Oak Knoll is turning 30 in May, 2006. Could there possibly be a better way to celebrate that special event than to issue a private press keepsake of significant text and delightful design by one of our most respected authors and collectors? Konstantinos Staikos has become more than an author to Oak Knoll; he is our Greek friend who represents all that we admire most in this book world of ours. In addition to being a noted architect he has found time to write many significant texts on the history of the library, form an important book collection, purchase and save a Greek letter-press printing company, establish a noted publishing house and develop a web based information resource for the study of library history. Personal experience has shown him to be the most congenial of hosts with a dining room whose front window opens to a spectacular view of the Acropolis.
Oak Knoll was started in 1976 out of the second floor bedroom of a house in the University of Delaware town of Newark. I had graduated from the University's Chemical Engineering program in 1969, gone to the University of Virginia for a MChe in 1970 and then returned to Delaware to work for Getty Oil Company. As soon as I had more than one dollar in my pocket, I began to collect books. I collected the authors that I loved to read - Hemingway, Steinbeck, Faulkner, Bellow, etc. And who could resist buying and reading the reminiscences of book-collectors and book-sellers! This fellow A. Edward Newton really struck a resonate note with me when he wrote about the collecting of English literature. His obvious joy in the pursuit of his collection exudes from every page of his books.
The year 1976 was a turning point for me as I was being transferred to Air Products and Chemicals' headquarters in Allentown, P A (I had started working for them a year earlier) and I didn't want to move. My wife and I had established what was then a small chain of child daycare centers in Delaware and we didn't want to leave that. And more importantly, I had grown increasingly tired of a life of travel in a field that just didn't interest me. I announced my resignation from my engineering job on a Friday and on that next Monday I became a bookseller. I named my business "Oak Knoll Books" after A. Edward Newton's home in Paoli, PA. The picture used on the front cover of catalogue Number One pictured a slightly revised version of one of Newton's bookplate, an image I still use on many of the catalogues that I issue. All of my literature collections were either sold or traded to dealers for books about books, a field that I thought was un-developed at the time. This was going to be my field of specialization and I was either going to sink or swim with my plan. As you know, we have stayed the course with slight variations and permutations all of these years. By the time this keepsake reaches you, we will probably have produced 275 antiquarian catalogues which means we have bought and sold a lot of books about books over our 30 years.
I have always thought that it is difficult to keep a business healthy unless it was being grown. My decision on growing our business was to develop Oak Knoll Press, a natural adjunct to Oak Knoll Books. We had a wonderful and loyal customer list of people interested in the books about books field. Wouldn't this list be interested in newly published titles in the same field? Fortunately for us they were and now Oak Knoll Press publishes about 35 new titles every year. As the academic publishers have consolidated, died off or, in the case of university presses, be required to make a profit, the possible publishers for new books in the book history field has decreased. I think Oak Knoll Press has helped fill a gap in what is increasing thought of as an important field in the study of our civilization. We also became the official distributors of most of the important bibliographical organizations in the English language which helps them sell the books that they produce. The synergy of selling both new and old books to our specialized collectors has worked well for us.
I'll end my remarks with some philosophical thoughts on our book world today. I've always believed in having the most technologically advanced business possible as I would rather spend my time in buying and selling books rather than in the mundane paperwork that accompanies day to day business. Perhaps it was my engineering training that pushed me in that direction. We were among the first to get a computer, to have a data base of books, to have a searchable web site and to have frequent email campaigns (how dare you call it spam!!). I joined our national group of booksellers, the Antiquarian Booksellers Association of America (ABAA), as soon as I was permitted as I saw that this group had real power to educate, enforce ethical standards and allow me to interact and learn from like minded people. My "cry to arms" to that group was the need to develop an impressive web site that could be used to tell the book-buyer what we stood far as an organization and perhaps sell books while doing it. Those that issue challenges seem to be picked to make them happen, so I was elected to serve as President of the ABAA (1996-1998). The web has had effects across country borders that couldn't have been envisioned when I first started business. The ABAA is one of 20 countries in the International League of Antiquarian Booksellers (ILAB). As the influence of the internet has spread. both its good and bad points have spread as well. The consumer finds it much easier to buy a book today, but often the standards and knowledge of the person selling the book do not reflect the years of training that once were required to become a bookseller. The internet is at once the biggest challenge the ILAB has ever faced yet could also be its greatest friend. I care very much how my profession survives and want to take an active role in finding solutions for its survival. To this end I was elected President of the ILAB in 2002 re-elected in 2004 and will finish my Presidency in 2006. I admit to being proud that the countries elected me, as I was only the second American to hold this position, the other being in 1952.
We seem to be at a turning point for our profession. Can we continue to unite the 20 countries under the ILAB umbrella and enforce our standards and proclaim our knowledge to the world in a way that gets the worlds attention? I think we can and plan on spending my next 30 years doing just that while occasionally selling a book or two.
And of course none of the past, present or future would have been possible without "Your Oakknollers" as we so often proclaim in our emails. My thanks go out to each person who works with me. But I reserve my most heart-felt thanks to my most special Oakknoller, my wife Millie For her 24 years of support.
Robert D. Fleck