Disrobing Literature

Let’s have another word or two about book condition. Even at the one dollar level, book condition may kick the price up a notch, or down a notch, or cause it to be carried by one corner to the recycle bin. (Maybe you didn’t KNOW those five boxes had been sitting in a puddle for, oh, five years, and maybe you didn’t care as long as you didn’t have to pick them up. It’s rare that I get collections where some of the books have actually begun to rot away, but it’s not the kind of rare that raises the price.)

A collection of books, gathered by a family over several generations, came to my attention a while back. There was evidence, if one knew what to look for, that some member of the family had looked up prices online before putting the books in boxes for me. This is a kind gesture. People don’t want to upset my life by giving me anything too valuable. You must drop by some time so I can show you a gesture of my own.

The person may have known a thing or two about condition, and therefore may not have considered looking up two books which were in somewhat rocky shape. There are some hardcover books—which the pros call “cloth”, remember—which start to come apart by developing loose threads along the spine. This can really make a book look like a piece of trash, and it DID, in fact, lower the value of that big art book from about $600 to only about $200.

The other book was one of those books which a bookseller looks over and says “No. Can’t be. Nobody would give me a first edition of THAT. Must be a cheap reprint.” I looked at the copyright page and it, um, looked like a real first edition. But no one would give me a first edition of THAT. I checked a handy reference book. Not only did I find that what the copyright page said meant it was, indeed, a first edition of THAT, but it noted that a first edition of THAT, in excellent shape, runs around $35,000.

I had to take two long breaths before I looked at the next line in the book. The book went on to explain that the $35,000 price was for a copy in excellent condition with a dust jacket. A copy in excellent condition without that jacket averaged about $2,500. Yes, friends, if you had grandparents who liked the looks of books better without their jackets, there’s a good chance that they tossed a lot of your inheritance out with the old newspapers. This is not an isolated case: there are plenty of books worth ten times as much with that fragile paper wrapper than without.

The copy we were given can in no way be described as being in excellent condition. It has been through a book sale (where it was priced at $1.75.) It has been through the hands of several owners, some of whom made a few penciled notes in it, and at least one of whom dropped it so that the front hinge is ajar. Its original owner was a young lady who was given it for her birthday by someone who wrote a nice little note and ended it with the year she had that birthday. (Book dealers really hate these gift inscriptions, but if they have to have one, one with a date on it which happens to be the same year the book was published are best.)

Only 3000 copies were printed of this gem (it was the author’s first novel, and no one knew it would have to go through two more printings in the next three weeks.) So you will see it on the collector’s table next July, priced, oh, at a low three figures. I suppose I’m happy not to have to post a guard next to it through the whole five days, but oh, if that young lady had liked the looks of the jacket enough to…of course, maybe that’s the problem. She may have pasted that in her scrapbook when she gave the book to her church rummage sale.

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