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In praise of book dealers

And why you should become a customer

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I haven't been collecting books for very long... many years, but not decades. But when I "found" book collecting, it was a bug that bit me very deeply. So many books! So little shelf space!


This page attempts to persuade you to look at the idea of collecting old books. I started it mainly to express my gratitude for and admiration of the many booksellers who have helped me in my own collecting. While I am trying to "sell" you something, I have no personal axe to grind. I love collecting books. Selling them seems like an awful lot of work.

This opens with a quick note on the qualities of dealers.

I also cover other topics, and the links in the section below take you to other parts of this document.

The section on book descriptions, what they are good for, etc! is quite a bit longer than the others. Perhaps than the others put together. I hope you find it useful. It is here because I particularly admire and appreciate the booksellers' skill, and work, in making their books interesting... well, interesting to me, anyway.

In the "Descriptions" section, there's quite a bit about pricing. Why is one copy of a given book sold for $1,000, when another, of the same book, is sold for $50?

I also talk about find descriptions of books that are available. There's a section about the website 'Abebooks', and a suggestion that dealer's own sites are worth visiting, in addition. Dealers will if you wish... work with you via email. They can put you on their mailing lists, and they can, if invited, send you personal notification of things which might interest you, as those things arrive in their shops.

More work... but more fun!... go to a book fair, a "show". Here's why, and how to find one.

So! Onward...

The qualities of antiquarian booksellers

My enthusiasm has been nurtured by the remarkable amount a bookseller goes to, to sell a book. The days of personal service are not over! At least in the antiquarian books world. (It is also worth noting that other attributes of the people you will find there are agreeable. Some of the good things from "the old days" have not perished. But don't imagine that they haven't also kept up with the times, in things that matter.)

Book descriptions

In particular, I appreciate what any good book dealer does, in the course of finding a customer for a book. He or she writes an extremely readable and informative account of why a particular title is noteworthy, and what is special (or flawed!) about the copy they are currently offering.

Sixty percent of what I know about book collecting comes from studying these write ups. (and another 35% from the hours kind dealers have spent helping me become more knowledgeable, more skilful in pursuing this fascinating hobby.)

Even when I am reading the description of a book I'm not particularly interested in owning, I often enjoy the experience. I did not much impress my history teachers. I am now learning how fascinating their subject is, once you find "the way in". (True for so many subjects, of course... but books have opened this world for me.

When I acquire a book, I always carefully file away the dealer's description, to go with that book when it leaves me.

So show me a description!

A good, easily accessible, starting place would be Abebooks. There's an, and an They both lead to the same place, but your local one will probably load more quickly, and it will default to your local currency. (You can get conversions from either site.) You don't have to give up your grandmother's maiden name, or submit to pages of spam to use the site fully, apart from placing an order. (When that day comes, you'll still be treated sensibly.)

Pick a book. Almost any book. Search, and Abebooks will tell you what copies are currently available.

Make use of the opportunity you will have to change the sort order to list the most valuable copies first. (Always, at this site.) Why wade through the lesser copies?

You'll see quite reasonable descriptions. Browse around a few titles. It's a bit like looking at IMDB "Trivia" pages. (Stories relating to films). Some books are "interesting", others more pedestrian. (If you want an idea of how interesting things can get, maybe give my "Collecting the Winnie-the-Pooh" books blog.)

There are three parts to most-

Pull up the list for a particular book... Rowling's Philosopher's Stone would keep you busy for hours!

These things raise prices: Edition, condition, is it signed?- inscribed? (Something other than author's name, e.g. "Hope you enjoy this"- both?, "association"... was the book owned by someone interesting? Is it "scarce"? Is it "rare"? (Good book dealers tend to use those terms (and all others, for that matter) quite carefully. Few follow the modern practice in "the real world" of inflating things.) (Speaking of "careful": Being around "my" book dealers has been very beneficial. I need to "pull my socks up" in their erudite company. I can be quite "sloppy" in many ways. But tend to Try To Do Better in better company. Don't get the idea, though, that book dealers are stuffy bookish schoolmasters. Charming, one and all. (You don't last in a market sector like this without great people-skills, a lot of energy, and a lot of patience.)

Look at the books on offer. Try to discern why one copy is $1,000, but another, in comparable condition, is $50. It happens. Often with similar extremes of price.

On some criteria, one person's "I'll pay more" is another persons disincentive. If you are buying a book from 1750, you may be able to find it all shiny new in a beautiful re-binding. Me? I don't begrudge an old book the odd scuff or stain. (Be careful to avoid one with a few missing pages or that is falling apart, though! (Unless you are getting a very good price. A "minor" flaw to the man in the street can really hammer the correct price for a book that isn't particularly scarce.))

Of course, a low score on one parameter can be offset by a high score on another. I often "discover" a book, develop a craving for it, when a specific copy is offered to me. I will sometimes spend hours learning about the (general, in- the- world) history "around" the book. Learning about the author/ illustrator/ subject. Having acquired a craving for a particular title one part of "the chase" is to look (Abebooks) to see what other copies are available. At what prices. I often buy books from one dealer who, if he has a book, probably has the most expensive copy on sale at the moment. Not because he is greedy. Because he generally only sells "special" things. I once saw a very ordinary copy of a collection of Charlie Brown cartoons. You could have bought it new, in my lifetime. The dustwrapper (important to price, by the way, and NEVER cut the price off of one you give as a gift... some book seller years from now will thank you profusely.) So why was it even in the shop?

