Former president of the ABAA Robert D. Fleck died yesterday.
Fleck founded Oak Knoll Books in 1976, and Oak Knoll Press two years later. The publishing operation was intended to fill a need he saw for books about book collecting, design, and bibliography. Fleck was extremely well-known and respected throughout the international antiquarian community, serving as president of both the ABAA and the ILAB during his long career. Just last year, he was awarded the ILAB Medal “in recognition of services rendered to the International League of Antiquarian Booksellers.”
His son, Rob Fleck, posted this announcement on the Oak Knoll Books website:
A memorial service will be held Tuesday, September 27, 2016 at the Arsenal at New Castle, 30 Market Street, New Castle, DE. Visitation will be from 10am to 12pm, with the service beginning at 12pm. Burial will be private.
In lieu of flowers, the family asks that donations be made to The New Castle Historical Society, The University of Delaware Library Special Collections, or the ILAB Benevolent Fund.
Robert D. Fleck, Jr., of New Castle, Delaware, passed away after a brief battle with cancer, on Thursday, September 22, 2016. Robert was born on February 4, 1947 and was the son of the late Robert D. Fleck, Sr. and the late Mollie Reeves Fleck.
Bob graduated from University of Delaware in 1969 with a BS in Chemical Engineering and from University of Virginia in 1971 with an MS, also in Chemical Engineering. He worked only briefly as an engineer before deciding to follow his passion for books.
Bob founded and spent 40 years running Oak Knoll Books as an antiquarian book dealer. He specialized in the field of books about books; essentially the history of all aspects of book making, including printing, typography, binding, design and papermaking. Bob was also lucky enough to have his son Rob join him in business at Oak Knoll after Rob graduated from the University of Delaware.
When not involved with business or books, Bob enjoyed his Friday night dates with his wife Millie, playing tennis, watching sunsets with a glass of wine at their beach house in Fenwick, watching Phillies games, and spending time with family, especially his grandchildren.
Bob is survived by his loving wife of 34 years, Mildred Williams Fleck, as well as by his children, Wendy (LV) Killen, Paul (Amy) Fleck, Jenni (Adam) Fleck Jones, Robert D. (Lauren) Fleck, III and seven grandchildren. Bob is also survived by two brothers, E. Thomas (Sylvia) Fleck and David Fleck.
In 2014, Robert Fleck was interviewed about his career during the New York Antiquarian Book Fair.
We invite those who knew Robert D. Fleck to share their memories in the comments. You can also email your memories to firstname.lastname@example.org and they will be added to this page.
I was shocked and dismayed to hear of Bob's death. Although I hadn't seen him that frequently in the last couple of years, we spent several years working on the ILAB Committee together, and he was a remarkable individual. A gentleman, patient and respectful, he did as much for ILAB and the book trade as anyone else I can think of, and with his understanding of computers and the electronic media brought us all into the "modern age."
My sincere and heartfelt sympathies to Millie, Rob, and Bob's entire family. He was a good man and will be sorely missed.
-- Helen Kahn of Helen R. Kahn & Assoc. Inc.
What an extraordinary gift Fleck's life and passions have been to so many people who love books. After dreaming my way through Oak Knoll catalogs for years, I finally had the chance to visit in person a couple of years ago. I had no appointment, just a new research project in book history to explore: after a few queries with helpful store staff, I found myself talking directly with Mr. Fleck himself: he listened, asked a few probing questions, and then made deeply helpful suggestions for connections and directions I might go. I'm still benefitting from his advice. I'll always be grateful for his kindness and for his accessibility, and for the passion that resulted in Oak Knoll: a haven and vital crossroads for so many aspects of book history, bibliophilia, typography and on and on.
His legacy will be deep and enduring.
-- Barbara Williams Ellertson of BASIRA Project: Books as Symbols in Renaissance Art
Like everyone else who has posted on Bob’s passing, I was shocked and greatly saddened. I worked closely with Bob for over 12 years on the ABAA Board. I was his vice president when he served as President and cannot remember anything but his generosity of spirit and willingness to help the organization and his fellow booksellers. He and Millie generously hosted Executive Committee meetings at their home in New Castle, as well as Oak Knoll Fest – always with unfailing good humor – not to mention good food and drink. Bob was a wonderful colleague and friend to many of us, and he will be sorely missed.
