Low end or high, collectible books are emotional – and monetary – investments

“We do not limit our scope, and we price to sell,” said Beers Books manager Andrew Naify.
“We do not limit our scope, and we price to sell,” said Beers Books manager Andrew Naify.

What’s special to you in your bookcase? Perhaps a well-worn first edition “Valley of the Dolls” by Jacqueline Susann that your mom saved from 1966, which you’ll never part with and which you’ve paired with last year’s 50th anniversary edition of the mega-selling novel.

Or you may have a row of hardbacks or paperbacks by a favorite author like George R.R. Martin, Amy Tan, James Patterson, Jane Austen, Stephen King, Maya Angelou, Mark Twain, J.K. Rowling, John le Carré – the list goes on because fiction readers are fans, first and foremost.

Or, out of nostalgia, a few titles from one of the more recent editions of the 56-title “Nancy Drew Mystery Stories” series by Carolyn Keene, the pseudonym of the many ghostwriters who contributed to that bibliography from 1930 through 2004.

On a more esoteric level, your collection may include a showpiece such as a signed first edition of Toni Morrison’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel “Beloved,” published in 1987. Or a 12-book set of the “Horatio Hornblower” series by C.S. Forester, or …

Whether you casually look for discounted best-sellers or old paperbacks by cherished authors, or hunt for rare books, out-of-print books, signed editions, limited editions or complete sets, the point is: If you buy books and keep them, share them or sell them, at some level you’re a collector.

It can be an entertaining hobby, with an edge of anticipation from browsing the labyrinthine aisles of used-book stores and thrift stores, estate sales and garage sales, sleuthing for gems.

On another plateau, collecting is a rarefied business that operates in an insular culture driven by nuance, arcane knowledge, specialized language and bylaws of specificity unknown to the general public. Even the definitive reference “ABC for Book Collectors” is a bit fuzzy about the term “antiquarian” – “The lines of demarcation between ‘rare books,’ ‘old books’ and ‘second-hand books’ have never been, and can never be, clearly defined.”

Like most hobbies gone wild, one’s place in the collections universe is contingent on expertise and finances. Sure, you can spend $5 for a used paperback of Herman Wouk’s “The Winds of War,” or $1,200 for a novelty like a 1935 edition of “The Old Waldorf Astoria Bar Book.” Low end or high end, the uniting factor starts with the appreciation of the act of someone arranging words, art and/or photos for the world to witness, and the subsequent skill of publishers to package them in unique ways.

“People collect all kinds of books, but I make a distinction between acquisition and collection,” said Peter Keat, an industry expert of 36 years who owns Time Tested Books in Sacramento. “Some people acquire books on the spur of the moment or to follow their personal interests. Those who collect are more systematic and serious about buying books that build a library that may appreciate in value. In most cases, book collectibles are limited editions. It’s like collecting art.”

“We sell (mainstream) and some collectibles,” said Gary Stollery, co-owner with wife Clarinda Stollery of Toad Hall Book Shop in Nevada City. “Children’s books are very popular. We get grandparents coming in saying, ‘We want to give our grandchildren the same books we read as kids. Beat authors (are big), too. I get younger readers coming in, saying, ‘I’m looking for an author you’ve probably never heard of – Jack Kerouac.’ ”

Though Big Brother Comics in midtown has glass cases full of vintage toys (along with new board games), its stock of 30,000 graphic novels and comic books rarely includes collectibles. The store may be out of the flow of mainstream bookstores, but its younger, devoted demographic is tuned in to an uber-popular form that has gained credence over recent decades. For instance, absurdist philosopher and Nobel Prize-winner Albert Camus’ masterpiece “The Stranger” was released as a graphic novel last year.

“We push writers way more than artwork,” said Kenny Russell, Big Brother owner. “Art is important in the industry, for sure, but give me a good writer and it will change the way I see the art.”

To the uninitiated, a graphic novel is a book format that expands the comic book template into an original story line narrated in sequential art and words, and can be in any genre.

Also, many graphic novels are anthologies of previously published individual comic books. In that regard, “think of the graphic novel as a DVD boxed set of a season’s worth of episodes in a TV series,” said Russell, whose private collection contains a rare first issue of “The Walking Dead.”

