easy thing to have someone from England come to work in a small business in New Castle, Delaware, but this was not the case. The trouble began when we applied for a permanent Visa and learned to our dismay that it might take years to get the proper permissions. We were told that we had to run job advertisements in a number of nationwide magazines in the industry in case there was some American with a desire to take a minimum wage job in the little, sleepy town of New Castle working for a neophyte publisher. We ran the ad and got no responses. We then had to wait in the long line of applicants for our case to be heard. Meanwhile, the months were slipping by, and neither one of us was getting what we needed. Calls to Immigration Services were a lesson in anger management.
One of the many better features of living in Delaware, the second smallest state in the Union, is the ability to reach your representative to Congress without the grief experienced in larger states. I decided to use the services of our Congressman, Bill Roth. His office promised to call the Immigration Services and—it must have been a miracle—Paul’s application was moved up in the line and approved.
I remember him flying into Philadelphia to start work in August of 1988 just as we were getting ready to move the business up the street. I picked him up from the airport and took him to a grand dinner at my favorite restaurant in Wilmington, Vincente’s, where we plotted the rapid growth of the publishing business and his adjustment to life in America while consuming too much wine. He had brought his cricket equipment with him so he would be in good shape for those long evenings and weekends in New Castle.
After using his brute strength to help us move the shop, he dived into the publishing business and produced a Christmas keepsake for the end of 1988, three titles in 1989, and five titles in 1990. Two of these were printed by the Bird & Bull Press in limited editions, which allowed Paul and Henry Morris to meet and develop a friendship. Another publication was a book on marbling done in a limited edition with his mother and the Plough Press as a co-publisher. We also published a new edition of Jane Greenfield and Jenny Hille’s Headbands, which continues to sell well to this day.
On a side note, I was becoming very active in the Antiquarian Booksellers Association of America (ABAA), first serving on the Board in 1982 and then becoming Chair of their Finance Committee in 1989 and Treasurer in 1990. Millie and I enjoyed the international congresses that the International League of Antiquarian Booksellers (ILAB) conducted and began to attend them in 1990, starting with the Tokyo Congress. This event led to many contacts in publishing that eventually paid dividends, proving yet again that the cross-over between the antiquarian book world and the publishing world is a very healthy relationship.
Check back next week for more from Books about Books!
Bookselling continued 1985 to 1988 with almost all sales occurring in the antiquarian side of the business and only three publishing titles produced. One of these was Dick Huss’s The Printer’s Composition Matrix, the first new manuscript we published for a larger audience. Many an afternoon was spent in Lancaster visiting this fine old gentleman at his printing company. Dick kept his personal collection of books on printing history there and still set type himself and did personal binding. He eventually sold me many of his books on printing history.
We also issued the second book in a series of reprints of important titles relating to printing and binding history (Bib. #12 & 17). In keeping with our theme of adding value to reprints that we published, we asked Paul Koda to write lengthy introductions to each volume, which he did with great skill. Paul was a librarian with a collector’s instinct who often guided us with his astute opinions.
As you can see by this chronology, Oak Knoll Press, with its 18 titles, wasn’t exactly exploding on the publishing scene up to 1988.
The Wakeman Years (1988-1996)
The fall of 1988 was a decisive time for the business. Our sales were good but needed to be better. I had to reach a decision on how to grow the business. Should I stay in the books about books field with its relatively limited number of expensive books, branch out into other fields which contained more expensive books, or capitalize on our reputation in this specialized field of books about books and increase the publishing program? History shows that I chose the latter.
In August of 1977, I had reached out to a very fine private press in Loughborough, England, called the Plough Press. Geoffrey Wakeman had been taught letterpress by Philip Gaskell at The College Press in Glasgow. He was an expert in the field of changing printing and illustration technology and issued privately printed books in this field often illustrated with special leaves demonstrating the techniques he was describing. His wife Frances partnered in the press and operated a rare book business under the name Frances Wakeman, Bookseller. I first wrote to them asking if I could buy some of their limited edition books. This letter led to wonderful visits with the Wakemans, first in Loughborough and then in Oxford.
Their youngest son Paul, following in his father’s and mother’s love of the book business, got a degree at Watford College of Technology with a specialty in publishing in 1986. I got to know this young son and much admired his book knowledge and his personality. After obtaining his degree, Paul worked for Macmillan Publishers in London, but upon his father’s death in 1987, he resigned from Macmillan and the London life and went back to Oxford to help his mother during this troubling time. On my next trip to England, I visited Oxford to discuss the possibility of having Paul come to Delaware to work at Oak Knoll to help move the publishing program forward. We worked out the terms, and both of us were ready to start on an exciting new beginning.
Trouble ahead! Tune in next week to read about the unexpected complications that arose before Paul could get started.
The third Oak Knoll publication was also a Christmas keepsake (for 1980) and was an excerpt from Lawrence Block’s The Burglar Who Liked to Quote Kipling, relating a humorous story of what happened to a book thief when caught in Rodenbarr’s bookshop.
This pamphlet was printed by hand by Henry Morris of the Bird & Bull Press. Henry and his wife Pearl were new-found friends in 1980, and Millie, my wife, and I had one of our first dates going to Henry and Pearl’s moving party, as they bid farewell to Elm Street in Philadelphia. It was a great party, involving lots of wine and funny speeches that made no sense whatsoever. But it started a relationship that lead to many publications and the establishment of a friendship that continues stronger than ever.
As is typical with all bookselling businesses, Oak Knoll kept running out of room. From our start in 1976 in the second floor bedroom of my Newark home, we had moved to the renovated two car garage and then to New Castle. The first floor of 414 Delaware Street in New Castle proved to be too small as well, so Millie and I moved our home and the business up the street to 212 Delaware Street in 1985.
This historic house (the Booth house, named after Delaware Chief Justice James Booth) was built in stages with the first section built in 1713, a wing added in 1795, a lawyer’s office added for the Judge and then his son (both Chief Justices) in about 1830, and two additional sections after that. Four rooms had been added behind the lawyer’s office. We bought it in August 1985 from a DuPont attorney whose wife had used the four side rooms for a daycare business.
Millie and I had looked at this house three years earlier but didn’t have the money to buy it. This time around we successfully convinced the bank to lend us the money to buy the house, with the proviso that we would move the business into the daycare center space and sell 414 Delaware Street. Once in there and functioning, I saw that if we could rent out 414 Delaware Street, we could hold on to both properties. Our friend and banker Gordon Pfeiffer had stood by us since the beginning and he came through once again. Renters were quickly found and the old 414 property stayed in the family. Our youngest son, Rob (keep that name in mind!), had been born in July, so he got to live in two homes in his first month.
I also had a new employee start in May of 1986, my father. He just retired this year (2008), thus earning credit as the Oak Knoll employee with the longest tenure. My father and mother moved to New Castle from the Chicago area when my father retired as Director of Research for the Griffin Wheel Company, and Dad immediately started working for me at the bookstore. He was our inventory management person and major fixer-upper. His eldest son (me) happens to be hopeless at mechanical things, so his fix-up skills became an important part of his job description. And when the occasional cash flow problem occurred, I knew where a short-term loan could be procured.
Bob Sr. passed away in June of 2009, and he is greatly missed here at Oak Knoll.
Check back next week for more of Oak Knoll’s history, including the hiring of our first publishing director. If you can’t wait, check out the book on our website.