Farewell, Irving Oaklander, Bookseller

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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)