Dan and I send our sympathies to Millie and his family and colleagues at Oak Knoll.
-- Priscilla Juvelis of Priscilla Juvelis, Inc.
Like the rest of the trade, I was shocked to hear of Bob Fleck’s passing on 22 Sept. He was only a few months older than I. A sobering, depressing fact.
I first met Bob in, I believe, late 2001, when I was at an ILAB meeting. I was stunned to soon after get a phone call asking me to serve as ILAB General Secretary. I immediately declined on the grounds of incompetence, but Bob can be persuasive, so I gave in and agreed. I then served two terms in that office (2002-05) under Bob Fleck, President. He was the first American President in over 40 years, which was justifiably the source of some sourness within ABAA, by far ILAB’s largest member. Bob was very dynamic and worked very hard to promote ILAB. He ushered us into the age of the internet, hiring Rockingstone from the Netherlands to be our web master and build us a searchable website. This was achieved despite some skepticism and resistance from some ILAB members. We started a stolen books database, which project was on my shoulders. It was pretty lively at the beginning as we had more than one fraudster trying to game us. He secured stable funding for the bibliography prize. He worked his Committee to death (this was before ILAB had the extremely able Nevine Marchiset as a full time Secretary). Yours truly knew almost nothing about word processing - or computers in general - and preparing the minutes of numerous meetings, and reams of other paperwork, was a real challenge for me, to say the least. He was always thinking of things to improve our lot, was never static.
A couple of memories stand out: Bob playing a furious game of tennis against Robert Frew at a resort in the Laurentians in early autumn at the time of the Presidents’ Meeting in Montréal. He was pretty agile for a short, stocky guy. It was a gorgeous day, the leaves beginning to turn in the low hills, some of us having a swim in a cold lake, relieving the tension of travel and meetings. When the planned ILAB Congress in the USA fell through, he generously arranged for the Presidents to meet at his home in New Castle. One of the events was a cruise on the historic Delaware River in a boat tricked out as a pirate ship. Being booksellers, some of us found that a certain amount of role-playing came naturally. As a fellow North American with a similar vision about the internet, Bob and I were allies. A couple of times Bob phoned me to more or less hold his hand when he was feeling a bit insecure, wondering if the Committee hated him. I always told him “Bob, you are my President and I am your lieutenant. Unless you propose something really screwy, you will always have my support.” I felt really honored to receive those calls.
Robert D. Fleck, Jr. was one of the giants of my generation of booksellers. He achieved so very much in his too-short life. We are all very grateful for the fact of Bob Fleck’s time among us. Let us think of all he did for the trade and not be too sad to lose him now. A great man, a great life.
-- Steven Temple of Steven Temple Books
When I was a rare book librarian at University of Houston (1972-1978) I was determined to build up their weak bibliographical holdings. My memory is foggy on how Bob and I crossed paths (AB Weekly?), but once we did, he was a great help and offered suggestions and kept me supplied with an endless stream of quotes—photocopied index card descriptions of $10 to $25 items like Douglas McMurtrie pamphlets, A. Edward Newton stuff, author and subject bibs, and bookseller memoirs (that’s how it was back then). If I had a question he knew the answer. Most of that stuff was new to me then and Bob’s enthusiasm was infectious — I tried to read all of it before cataloging it. What an education!
Others will rightly remember his tireless efforts on behalf of the ABAA and ILAB, but I will always be grateful for his cheerfully nudging me toward bibliography.
He became a fixture in the book trade and at bookfairs, and now he’s gone. It just does not seem possible.
— Kevin Mac Donnell
We first met Bob in 1975 when he was still a chemical engineer and a collector of A. S. W. Rosenbach and A. Edward Newton. He was a good customer and became a good colleague when he started Oak Knoll the following year and has been a good friend. Over the forty years we've known each other there has been a three-week book buying trip to England by the two Bobs, weekends spent with his family and a memorable Thanksgiving. Yesterday's phone call was a devastating shock and painful to absorb. Our thoughts are with Millie and Rob and the staff at Oak Knoll.
