What's Hiding Under the Stairs

The question came up again last week.  “Somebody told me my grandfather had really valuable books and I was just going to give them all to you and now I don’t know what to do what should I do?”  That’s a pretty good question, especially doing it all in one breath the way he did.

The simple answer, of course, is “Pretend you didn’t hear they were valuiable and send them all to me anyhow.”  But this never seems to satisfy people.

So here are a few tips—by no means a complete list—of things to look for when you are cleaning out Grandma’s books.

Limitation Statements: “This is 1 of 1500 copies” or “This is Number 287 of 288 copies”: these sorts of statements are often found on the copyright page (on the backside of the title page) or in the colophon (the last page in the book with any words on it).  This is NOT a guarantee that the book is worth anything.  Remember, it doesn’t matter how rare a thing is if nobody wants it.  But this is a sign you need to look further.

Glassine dustjackets: Glassine is less durable than plastic, more transparent than paper, and almost impossible to keep in good condition.  It was used on a lot of limited edition books until our ancestors decided glassine was a silly thing to bother with.  Again, it is no guarantee that the book is worth anything—a lot of cheap books had glassine jackets—but it’s a sign you might want to explore further.  And try not to tear it.  Just try.

The words “Catalogue Raisonee” or “Color Atlas”: if either phrase appears in the title or subtitle, check the book for hidden value

Big Books With Lots of Pictures: This is just human nature.  Something in our genetic makeup yearns for coffee table books, even if we don’t have a coffee table.  And some of these (note the word “some”) are worth more than you’d think

Big Books With lots of pictures You Don’t Understand: Always look these up.  You’re a person of above average intelligence, or you wouldn’t be reading this blog.  So it must be esoteric enough to check on.

Anything the original owner took abnormal care of: There is a reason that math book has been wrapped in tissue paper and set inside a plastic container.  Again, life has no guarantees: the reason may be intelligible only to the person who wrapped it.  But it would be wise to check into it

Things other people were throwing away: Comic books, once read, were considered waste paper until about the 1960s, when people started collecting them and stopped throwing them away.  Baseball cards went through the same process in the 1970s, and smutty paperback novels in the 1980s.  So if Grandma was keeping baseball cards in the 1940s, they’re golden.  This goes for the oddest things, by the way.  If your odd Aunt Patsy was saving all her Corn Flakes boxes in the 1930s, those have a market now, because millions were thrown away and so few were kept.

Books too big or too small to be easily readable:  Remember the book is not just a tool for conveying information, it is also an artifact.  And just like those plates Grandma had that were too beautiful ever to eat from, these books that have been designed out of any practical application are valued as works of art.

These are just a few tips: even these may not help you find that signed Ernest Hemingway or the Mary Hartline paper dolls.  But if I told you EVERYTHING, you’d never donate that stuff to the Newberry.  And that’s the easiest way to make sure you keep Grandma’s really valuable books.  Give them to us and then buy them back in July.  I don’t know why some people want to make things difficult.

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