When I first opened Chapters Revisited, a used bookstore in Doylestown, Pa., in 1995, I was completely unaware of the nuances of selling books, particularly books that may be considered valuable because they were out of print. I also was unaware of how much money I would risk by running a “proper” bookshop of mostly expensive hardbacks and first editions that appealed to collectors and collected dust while, much to my dismay and simultaneous relief, buyers of paperback mysteries and romances at half-price helped me afford rent.
I soon learned the unforgiving economic realities of the book trade (a brutal way to attempt to earn a living). So I did what any reasonable person fearful of starving would do: I began seeking other forms of income. And because the only thing I really knew how to do was write, I sought work as a freelance writer. One plum assignment that lasted a good year or so was covering criminal trials for the Courier Times at the Bucks County courthouse, down the street from Chapters. It was a decent gig since I could write while minding the shop.
Another income-generating idea I had was to write a regular column about book collecting so I could inform the reading public while drawing attention to my own efforts as a local bookseller. Unfortunately, my plan for earning some extra cash while educating the world of readers one book column at a time never panned out.
What follows was my pitch back then to newspaper editors. It essentially amounts to a sampling of book column ideas (or ledes) that could be extended to fill out a column.
Who knows? Maybe some editor will take me up on the idea one day.
The world of book collecting is a mystery to most consumers. Like many a collectible, certain books maintain a value that appreciate with time. One age-old fallacy places a book’s monetary value in its age. If a book is old, the reasoning stands, it must be worth something. However, as any fast analysis of the collector’s market will show you, demand for the product is the first criterion, followed by scarcity and condition. Age, on the whole, has little bearing unless it’s a significant historical document.
It seems somewhat mercenary, if not downright vulgar, to speak of authors as commodities, especially when referring to untarnished figures of literature. But let’s face it: some writers such as Walt Whitman and Henry David Thoreau remain in vogue after more than a century, while others like Rudyard Kipling (forgive me, devotees of The Jungle Book) or Sir Walter Scott go out of style like a faddish dance. Because of a surplus of printings, a classic is much less likely to be valuable than a contemporary first edition that has seen only seven printings.
Many avid readers join book clubs and accumulate hundreds of hardback titles — bestsellers in their time — that they read once and neatly place aside on their shelves. Establishing their library in this manner, they assume that they possess a valuable collection — a bequeath to be passed down to their grandchildren. Little do they know that when their grandkids decide it’s time to auction off the family legacy to pay for their college tuition, the books, even in pristine condition, carry little, if any, resale value.
Shakespeare, for his part, is alive and kicking, thanks in part to filmmaker Kenneth Branagh and Hollywood luminary Al Pacino, who directed Looking for Richard, based on Richard III. In this age of sound bites and video clips, media exposure has a great impact on an author’s saleability — and thus, collectibility. We need look no further than media magnate Oprah Winfrey and the phenomenal influence of her book club. One choice alone can make or resurrect an author’s career (e.g., Wally Lamb’s She’s Come Undone).
Keep in mind that an author’s popularity does not make him or her worth collecting. In fact, many best-selling authors deliver a poor return on your investment. Then again there are authors like John Grisham whose books’ value in his heyday skyrocketed. A case in point would be a dealer listing of The Firm for $200 (a first edition in “as new” condition with a fine dust jacket) in Firsts magazine (circa 1995).
Serious book collectors invariably hunt for first editions with dust jackets. Without a clean wrapper to protect its cloth, a book’s value decreases by at least 50 percent — sometimes much higher depending on the jacket’s illustrator. So if you care about maintaining the value of your collection, don’t discard the book jacket. Even if you prefer reading without it, put it in a safe place and re-apply it to the cover when you finish.