The problem, hardboiled mango, is that prices are fluid. This is true of nearly every economic entity. The value of a car will depreciate. The price someone will pay for your home may change greatly if someone builds a parking garage right outside your window. Those neat boots you paid umpteen dollars for just last year will never sell for that again, thanks to the snow and salt of a Midwestern Winter. (I expect the Polar Vortex we had last month may change the resale price of your home, too, unless you can manage to have the buyer drop by on a beautiful day in Spring—we have at least one scheduled this year, but I think it’s a Thursday.)
A lot of people do NOT understand this, however, when it comes to collectibles. “I paid sixty-five bucks for that Burton Natarus bobblehead ten years ago, and I’ve never seen another for sale!” they cry. “It MUST be worth millions by now!”
Sure it is. The question is millions of what.
The Grand Renovation has allowed those of us involved in this annual Book Binge to go back through some of our collectibles. Due to a process a little too complex to explain (and I doubt you’d believe all of it anyhow) some boxes of collectible books did not make it out of the second floor of the vault these last ten or so years. But when the vault was slated for demolition, EVERYTHING had to come out. And thanks to the availability of a bright-eyed, quick-fingered volunteer, we can haul these things out of hiding and find out what has happened to the prices.
You would perhaps expect, even after the previous paragraphs, that the prices have gone up. But as our Book Fair Curator used to say, “Timing is Everything.” Books which were perfectly collectible in, say, 1998 arouse yawns today. Let us speak, for starters, of Jonathan Harr.
Jonathan Harr wrote a book of true legal adventures called A Civil Action in 1995. It was a bestseller AND won critical awards. Robert Redford made a movie out of it, starring John Travolta, and THAT was praised. When the Book Fair was given this first edition of the book, Jonathan Harr was HOT HOT HOT. Fifty dollars was a bargain.
Jonathan Harr’s second book, The Lost Painting, also won critical awards. The New York Times called it one of the best books of the year. Our problem, pastel peanut, is that the year of his second book was 2005. If an author wants to remain HOT HOT HOT, he has to write books more often than every ten years. I have heard no rumors of a third book, but a first edition of A Civil Action will now run you about three bucks. This lovely copy we had for sale will no longer take up space on the Collectible tables.
The same has happened to first editions by David Guterson (Snow Falling on cedars, remember?) and Ursula Hegi (Stones From the River). I will not say these authors will not make a permanent mark on literature. It’s just that the hype has died, and people are not rushing to buy those first editions the way they would have when these boxes got set away on the back shelves in the vault. Timing, you see: all timing.
On the other hand, here’s this paperback copy of The Hobbit. I always charged three or four dollars for it, a rather high price for a plain, ordinary paperback. But, see, this is the American paperback edition. When the rights to print Tolkien’s works in paperback got sorted out, Ballantine published this authorized edition. And Tolkien HATED the cover art by Barbara Remington. He wanted to know why trees were sprouting eggplants over the heads of dark emus. He did not recall any of that in the Middle-Earth HE had written about. But he really put his foot down when it came to the lion. There was no lion anywhere in his books (and perhaps he was thinking of the lion in Narnia.) From the third printing on, you will find a patch of dark green grass where once a small lion stalked the elusive Shire emu.
But there have been some movies since the last time I had a copy of this little paperback come in, and apparently the price of a first printing in good shape now runs to thirty or forty times our old price. So retrospective price-checking isn’t ALWAYS beastly.