Bob Fleck, the founder of Oak Knoll Books in New Castle, Delaware recently passed by one of those milestones you cannot quickly reach, the issuance of his 300th catalogue. Few houses get this far and many that have are now the famous, even storied stalwarts of the valuable and collectible book field. Maggs Brothers, Sotherans, and Bernard Quaritch in London, George MacManus in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, and Goodspeed’s in Boston come to mind as prolific multi-generational booksellers who have reached this mark. There are others of course but its an exclusive group. Like hitting 300 major league home runs it takes skill, luck and many years.
Bob, an engineer by training and a bibliophile himself, brought a flexible approach to his business that has helped him find success into his fourth decade as a bookseller. “Staying relevant has required staying focused. The business has been changing.”
He recalls posting his material on line for the first time in the mid-1980s. “It was easy then. There weren’t so many listings.” Over the past 10 years it has become much more competitive.
Since 1978 he’s also been publishing as the Oak Knoll Press and found the symbiotic relationship of these businesses beneficial to both. The Press publishes about 25 titles a year.
Looking ahead he’s optimistic and explains, “It’s in my nature. I see possibilities.” His son Rob, now 27, is working with him and this is something he appreciates.
Reflecting on the many changes since he started in 1976 he mentions the slow decline in traditional book fairs and bookshops. An ever-higher percentage of our sales are on line and subject to very competitive pricing but also notes that the Oak Knoll Fest [XVIII] with symposiums and discussions that he runs in New Castle [and just completed recently] is very strong. “It’s part of being flexible.”
Catalogues of course remain important although the number of catalogues issued has declined. “For years we issued 12 a year. This year its 4.” The business is increasingly online.
It is perhaps best to think of Bob as a bronco rider. He knows how to ride but you never really know the horse. The book field is like that anymore. It changes and Bob is an old hand at adjusting.
For the signal event of issuing his 300th catalogue his team has assembled a 271 item, 152 page full color 8x11” catalogue. It includes material in many of the categories he has been active in over the past 36 years:
Book Collecting, Bookselling and Publishing History
Book and Graphic Design
Private and Fine Press
Reference and Bibliography
Writing and Calligraphy
Here are links to Catalogue 300. You can order by phone or email. On the Oak Knoll site you can also search all of their roughly 22,000 items.
The Oak Knoll website: http://www.oakknoll.com/