— Christine and Bob Liska of the Colophon Bookshop
I first met Bob when I was a kid in the late 1970s and got to know him much better when working together on the Board of Governors. In the early days of the internet when the trade was transitioning to a new way of selling, he was a major and calming figure in making that happen internationally. I am glad that I had been in touch with him in the last year over such diverse subjects as the golden age of jeweled bindings, and attempting to publicize Oak Knoll’s recent book on the history of books about film. Bob’s ability to laugh easily and heartily I always enjoyed. Going to book fairs over the decades there is a coterie of people you know you will see there as the bulwarks of the trade. A large and stable pillar is now missing. Rest in peace.
— James Pepper
Bob and Millie came to Columbus in February of 2014 when Bob made a wonderfully memorable presentation to the Aldus Society. He described his history in the trade and all the changes, including locations, that Oak Knoll had experienced. It was a great evening -- one that all in attendance will appreciate even more with this sad news. Bob was planning to return to Columbus for the international library conference just five weeks ago and we were looking forward to getting together.
As so many have already said -- he was a kind and generous man and a great bookseller.
Deepest condolences to Millie and Rob and all at Oak Knoll.
— Ed Hoffman of Hoffman Books
I share the general sadness and shock at Bob's passing and want to lend my voice to the record of his generosity and kindness, as well as to his unrelenting efforts to nurture and promote the ABAA and ILAB, particularly through the transition to the internet age. Bob was tireless, cheery, and never failed to offer helpful and supportive advice. When I was on the Board of Governors, and especially when I was President of ABAA, I turned to Bob on many occasions for information and advice and he was generous and helpful beyond all reasonable expectations. His death is a loss to all of us but particularly to Millie and Rob, to whom I send my deepest condolences.
— Ken Lopez
I didn’t know Bob well, but his smiling face and welcoming presence at the book fairs was always a source of reassurance to me. He always had the time to greet me and make me feel a part of the community of book dealers of which he was preeminent member. Thank you, Bob.
— Boris Bruton of Plaza Books
I will miss Bob, who has been an indispensable part of my bookselling life for forty years. I first met Bob when I started working for MacManus in 1976. Bob was a not infrequent visitor, and I was introduced to him as a former chemical engineer, who loved A. Edward Newton, among other early Twentieth Century collector/writers who wrote “books about books”. I was familiar with the genre, which at the time, and with exceptions like Wolf & Fleming’s biography of A. S. W. Rosenbach, seemed a bit quaint and old-fashioned to me. But those books that told wonderful stories about the joys of books and book collectors, and their occasional vicissitudes, were still very much a part of the book collecting community’s history, and its life and spirit. And Bob’s pleasure in these books was palpable, and a delight to see. It wasn’t until I began my own business in 1982, however, that I really began to understand what books about books were, and that Bob’s passion for them was far from quaint and old-fashioned. I quickly realized that books about books – especially bibliographies - were the basis and backbone of any serious book business, and that they far transcended any fad or flavor of the month in the world of modern first editions; and whenever I needed a bibliography I was almost always able to buy it from Bob. Over the years, I realized that Bob was the backbone of the rare book business, a man whose breadth of passion and interest encompassed the entire world of books, and continued to sustain it in an age in which technology seemed sure to bury the book forever. I will miss Bob. I’m sure we will all miss him.
— James Jaffe of James S. Jaffe Rare Books
I did not know Bob Fleck as well as I would have liked… as well as I should have… but I respected him greatly.
When I was doing my last (presumably) turn on the board, Bob was President. Although he and I did not agree on every matter that came before us, there was never a single doubt that whatever Bob did or proposed was what he thought would be good for the ABAA, and good for the book trade… and as the saying goes, he was able to disagree without being disagreeable.
What a genial gentleman… and what a career of accomplishment.
