Dreaming of a store devoted to books about books? Wake up to reality; Oak Knoll Books makes this fantasy come true.
It's the bookshop that every bibliophile secretly fantasises about, and occasionally encounters in a Jorge Luis Borges story. An entire bookstore full of just books about books. Reader, I'm here to tell you that this is no ficcione: such a dream bookshop exists. You will find it in the historic colonial town of Old New Castle in a three-storeyed Opera House built in 1879 where two floors house, in an almost labyrinthine fashion, shelf upon shelf upon shelf of books on books.
Oak Knoll Books has the largest inventory in the world of books on books. Its publishing imprint, Oak Knoll Press, tops even this Borgesian fantasy by being a fine press devoted exclusively to publishing books about books.
I stumbled on Oak Knoll in 2009 when I began noticing that nearly every great book about books I was reading was either something that was bought from their bookstore or published by them. For a time I thought they probably just have a special interest in this genre, but soon it became apparent that there was a method to their bibliographic madness. I became feverish with excitement.
Could it be that Oak Knoll was just all about books about books and nothing else? Was there actually somewhere in the world an Umberto Eco-ish-Borgesian bookseller and publisher crazy – fabulously crazy – enough to give his life over to books on books?
Not long after I started wondering, I found myself in this dream bookstore shaking hands with the owner, Robert Fleck. I told Fleck how awed I felt to be here finally, after being limited to just viewing his bookstore on their website and through catalogues. He was a little taken aback at my zealot's enthusiasm for Oak Knoll when I said it was the bibliographical paradise all bibliophiles dream of. This is where, I exclaimed, old books about books go to live, not die. He laughed and told me I was prejudiced because I liked books about books.
My standard question on entering a new bookstore is: ‘Where are your books about books section?' And what I'm routinely used to (if I don't draw a complete blank) is being directed to one small shelf space of books. But now that I was looking at thousands of books on books I couldn't comprehend it.
I thought I knew the genre well, but even just a few hours spent browsing here made me realise I knew nothing at all. For every single title I recognised here, I didn't know hundreds.
My familiarity was limited to popular books on collectors and collecting; here, however, were hundreds of scholarly titles and antiquarian accounts on the subject. And thousands of books on book arts: print culture, book history, bibliography, libraries, book design and binding, typography, private press, illustration, calligraphy, bookplates, and papermaking.
Though a chemical engineer by training in the 1970s, Fleck found himself increasingly drawn to the antiquarian book trade. An impassioned collector of books about books, he noticed there wasn't a single bookstore anywhere that specialised in stocking book arts.
In 1976 he took the plunge and opened Oak Knoll Books, making it a one-stop shop for books on book and bibliography. And in 1978, Fleck began Oak Knoll Press, focusing entirely on printing and publishing books on book titles.
Collaborating with established publishers, he began with reprinting the great classics of the genre such as Bigmore and Wyman's A Bibliography of Printing, the definitive work on printing history, and Fredson Bower's masterpiece, Principles of Bibliographical Description, again the best known book on the subject.
In the early 1990s, Oak Knoll had a breakthrough when Fleck, along with Nicolas Barker, the editor of The Book Collector(the leading journal on bibliophily), persuaded Eton College, the literary estate of John Carter, to let them reprintABC for Collectors, perhaps the finest book on books ever published.
It is with this edition that Oak Knoll Press comes into its own: the reprint is beautifully and stylishly designed. Carter's primer on collecting finally gets its bibliographic due in this elegant Oak Knoll makeover. (What a great pity that this legendary bookman is not alive to behold this deluxe edition).
It's often been said of ABC for Collectorsthat ‘if you have one book about books in your library, this is the one'. To this I'd like to add, ‘if you have one edition of this book about books in your library, the Oak Knoll is the one.'
It was clear that there had all along been a great void in the book trade that Oak Knoll was now filling, because Robert Fleck and his team found a deep and wide customer base for their books.
Soon Oak Knoll had the largest stock in every category of books on books, while scholars and writers from all different countries were either submitting their manuscripts here or making book proposals.
Oak Knoll now publishes more than 40 books on books a year! This is staggering, both in volume and quality, since so many of them are fine press books, painstakingly designed and printed. Oak Knoll is a member of the International League of Antiquarian Booksellers, and Fleck once served as its president.
One of a kind festival
Fleck's commitment to private and fine press has deepened over the years with the Oak Knoll Fest, a one-of-a-kind book festival held every year in the cobblestoned town of New Castle, where master printers from over the world gather to exhibit their newest work.
‘It's a celebration of the art of fine press bookmaking,' says Fleck, ‘where participants can browse exhibits from artisans specialising in engraving, binding, papermaking and letterpress. Our mission is to publish books that preserve the art and lore of the printed word.'
As mission statements go, I said to him, reluctantly leaving the bookstore, this one will keep in an e-book world.
Keywords: Oak Knoll Books