Farewell, Irving Oaklander, Bookseller

Anyone who ever bought a rare graphic design book, periodical, or document either had met or corresponded with Irving Oaklander. He was the man behind Irving Oaklander Books, which specialized in printing, design, and typography, both classic and modern. He supplied scholars and practitioners with the incunabulum of our profession for over twenty years. He died on August 8 at 88.

Oaklander was born on March 5, 1924. He served in World War II as a corporal before spending the next 35 years in the New York City school system as teacher and administrator. (Principal Oaklander, sir!) For his second life, he spent 25 years collecting and selling books—”all happily spent,” says his wife, Lenore, who has received notes from the graphic design community “saying he found books they never would have come across if not for him.” She added, ” some said he served as a teacher—which he always was.”

I met Irving (I never called him Irv) in the late 1980s when he kept a booth at the Greenwich Village Antiquarian Book Fair. A diminutive, unassuming man with a gray, Lenin-like goatee, he stood proudly tending to his stock, beckoning all passersby to feast their eyes as they page through the material. Seeing I was salivating at the sight of his wares, he generously invited me to his Upper West Side apartment where he maintained his sideline book business. I recall the first time I saw the main bookcase—the spines said it all. Indeed, Irving somehow had them all. Every classic and many obscure volumes that I would have died for then, and killed for years later. Opening each book, my heart would pump with joy when I saw the price—most were $25 to $50! Irving was the Trader Joe of rare design books.

Irving had been browsing and buying forever. (In fact, long before I knew him, I’d see him early on Saturday mornings scarfing up rarities at The Strand on East 12th Street.) “When the apartment had no more space left,” Lenore recalls, “I suggested he start a bookshop.” In 1990 he officially opened his first book loft on the far West Side in an old industrial building that catered to loud musicians and quiet painters. Today, this district is the art capital of New York—Irving was a trailblazer.

With the shop came overhead and higher prices, of course. But Irving was not greedy. He never priced them so high that they were absurdly out of reach. And there was always something he had which was worth spending that extra sum. I would make pilgrimages to see Irving three or four times a year. He would often sit quietly cataloging new old books as I picked through the shelves, like picking wild blueberries, throwing ripe purchases into my basket. From time to time he’d say excitedly, “Steve, look, look, Steve . . . at this!” Whenever he did, I’d stop everything. He almost always knew what I wanted.

I brought many of my colleagues and friends to Irving’s loft with one simple condition: They’d have to stand in the hallway for ten minutes (listening to the loud rock), while I took first dibs. After a while they started coming on their own. Irving was a destination.

For a researcher, historian, collector, hoarder, or whatever, Irving was a pivotal player. There was nothing he didn’t have at least at one time. He loved being a bookseller. He loved learning more about design from his customers. He loved making marriages between his books and the right recipient. For those of us who benefited from his passion, Irving will be missed, but he will definitely be remembered through the books he made available to us all.

(Lenore notes that Swann Galleries picked up 138 cases aside from the books that are being cataloged for an auction sometime in October.)

Photos courtesy Paul Soulellis (top, middle) and Greg D’Onofrio (bottom)


7 thoughts on “Farewell, Irving Oaklander, Bookseller

  1. Gerry L'Orange

    The book near Oaklander’s left hand in the photo is the first book on design that I ever bought: Graphic design: Visual comparisons, by Alan Fletcher, Colin Forbes, and Bob Gill. It’s long out of print and I see that used copies are going for for $58.50 on amazon. I bought it at (dearly departed) Classics Books in Montreal. I remember that at my preferred Classics branch, the design books were over by the window that looked out onto Crescent Street. Years later I was asked to design what at the time was referred to as a “supergraphic” for Classics’ first store in the U.S., which was on 5th Avenue in New York. I was pretty excited about that. Also in my library (“Customers Who Bought This Item Also Bought”): Living by design, by Fletcher, Forbes, et al., purchased about 10 years later; and Fletcher’s 533-page, five-poind, not-for-reading-in-bed The art of looking sideways, purchased 20+ years after that. PS: Some of Steve’s readers might not know that the history of the present-day design firm Pentagram began in the early-1960s London office of Fletcher, Forbes and Gill.

