I first met Bob Fleck in 1998 in Vienna during an ILAB Congress. My husband was then a member of ILAB’s internet sub-committee chaired by Bob. He gave me the impression of a jovial man, yet with a head for serious matters, always keeping in mind long term goals and finding ways to achieve them.
In a previous life, Bob had been a chemical engineer. In 1976 however, his love of books soon had him abandon a very promising career to follow the path of bookselling. Alongside his wife Millie, “for better or worse” (1), he started a successful business, Oak Knoll, dealing mostly in books about books and fine printing alongside a publishing venture, settling in New Castle, Delaware, a most beautiful and historical 18th Century town. To this day, Oak Knoll has published and distributed over a thousand titles. The American Printing History Association Institutional Award for Distinguished Achievement in Printing History was awarded in 2007 to Oak Knoll, in the person of Bob Fleck, for his valuable contribution to book printing history by making such a quantity of new and old books available to historians, printers, binders, etc.
Bob organizes in October of each year the Oak Knoll Fest in New Castle, with lectures and panel discussions on various topics such as book selling, book illustration, fine printing, publishing, etc., providing a great opportunity for enthusiasts in the field to get together, socialize and do business.
Business and family life, however, were apparently not filling all his time. He quickly got involved in the running of the ABAA, the Antiquarian Booksellers’ Association of America. He first served on its board in 1982, became Chair of its finance committee in 1989, Treasurer in 1990, and President in 1996. This was when he began attending ILAB Annual Meetings as the ABAA delegate where his qualities were quickly recognized. He was elected as ILAB Vice-President in 2000, and ILAB President in 2002, being re-elected in 2004 for another two-year term. In Paris in 2007, he was elected as ILAB President of Honour for the invaluable services he had rendered.
During his ILAB term of office, Bob worked relentlessly to promote ILAB and establish its presence on the Internet. His favourite words during ILAB Meetings? “Promote”, “Promotion”, “PR”, and what better way than the Internet to achieve this goal? He oversaw the establishment of three ILAB websites, each one more efficient than its predecessor, always keeping in mind the interests of the ILAB affiliates.
The ILAB Directory had, since the fifties, been published mostly for the sake of the affiliated dealers. Bob was the first to believe that it was time that the Directory was published for the sake of customers and not just the dealers. To do that, he contracted an outside firm to publish a colourful and illustrated directory, for free, the firm being paid by the advertisements sold. The Directory has since been published by ILAB, still keeping in mind that it is mostly a promotional tool.
Bob also realized that finding dealers willing to devote time to benevolent work would become more difficult as more and more businesses had no employees. He therefore had the excellent idea of hiring an Executive Secretary in 2004, who would execute the ILAB Committee’s decisions.
As if this was not enough, Bob worked hard into saving the future of the ILAB Prize for Bibliography, through donations from affiliates (the Bromers, for instance, donated ten thousand dollars, the ABA also donated ten thousand dollars) and an agreement with the Breslauer Foundation with a donation of one hundred and twenty thousand dollars: the Prize would thus become self-sufficient in terms of capital, the interests generated over four years paying for the award.
Was that it? Was Bob’s involvement in ILAB finished and done with? Oh no! ILAB needed a Treasurer capable of taking its accounting system into the 21st Century and turned once more to Bob Fleck to take on this difficult and not so enchanting job, which he took on in April 2014. He worked relentlessly during a year and a half, until the Seville Presidents’ Meeting in October 2015, to put all the accounts in order and once the job was brilliantly done … he resigned, having been asked to be Vice President of New Castle's Historical Society, and for once in his life, he could not be able to find the time to work, rest, and work and work again and again.
To thank him, once more, and perhaps not for the last time, for his devotion to ILAB matters, Bob Fleck was awarded during the 2015 October Seville Presidents’ Meeting with the ILAB Medal, engraved on its back: “In recognition of services rendered to the International League of Antiquarian Booksellers.”
(1) Books About Books, a history and bibliography of Oak Knoll Press, 1978 - 2008. Oak Knoll Press, 2008.