Volume 6, Number 2, 1997

Bibliophile assembles books about books

Mention that someone is a seller of antiquarian books and the image most likely conjured up is of an old man in a tattered sweater, sitting in a dark room lined with shelves of musty books.

Well, the walls at Oak Knoll Books in New Castle, Del., are lined with thousands of old books and Bob Fleck Jr., Delaware '69, does have gray hair, but nothing else about the stereotype is accurate.

On a recent weekday, with light snow coating the brick sidewalk outside Fleck's store, the well-lit interior hummed with activity. Throughout the building, staff members were busy filling orders, cataloging acquisitions and wrapping books to be shipped to customers throughout the world. Computers sat prominently on every desk.

Fleck, founder and president of Oak Knoll Books, earned a bachelor's degree in chemicalengineering from the University and went on to earn a master's in the same field from the University of Virginia. But, after six years in various engineering positions, including a stint at the oil refinery in Delaware City and a management job for Air Products & Chemicals, he decided engineering was not his first love. He didn't much like working for others, either.

"I was frustrated, because I always wanted to move a little faster than the person I was working for wanted me to move," Fleck says. "I just thought I could do better doing something on my own.

"And, I especially loved books. As soon as I had a couple of dollars, after I got my first job, that is, I started collecting books." After five years, he had accumulated enough books to fund his new business by selling off the modern literature and using his collection of "books about books" as the initial inventory for his new company. There were already many booksellers dealing in modern literature, Fleck explained, but no one was specializing in books about books.

The migration of Oak Knoll's corporate headquarters illustrates the growth of the business. Launched from the bedroom of Fleck's home in 1976, the company quickly outgrew that space and moved downstairs to the living room, then outside to a transformed two-car garage. Within three years, Fleck required space in a separate building. Today, Oak Knoll occupies a four-story building, and books yet to be cataloged have overflowed to two warehouses.

Over the years, Fleck's staff also has grown. Among his nine employees are two Delaware alumni: Andy Armacost, Delaware '92, '95M, director of antiquarian sales, and Esther Fan, Delaware '93 and current BFA student, who is director of publicity and marketing. Several of Fleck's family members also are alumni, including his wife, Millie Williams Fleck, Delaware '76, and two of his four children, Paul, Delaware '88, and Jenni, Delaware '95.

Fleck's inventory includes 10,000 antiquarian and out-of-print titles on the history of the book and the various book arts. The publishing arm of the company, Oak Knoll Press, publishes and distributes more than 100 additional titles in these same fields.

Despite the specialized subject matter, Oak Knoll has a surprising variety of books-everything from 15th-century manuscripts to Greek Letters, a collection of typographical scholarship released by Oak Knoll Press in February. On the shelves are 19th- and 20th-century paper specimens, bibliographies, books on how to detect forgeries, volumes on bookbinding, design and the graphic arts, examples of fine printing and many other book-related subjects.

Since the company's humble beginnings more than 20 years ago, its significance and reputation have grown.

"Oak Knoll is far and away the biggest and best in the field of books about books," according to Nicholas Basbanes, author of A Gentle Madness, the best-seller about books and book collecting. He said Fleck contributed to the success of his book by recommending essential texts and by putting him in contact with collectors.

Patrons of Oak Knoll Books include more than 4,000 private collectors, libraries and other dealers, with 800 overseas customers. The UD library, with its excellent collection on the book arts and the history of printing and publishing, is a client.

Fleck has agreed to donate the archives of Oak Knoll Books to the University's Special Collections. These include materials of historical importance, such as business records, correspondence, advertising and other pieces pertaining to books published by Oak Knoll Press. Tim Murray, head of Special Collections, says the Oak Knoll archives will supplement the library's wide variety of archival collections, which include those of presses, publishing companies and various Delaware corporations.

Oak Knoll Press, which began publishing in 1978, now accounts for 40 percent of the company's business. It publishes 15 books per year, with average print runs of 2,000 to 3,000. Among the popular titles are Women Bookbinders, a history of female craft bookbinders at the turn of the century, and Old Books in the Old World, an account-through diaries, letters and recollections- of the experiences of two respected book dealers in post-World War II Europe.

Oak Knoll Press also distributes books for such publishers as the Bibliographic Society of America, the American Antiquarian Society and the Private Library Association.

Fleck's reputation in the antiquarian book world has risen along with his company's. He currently serves as president of the Antiquarian Booksellers Association of America (ABAA), a trade organization with 450 members in the United States. An advocate of computerization in the antiquarian book world, Fleck numbers among his proudest accomplishments the development of an ABAA web site on the Internet.

"Eventually, the goal is to have as much of our inventories online and easily searchable as possible," he says. "Whether some people like that or not, that's the way of the future."

-Theresa Gawlas Medoff, Delaware '94