Thursday, March 20, 2008

Talking about Old Books

Imagine this: I was shopping at a used book store about 7 years ago. I ended up with a pile of books, total cost over $100. There was one additional title I wanted. I flipped through the pages--there were many stains throughout. But the book was old, published in 1864. Reluctantly I put it aside.

The shop owner saw me waivering and said, "You've bought so many, i'll throw that one in for free." Was he kidding?


I grabbed my bag of treasures, thanked him and left.

A few days ago I saw the book on my shelf. Seaside and Fireside Fairies, translated from the German by George Blum and Louis Wahl. I idly looked it up on Abebooks. Whoa! This little freebie was worth...what? $350.00?

Okay, my copy isn't in great shape. The cover is separating at the spine, there is some foxing and the odd blue stains throughout, the cover is bumped on all edges. I look on Google. An Amazon listing has it for $175.00, with the following notes: Good with numerous small flaws. A marvelous book and now Rare. Binding and text block are quite good. There is wear to cover with fraying, front hinge is broken, small chip to ffep, some spots throughout. 1864 pon. Red and black title page. A collection listed in all the sources for "important" early Fairy Tales. Beautifully written. 15 tales which include: The Kalabater Sprite, The Fox King, The Amber Witch, The Ghostly Light on the Shore, The Magic Drum. 292 pages.

So how often does this happen? Is every old book valuable? It depends.

One of the things I've been doing at work lately is searching the value of old books that have been donated to the library. It's fun, kind of like a scavenger hunt. Some books that look valuable are worth no more than a dollar; others that seem unimportant may be worth $30-$300.

What's the difference? What makes one book valuable and another not so much? I am not the person to answer that definitively, but I've made a few observations:

*anything published before 1920 needs to be looked at. Anything published before 1900 definitely needs to be searched.

*wartime books (World War II) often have surprisingly low values. Why? Perhaps it is the low quality of paper and binding used during those years. What I find when I look these up is that their value is often under $2.00.

*Books with good quality covers (leather, embossed, fancy detail, good fabric) often demand higher prices. These are usually well-made--crafted really. Decorators are buying books like this simply for display purposes. But often the books are rare, limited edition printings, and that adds value.

*Books with gilt edges to the pages or gilt title lettering, color illustrations usually have a higher value. They look nice and are probably higher quality.

*Books with limited print runs. The fewer published, the more valuable. I have a set called The Ocean of Story that was published in 1924. Mine is set 32 of 1500; ten volumes with gilt-letter spines and uncut pages. Even with library markings, the set values for between $400 and $1500.

*Topics that are specialized and limited in scope or likely audience. A book of political campaign buttons that was donated to our sale had a surprisingly high value. So did a volume of poetry by the "New York" poets. Some older books of china markings were not so valuable--perhaps the impact of the internet?

*High quality art books. You can feel the quality when you pick them up--they're heavy, the stitching that holds the pages together almost looks hand-done, and the paper is heavy. Even in less-than-perfect condition, these volumes can command a good price.

*Local history and authors, older the copyright the better. Self-published, recent titles are not worth much at all; but self-published back in 1920? Worth a look.

That's just a bit of what I have learned as I've worked on this project. I will be handing off responsibility soon, but what I have learned will stand me in good stead as I continue to build my personal collection.

And I now know the meanings of foxing, ex librus, bumped, duodecimo, and BOMC. If you want to learn this secret language, defines all these and more.

For a lot more, in-depth information, Your Old Books offers answers to many questions such as "what makes a book rare? are all old books rare? how can I get my books appraised? and much more.

Where do I look for a book's value? Abebooks is the best place I've found online to get information quickly. I type in the title (or use the advanced search) and a list of books for sale pops up. From that list and the descriptions of the books' condition, I can estimate the value of the book in question.

So if you have a few old books, why not look them up? You might, as I did, get a very pleasant surprise.


Robbyn said...

oooooh, I love old books!

MK Stover said...

What a great post! Thank you! I recently rescued about 30 boxes (yes, 30!) of old, old books. There are many published prior to 1900 and many more between 1900-1930. I have unpacked them and have a vague idea of what's there, but I've been slow to wade in again. That's this week's project, so thank you very much for the tips and resources.
Oh. I also have 2-3 boxes of magazines (in amazingly good shape) from the 1920s and 30s. Any clue what I should do with those?

Granny Sue said...

Hi Robbyn!
Thanks for stopping by. Come back anytime.


I read about your old books windfall and meant to email you. What a treasure trove. Let me know if there are any story collections or WV books in there you might want to sell.

About the magazines: they're very collectible. They're called ephemera--published paper items that have a short life expectancy. Here are some sites that might be useful for you to reasearch values:

If you search under either ephemera, old magazines or rare magazines in Google, you will find a lot of information.

Good luck!

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