  2. Adriane Stark

    Steven, thank you for this tribute which so beautifully pays tribute to Irving. I remember the first time I met him in the village at the book show. I could not believe my eyes. He was a rare gem. It would be hard to measure his impact on the design output of his clients. What I could barely afford at the time became my most treasured possesions – if only I had bought more. In the age of ebooks, there will never be another Irving Oaklander. I’m going to go give my specmen books a big hug! Irving, you will be missed.

  3. Susan

    Thank you for your wonderful tribute to Irving Oaklander. Irving was as remarkable as his books. In a warp-speed world, his shop was an oasis where history came alive. Many of the books I treasure came from him, and when I open them and see his handwriting on the flyleaf, I’m reminded of the conversations we had… and wish there had been more!

  4. Robert Swartz

    Steven, a great tribute to a great bookseller, and man. Like you, I discovered Irving at the Greenwich Village Book Fair in the late 80s, when I had Agfa Compugraphic as a client and was just building my type library. I was having luck finding things like the 1923 ATF Specimen book in general used book stores for $15 (!), but Iriving offered a level of quality and selection far beyond anyone else. And like you, I made my share of trips to the far west side, and remember well his calling out things I should really look at; not necessarily buy, mind you, but look at. I still wish I had the foresight (and funds) to buy the scrapbook of prewar German printer’s samples he showed me one day, but I’m equally glad to have snapped up every one of the Henry Dreyfuss office portfolios I could find. That was Irving. He unearthed gems. There are many on my bookshelves today, and I’ll give them a special look when I go home today. Teacher, bookseller. A long life, well-lived.

  5. Laurence Penney

    This is very sad. Irving Oaklander’s will almost certainly be the bookshop I most regret never visiting. I planned my first trip there for July 31 just gone. There was no reply to the 7 or so telephone calls I made. Instead I visited the rare book room at the Strand. While I was perusing their type books, Tom W, one of the Strand’s old guys, suggested that I go to Irving Oaklander. I explained I’d intended to do just that but had not been able to get in touch. Tom was evidently rather concerned at this, and said that he’d go and check up on him.

  6. J. J. Sedelmaier

    S -Thanks so much for the wonderful piece on Irving. I hadn’t been in touch for a few years, but thought of him and Lenore often. Thanks also for being responsible for introducing me to him in ’91! I’m sure my Dad thanks you too. We’d often make the trek down to see Irving when my Dad was be in town. It got to be so regular (and lucrative for the Oaklanders) that they’d have a small spread waiting for us when we got there. . . and like you mention, his prices were always realistic but you ended up piling up the books because he had so many choice pieces ! The prime “sparklers” in my library are from “The Oaklander Archive”. I learned so much from him as I browsed through the shelves of jewels – seems defamatory to call them “inventory”. . .  Gebrauchtsgrafik, Ludwig Hohlwein, Westvaco Inspirations For Printers, NY AD Club annuals, etc., etc. . . I’d never seen so many gems in one place and in so unassuming an environ. Irving was also nimble when it came to responding to time sensitive request. I was working on a project that required that I have a copy of Dreyfuss’ “Symbol Sourcebook”. I called him at 4:30pm and had it in my studio at 9am the next morning. . . sorry to ramble but I know we’ll not see the likes of him again.One of those people and experiences that you thank the gods you had a chance to savor. . . I’m sad, but your piece meant a lot to me. . .xo

  7. Paul Shaw

    It is sad to hear the news that Irving has finally passed away, though it was obvious the end was near recently as his health was in obvious decline. You have written an excellent tribute to him, Steve. Irving was very generous. He used to allow me to use his store as an informal library. I would find things that I could not afford to buy (or to house) but that I needed for my research into various design history topics and Irving would tell me to take them home so I could take notes, make scans, etc. and then to bring them back when I was finished. He was trusting. He wrote down the titles of the items I took, but never asked for a deposit against them. He simply wanted to be helpful. It seemed that his joy as a bookseller was to unite the right book with the right person. He wanted the books to have another life as the source for articles and more books. Irving was a matchmaker. And a mensch. He will be sorely missed.