Many (most?) of us in this business, regardless of our success or lack thereof, probably won't leave much of a footprint after we are gone. Bob Fleck is an exception to that… in my lifetime I don't think there's been another person who has done so much good for the rare book trade as Bob Fleck.
His passing is a great loss… personal and professional… to so many. He will long be missed by many of us, but he will be commemorated and honored even longer.
— Taylor Bowie
I wish to add my condolences and remembrances to those already posted. It's hard for me to visualize Bob without a broad smile on his face. It's hard for me to consider an ABAA and ILAB without Bob's very considerable contributions. Great guy, great bookman, what else is there to say?
— Ed Glaser
Like everyone else, we were stunned by Bob's passing. He was a great guy and a great bookman. We'd known him since his first catalogue was issued back in 1976. He gave us so much encouragement. Both as book collectors and potential booksellers. We still have many of the terrific books he sold us. After Kathy and I had been in the book business for about 14 year, Bob started 'nagging" us to join the ABAA. Every time we would call to order a book from him, he'd say "when are you going to apply?" (I'm not a 'joiner' by nature). Bob persisted for years until we finally joined in 1998. (And so glad we did.) We wonder how many other booksellers Bob "nagged" into joining the ABAA. Thank you Bob for all the books and encouragement you gave to us. You will be missed. Our deepest condolences to Rob and all his family members.
— Tom Stransky of Midway Used and Rare Books
Sad and shocking news! Bob was a fine man, an enjoyable companion, and an ornament to the international book trade. He will be greatly missed.
We extend our heartfelt sympathies to the Fleck family.
— Rusty and Veta Mott of the Howard Mott Co.
We were so very sorry to hear of Bob’s passing… One of the brightest stars in the antiquarian bookselling galaxy is now dark… His name was one with the rare book world in our minds, having started our business just a year after he started his own in 1976. A seemingly permanent fixture at the New York Book Fair, he was always happy to chat. His passion for books and dedication to the collegiality of our trade will be sorely missed… Our most sincere condolences to his family at this very saddest of times.
— Jude and John Lubrano
What a devastating blow to hear of the passing of Bob Fleck — a great bookman and publisher.
I joined the ABAA in 1995, around the same time that Bob was rising in the ABAA to become president of the organization (and subsequently president of ILAB).
His accomplishments have been noted by many, and it is important to remember that Bob made a significant contribution in the publishing world at the Oak Knoll Press.
The Oak Knoll Press has been of great benefit and delight to book lovers, booksellers, and scholars around the world. Bob was a leader whose accomplishments benefitted all of us.
My condolences to his family, including his son Rob, and to his wife Millie, who was always by his side.
My wife and I have fond memories of our visit to Oak Knoll last year. Bob and his family couldn’t possibly have been more gracious and hospitable — we so enjoyed spending time with them.
He was a fine man and a wonderful colleague who will be greatly missed — may he rest in peace.
— Ron Cozzi of Old Editions Book Shop
Bob was a great bookman, in every sense of the word and in his contributions both to preserving the history of books and of our trade. He will be deeply missed.
— Michael Vinson
I'm shocked and saddened to hear this news. Bob was a consummate bookman, and it was a pleasure to spend time with him, always ready with a joke and a glass of wine. Our whole trade is richer because of his publishing program and his decades of providing the tools of the trade, and the poorer without him. My thoughts are with Rob and Millie and all our Delaware friends.
— Jesse Rossa of Triolet Books
I share Larry McGilvery's reaction, I too had "the highest opinion of him. " We all owe him and for many reasons. His contributions to the ABAA (not "just" to the trade, the history of the book, and....) are deep, fundamental. And a nice guy. I remember once when he corrected an error I made -- he did it very, very nicely.
— Chic Goldsmid
Bob was one of the nicest persons I have met. I first got to know him way back when the ABAA had it’s first internet presence; Bob was always helpful and cheerful. I never remember seeing him with less than a glint in his eye, and a warm word for others. Bob is such a great bookman and has contributed to our world in so many ways, both encouraged younger generations, fostered so many books about books that would not have been published otherwise, and spent an inordinate amount of time helping us to be more collegial internationally, as well as at home. I admire him for his spirit and generosity of spirit in the passion we all share.
