The first day of real Oak Knoll Fest 18 followed the prequel, described below. The real thing began with speakers on Saturday morning, followed by the book fair, held at the New Castle senior center, where it has been held in recent years. The town cooperated by providing additional distraction and entertainment in the form of a bicycle race and a beer festival on the town green.
After Bob Fleck’s welcome, Russell Maret jovially harangued the audience to renew its individual FPBA memberships at the fair [which many did].
He then introduced Carolee Campbell, who let us in on her life both before and after discovering book making. It was news to me, but she had been something of a TV star, winning an Emmy and spending 9 years on the soap opera “The Doctors,” on NBC. She even treated us to a few tabloid covers featuring her smiling face. Even earlier, she had been associated with the Actor’s Studio, of which she was elected a lifetime member.
While she was acting, she was also taking photographs. She was very fond of the out-of-doors, and took as many trips as possible to beautiful sites in California.
She liked telling a story with photos, and thought that binding them into a book might be a good way, so she took a book-binding class, which she found more interesting than she had expected. She decided her pictures could use some words, and thought of poetry. She then took the transformative step of taking a class from Harry Reese [of Turkey Press] at UC Santa Barbara.
For the remainder of her talk, Campbell took us through some of her books, explaining the process involved in each. These days, she tries to do a book every year. They are almost always of poetry, so a major part of the process is absorbing the poem or poems themselves. Often the typography comes next, before the form of the book has been settled upon. (Generally, she tries to work with metal type she already possesses.) One step at a time, elements of the design come into focus: size, texture, illustration. This of course occurs while the work on another project, in production, is going on.
Her working setup probably made many printers in the audience jealous. She is able to do parts of the process outdoors in the California air. In a recent year, she was able to watch a pair of hummingbirds build a nest, lay their eggs, and fledge their young in a small tree right near where she was at work! She showed pictures; if my memory serves, they were from the production of The Persephones, which involved some most unusual “illustration” processes, including a combination of sumi paints with coarse salt.
Next up Saturday morning was John Randle. (He had spoken at the first Oak Knoll Fest. This supplied food for speculation that this was going to be the last. But the Flecks, father and son, kept tight lips on the topic, at least in my hearing.)
He started earlier, with a few glimpses of early printing projects carried out while a student at Marlborough College–not a college in the American sense, but a boarding school. The print shop there was not part of the formal curriculum, so it presented considerable freedom. Students organized themselves to put out publications, which were sometimes ambitious. He showed booklets they had produced including one of poems by Siegfried Sassoon, who had also attended the school. He told a story about a publication done there which became a great collector’s item as the writer’s first publication–I cannot tell from my notes, but perhaps it was William Golding. “Keep your early work,” was Randle’s advice to the printers in the audience.
After school, Randle did work he found uninteresting on “Fleet Street,” perhaps because it was trade publishing, not newspapers. He determined to drive to India, with a side trip to Burma to visit his father’s grave. While on the trip, he was “haunted” by the vision of starting his own press. He remembered a gardener’s cottage at Whittington house, which belonged to a relative. The relative wasn’t using the cottage, and didn’t mind if he set up shop there. There followed a hectic period when he and his wife Rosalind worked the week in London and drove to the Cotswolds to print on weekends.
Eventually they bought a house nearby, and made Whittington Press their living. He told the story they tell on their web site: the “first book, Richard Kennedy’s A Boy at the Hogarth Press, which took a year of weekends and holidays to print in an edition of 525 copies on an 1848 Columbian hand-press, proved to be that rare event in the private press world, a best seller (it was re-issued by Penguin the same year, and in 2011 by Hesperus Press, with a foreword by John Randle), and encouraged us to make the Press a full-time activity in 1974.”
Matrix, their annual journal of fine printing, came along in 1985. He distinguishes it from their “books,” though the journal itself comes out in book form. “Book projects are so scary, you don’t even want to work out the finances before you start,” he admitted.
He provided a number of other insightful tidbits. –Vance Gerry (Disney employee and part-time printer) was the most inspiring printer he ever worked with. –You should buy a press whose bed is four times the size you need to print. That is the only way it will have the solidness required. –The press building (now greatly enlarged from the original gardener’s cottage) harbors many paper-eating snails. For that reason, the books are stored elsewhere. –They have an old Wharfedale and a new Heidelberg. –Harold Berliner’s collection of Monotype matrices are now in Switzerland. –Randle likes New Castle enough that he printed Miriam Macgregor’s account, New Castle, a brief encounter, which you can pick up online for $675 to $1000. –John makes the books, and Rosalind does the rest. –The target (not always met) in pricing is to charge three times costs. This compares to commercial publishers, who use a multiple of six or seven. “But the only safe way to price is to put yourself in the customer’s shoes,” he says.
There is at least the possibility that Whittington will continue past the reign of John and Rosalind. Their son, Patrick, now works at the press. He has become its voice in outreach to a younger generation, and spearheads the annual “open day” every September, attracting a large number of printers to sell their wares. Frequently he works on posters. (I believe it is a Patrick lockup pictured at right.)
With Randle’s conclusion, the main event began. My coverage of the book fair is mainly photographic, and can be found on the FPBA Facebook page.
The last day of the Fest featured a retrospective talk by Bob Fleck, telling the story of how he came to start his bookselling and publishing business and the pleasures it has provided him over the years. (To some, this was another hint that this might be the final Oak Knoll Fest.)
Fleck was a chemical engineer, as had been his father before him. He had several employers, but his last, Getty Oil, transferred him to Delaware. The love of books, and particularly books on bibliography, had been growing. The late A. Edward Newton, who wrote Amenities of Book Collecting, was a hero. “I quit on Friday, and on Monday I was a bookseller,” Fleck said. The first step, buying into Horseshoe Lane Books in Newark, Delaware, proved to be a false start. So he started his own store, naming it after Oak Knoll, Newton’s property in Pennsylvania.
Though he sold a bit of literature at first, books on books soon made up the majority of his inventory. An early highlight was acquiring the library of Alida Rooschvarg. No sooner had she sold it to him, than she set about acquiring a second one, which Fleck sold, too. Altogether, she built six libraries, and he sold them all. “She cried each time we took one away,” he said.
For a store selling heavy objects, Oak Knoll has been remarkably peripatetic, but practically all the locations have been within a few blocks on Delaware Street in New Castle. Sometimes the Flecks (for there is a Millie in this story as well) have lived above the store, but now they have a very pretty, very old, house a block away, and the store is on the second and third floors of a former Masonic lodge known as “the opera house.”
Fleck added a related publishing arm in 1978, and has built up a backlist of over 1000 titles either published or distributed. He is also justifiably proud of his role with book-related organizations. He has been president of both the Antiquarian Booksellers’ Association of America and the International League of Antiquarian Booksellers. He was president of ABAA the year that ILAB came to the United States, and showed us pictures of the event in Santa Monica, California. And he is also proud of being the host of the 1997 book fair at which our own organization, FPBA, was cooked up. He showed a photo of the very first meeting in his home.
He started holding Oak Knoll Fests in 1993, and we were treated to many photos of exhibitors looking much younger than we do today. And speaking of young, sitting right the front row was Robert D. Fleck: the third, his son, who is now in charge of the antiquarian bookselling division of Oak Knoll.
After Fleck’s talk, it was time for the second and final day of the Fest, which is pictured on the FPBA Facebook pages.