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”!
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!
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.