Collecting and Creating
When Bob Fleck opened Oak Knoll Books in 1976, he turned his passion as a collector into a profession as a bookseller. Filling what he saw as a gap in the market, Fleck focused his inventory on books about books: the making of, the collecting of, and the publishing of books. His son, Robert Fleck, continues this collecting philosophy today, serving as Antiquarian Director of Oak Knoll Books. Inherent in the notion of books about books is the importance of books as objects, and not simply books as texts. Below, hear Robert Fleck discuss this idea.
The importance of books as objects is also seen in Oak Knoll's trade catalogues.
To advertise and explain to potential customers what an inventory of books about books would be, Oak Knoll Books used, of course, books. Today, in the age of the internet, their collections are available through a searchable online database here, but Oak Knoll does still issue antiquarian book catalogues and some mini-catalogs listing imprint titles.
Throughout the years, the trade catalogues themselves have changed little. Their covers, which vary in paper color, stock, and texture, feature a colonial print of a bustling town, labeled “Hill’s Boswell,” in which men and women in colonial garb pass through a bustling city street. The immediate impression is one of busyness and excitement.
The first catalogue, likely published in the early 1980s, lists 781 books for sale. Bibliographies are specifically listed in the introductory page, but in later catalogues, there are many pages of bibliographies. Other subjects presented in the catalogue include the intricacies of autograph collecting, book repair and restoration, and facsimiles of the Gutenberg Bible (In fact, Oak Knoll later offered a catalog devoted to the Gutenberg Bible). Pamphlets, plates, and catalogs are presented alongside more traditional books about various literary subjects.
These entries are, and continue to be, more than simply a list of books. Each contains a description and a note on condition, and the more exciting of the bunch undergo a kind of connoisseurship. Descriptors used include “interesting,” “charming,” or “a tale of excess bibliomania if there is such a thing,” the latter in reference to Eugene Field’s The Love Affairs of a Bibliomaniac, entry number 195 in Catalogue 2.
Some books are listed for content rather than the quality of their binding or the rarity of the book. After all, the books are collected based upon the criterion that they are indeed about books, a facet of Oak Knoll's collecting that cannot be ignored. On page 21 of Catalogue 1, entry number 212 lists a book by Constance F. Gordon-Cumming, The Inventor of the Numerical Type for China: By the Use of Which Illiterate Chinese Blind and Sighted Can Very Quickly Be Taught to Read and Write Fluently. But there seems to be more to this practice than simply the collecting of books whose contents is about books. There is a deep interest in the book itself illustrated by this searching for books as objects. The book trade tracks the physical movement of these objects, and their perceived worth, while information on publishing focuses on what exactly was created when the objecthood of a book was brought into being.
What are some of the physical components of a book? Click to find out!
Oak Knoll's publishing practices speak to the same values as the collecting practices described above. The company works with such institutions as the British Library, the Library of Congress, the American Antiquarian Society, and the Bibliographical Society of America - institutions that clearly value books.
Oak Knoll Press opened as a publishing counterpart to Oak Knoll Books in 1978. As of 1988, most of Oak Knoll’s revenue was still derived from antiquarian book sales; between 1985 and 1988 it had only published three titles, and 18 titles total. In 1991, six titles were produced, demonstrating a slight increase in publishing. In 1996 Oak Knoll published 14 titles, 17 in 1998, and 23 in 1999, continuing the steady increase in dedication to publication. Today, Oak Knoll Press publishes about 35 titles per year, with subjects ranging from important book collectors to book construction to the architecture of libraries. To learn more about Oak Knoll's current publications, click here.