The ffep (blank sheet of paper at front of book, to you and me (a few years ago) had a full page cartoon drawn by Mr. Schultz himself. And it was only reasonable to assume, though, alas, it can't be proved (though the seller wouldn't say "alas") that it was a gift from Mr. Schultz to his family doctor, or a good personal friend who was one.

When a copy of the last book AA Milne wrote was being sold, it was for quite a high price, in spite of modest condition, and in spite of the fact that it isn't (sorry) a book quite up to his high standard. However, it was his last book, which helped the price a little. And, it just so happens, this copy...

So. The moderately "used" condition, and the fact that it had been left where the sun bleached the spine really didn't bring the price down much.

Those are the sorts of things that you will find in descriptions. It makes the chase for the right copy for your wants thrilling!

By the way.. if you are using a reputable dealer, don't worry about how much salt you need to add. Not even a pinch necessary. For a $5,000 book, be careful, of course. But there are many dealers out there whom you can trust implicitly.

Other places to see descriptions

----- Dealers' own websites: Almost every dealer has a webpage for his or her shop. And most of those have "search" provisions to let you get to a particular book, and it's description.

The standards, of course, vary enormously. I'm sure you will soon learn where you will find Good Stuff, and places where either they just don't have many "good" books... OR they haven't considered the huge effort of an online presence something they want to give the resources to. Don't confuse one with the other

You should also know that many dealers do not automatically "put on Abebooks" every title that is in their own website. Nor do they put every book they have in their shop on even their own website.

----- In "broadcast" emails, in personal emails: If you wish to receive lists of books a dealer is currently wanting to sell, dealers will of course be happy to oblige you! And these lists can be fun reading.

Once a dealer gets to know you... and begins to feel he wouldn't be wasting his time... he will begin to send you personal emails from time to time, again, only if you seem to welcome them, telling you about things that he's selling that he's guessing you might be interested in. Their skill in wafting the right treats beneath my nose is the despair of my bank manager.

And eventually, you may move into the realms of getting sight of things before they ever reach the general public. But you must be reasonable... a dealer cannot provide that service to someone who buys a $50 book once a year.

A word about "discretion". Book dealers are very discreet. (Or they never reach the upper echelons.) Someone who has bought a book for $50,000... and that's not remarkable, in some circles... really doesn't want "the world" to know that it is probably in their house somewhere. Nor do they want a bunch of salesmen pestering them. So book dealers are discreet, in addition to their other fine qualities. Actually are discreet. In our fine "modern" world, it isn't too hard to find market sectors where the sellers should be discreet.. but maybe aren't as successful.

See a wide selection. See what's "normal"...
Go to a shop! Go to a show!

----- Go to a shop: Visit a good bookshop. A "proper" antiquarian book dealer.

Just as there are second hand junk stores (thank heavens... they help reduce the dreadful waste accepted so blindly by our commercial society), and antique dealers, selling genuinely valuable, special items, there are "second hand book stores" (a few... but the internet is rapidly killing them) and real antiquarian book dealers.

Do try to visit one someday.

If you live in USA, you can search, by state, etc, for ABAA members at the ABAA website.

If you live in the UK, "The" ABA (!)has a similar page. the ABAA website. I've visited a school library in the UK that has existed since Mr Gutenberg had his bright idea. (No, a "book" doesn't HAVE to be printed... or printed with moveable type. But for 500 years, it was deemed quite a good way to do it. And then, in the lifetime of people still alive, that "died", and is, in most respects, gone.) So... the (UK) ABA may pre-date the ABA of America. (By which they mean the USA. Sorry, Canada, Mexico.) It's a bit like THE Times, and all the others, I suppose. Or THE Natural History Museum. But I digress.

Visit a dealer. I am reluctant to mention specifics here, because it is mostly random luck (my good luck, their "bad"?) which "filled" my "dance card". There are many good dealers in London. But "mine" are good to me, and I feel that they deserve a reciprocal consideration. But if you want a "personal" shortlist of some very good dealers in London, contact me. (Details below.)

----- Go to a show: Book shows are a great way to get perspective. You learn a lot about the sort of material that is out there. Things that no amount of time with Abebooks will ever give you. And you meet some delightful people, i.e. the book dealers. (And you get to see how hard they work, for every sale. And don't forget- the selling of the book is just one part of being a book dealer.

The websites already mentioned also list the big annual shows. Searching with Google for "antiquarian book shows or fairs" also turns up useful links.

That's it!

Thank you for reading this far. I hope your time was well rewarded. I suspect you came here from there, but if not, I have a site full of stories about things I've seen while hunting for books for my collection. Alas, not all of them could come home with me, but dealers have been very generous in allowing me to use their shops as "museums", in addition to using them for the reasons they are there.

Editor's email address for comments or questions.

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