E-commerce takes a bite

One profound game-changer for casual and professional book buyers and sellers was the blossoming of e-commerce. “Before the internet, people who had books (for sale) didn’t know who wanted them, and people who wanted to buy books didn’t know who had them. The internet put them together,” said Richard L. Press, owner of Richard L. Press Fine and Scholarly Books in Sacramento, in business for 38 years.

“The other thing it did was show how many scarce books were really available, (such as) 30 copies of a certain title being offered online when a bookseller might have only two or three copies of it in the store,” he said. “But there are all kinds of caveats.”

The booksellers we talked with seemed somewhat conflicted over the internet issue. Most sell books online to stay competitive and complement their brick-and-mortar businesses, yet they also lament to a degree how the internet has allowed many amateur sellers to sidestep the scholarship and hunt-and-gather model so entrenched in the profession for generations. Now the standing joke in the industry is: “Anybody with a computer can be a bookseller.”

“We were early pioneers (of internet sales), when you could put almost anything up at any price and you’d get it,” said Gary Stollery of Toad Hall. “But as more people piled on, it was a race to the bottom (because they were undercutting each other). We went offline and stayed offline, and our business went up 30 percent.

“You don’t have many people bringing collections into the store anymore,” Stollery said. “What usually happens is somebody passes away and the son or daughter sells it online (for cents on the dollar). That diminishes the value of everybody’s stock.”

Nancy Dunk and Celia Lux have operated The Bookery in Placerville for 34 years and have navigated the changes in technology and readership trends.

“Years ago, you could pick out any book in this store and it would be priced about the same at 50 other used-book stores around the country,” Dunk said. “Now, if a guy is selling a $50 book on the internet that he inherited from his late grandpa, he’ll put it up for $15 just to get quick money. Bookstore owners see that and say, ‘Oh, I’d better lower my price.’ ”

Yet the hands-on part of the trade is “still exciting for me,” she said. “I don’t open a box of (used) books that I don’t see something I’ve never seen before. It’s like treasure hunting.”

“The internet has reduced the value of certain books dramatically, and has increased the value of others,” said Keat of Time Tested Books. “The new rule of thumb is, ‘People under 40 buy and read books, and people over 40 sell books.’ That’s a gross misrepresentation, but there is a grain of truth to it.”

“It’s the nature of the brick-and-mortar (customer) to hunt for books in a serendipitous way, (while) the hunt for something specific is more online,” said Andrew Naify, manager of the 80-year-old Beers Books in Sacramento. “The biggest chip on (brick-and-mortar customers’) collective shoulder is that a lot of places haven’t updated their price structures according to the greater online community. It’s pretty daft to stay with pre-internet structures.”

A global marketplace

Long before online commerce rewrote the rules of book buying and selling, there was AB Bookman’s Weekly magazine. From its inception in 1948 to its demise in 1999, it was the ultimate source for those who traded in rare tomes and wished to stay abreast of industry news.

Today there’s the more democratic but equally respected AbeBooks, a global online clearinghouse (and subsidiary) where thousands of sellers and buyers meet to browse and exchange millions of titles. Yes, categories include rarities at ransom sums (a 1960 first edition of “To Kill a Mockingbird” by Harper Lee is $22,500), but casual buyers can also find reasonably priced best-sellers, new books, signed books and textbooks, among many other offerings.

Whether selling or buying at any level, one paramount issue is a book’s condition, which is vital in determining its value. In the professional market, condition can mean a price difference of hundreds or thousands of dollars, depending on a book’s rarity. Some of the long lexicon of official book condition includes “as new,” “fine,” “very good,” “good,” “fair” and “poor.”

Among online book-buying and -selling resources, AbeBooks is regarded as having the most trustworthy descriptions – which are key – written in excruciatingly detailed form.

An example is this one, about a copy of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” by Ken Kesey (1962), selling for $1,750: “A Near Fine copy of the book with a small dampstain on the front board. In a Very Good dust jacket that is faded on the spine (as usual) and with several small chips and tears at the spine ends and corners. Small pieces of tape removed from the verso of the jacket. With all first issue points in the book and on the dust jacket (“fool Red Cross woman” p. 9; Kerouac blurb on the front flap, etc.).”

When you pluck your next book off a bookstore shelf, or go online to browse, remember the guiding truism among booksellers: “We don’t sell books, we sell condition.”

Allen Pierleoni: 916-321-1128, @apierleonisacbe

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