I am really saddened by the news and cannot believe that he is actually gone. My most sincere condolences to Millie and family.
— Pia Oliver
I was stunned to see all of these messages late today. I have known Bob for so many years, dating back to the early days. He was always kind, helpful, and such an all round great bookman. His enthusiasm for bookselling and publishing really had an impact on all of us, I think. He did so much to promote the trade, and as Pia said, was responsible for so many books — really great books — being published that would never have been published otherwise.
I am still in disbelief, especially since I didn't realize Bob was ill. My most sincere condolences to all of the family and friends who have worked so brilliantly together. We share in your grief.
— Gail Klemm
Like everyone else, I am deeply shocked to hear this.
Bob was one of the 'good guys'.
I've known him since he first entered the trade and he won instant respect from everybody who encountered him.
Of course we shared a mutual interest in books on books, but there were other areas where we were simpatico.
I hate to think that he is no longer among us.
— Ron Lieberman of The Family Album
Very sad. Got his wonderful catalogs for many years and, actually, just ordered the new Eberstadt book from him. I would bet that 75% of my reference library came from Bob. RIP.
— Patrick Cather
Very sad news indeed. Bob was the consummate gentleman, an excellent and dedicated bookman, always ethical in his dealings, and a great credit to our trade. He will be sorely missed.
— Richard C. Ramer
The news of Bob's passing is not unexpected, but certainly very sad. Like others, I have filled my reference library with many books from Oak Knoll Books. What was most rewarding was to get to know Bob and to benefit from his depth of knowledge and making so many references available to trade and public. He always had a warm greeting and treated me as a friend and not just another client.
He will be greatly missed, but certainly remembered for a long time not only for his business acumen, but his service and dedication as president of ABAA and ILAB. We are most fortunate that Bob's son Rob is carrying on his tradition and personal friendly and caring manner.
— Eugene Vigil of Antiquariat Botanicum
We were shocked to hear of the passing of our dear friend Bob Fleck.
He was an outstanding figure and a great credit to our trade.
He was a remarkable figure both in the ABAA and also in ILAB where as President he was awarded the ILAB Medal.
Our thoughts and prayers go out to his family.
Long may the firm of Oak Knoll Books continue under the expert leadership of his son.
— Caroline and David Brass
“Goodbyes and Hellos”
A few takeaways from Bob Fleck’s memorial. I was overwhelmed by the number of people who attended and how the family stood and interacted with each of the hundreds of people in line offering their condolences. Bob’s brothers were there, and talked of him as an older brother they looked up to, his interest in sports cars from a teenager on, seemingly a complete list of the ones he had had. One talked about working with him in child care centers he had started in addition to his regular job as a chemical engineer. They talked of his love of books, of course. Finally, they talked about how he always said, follow your heart. When the engineering firm asked him to relocate, he quit his engineering job and shortly thereafter sold the child care business. He followed his own heart into the book trade.
His sons came up and talked about how he gathered them together at family events. Only a few of the crowd were booksellers; there were printers, librarians, and bibliophiles both local and from around the country. He had been a founder of the Delaware Bibliophiles and the Fine Press Association. He had served as Treasurer and President of both ABAA and ILAB and was the driving force in bringing both organizations into the internet world in the early 1990s. He was on the board of the New Castle Historical Society. He brought many people together and it showed in the breadth of those attending.
A friend who used to work for Bob said Bob had always been happy to be a gatekeeper in providing affordable books to the trade and to libraries and collectors. His son said when he asked him if they should cancel the Oak Knoll Festival, Bob replied, “Hell no, it’s paid for.” And it will go on this year, with events from September 30 to October 2, featuring talks by Mark Dimunation, head of Rare Books and Special Collections at the Library of Congress, and symposia on various subjects, including the featured subject, whether the texts of Fine Press printing should come from the past or present. You can get more information about this book-oriented festival, held every other year in Newcastle, DE, here... The heart of Bob lives on in the Oak Knoll festival.
-- John Thomson