Things We Love
I love many things about being a bookseller, but one of the most satisfying aspects of the job is the research. The difference between a bookseller and a truly successful bookseller is the amount of research they are willing to do.
The fundamental research is obvious. Is the book valuable, scarce, unique? Is it complete? Is it saleable? Is it a first edition or is the later edition more interesting? For what reasons might this particular book be noteworthy?
The next level of research gets more interesting. Much like paintings, the provenance of a book can make it more valuable and certainly more interesting - was it owned by anyone significant? There may be an ex-libris plate with the previous owner’s name on it, there may be a signature, or even better, it may be the author’s own copy with annotations. This would be relevant for a known author, not for a self-published work without merit. Book plates or ex-libris plates are a collectors’ field in their own right, often designed by famous artists and, in some cases, worth more than the books they grace.
Sometimes the signature carries very little monetary value but may just make the book more desirable, setting it apart from other copies on offer. Some authors were frequent signers of books, making them less appealing, yet other signatures carry great value because of their scarcity. I have in my personal collection a signed early copy of the second Harry Potter book, for instance – at this period in her career, JK Rowling signed less frequently, making this signature all the more valuable. A signed edition of the last book however, usually not so interesting as there are many more available.
If a signature is flat signed straight onto the book, usually the title page, this is considered the most desirable. A signature onto a book plate usually indicates the author has signed hundreds of bookplates to be affixed into books at a later date. Given the author has never handled the books, these are much less valued by collectors.
There are signatures which are required, as in the case of a limited edition with a note of limitation and the author’s signature. Sometimes the illustrator or publisher will also sign these editions. Then there are inscriptions – signed with a note, perhaps to a random person of little interest (to the book trade, at least) but sometimes to someone famous – an ‘association copy’ – which can be very interesting. Better a signature alone than an inscription to Auntie Betty on the occasion of her 40h birthday – unless Auntie Betty was Elizabeth Taylor or Betty Bacall. The verification of that association – the provenance of the book – means research. Where did the book come from, does it have an auction record? Did the bookseller buy it directly from the owner’s library or from a member of their family? Once verified, the presence of a good inscription from a collectable author with a significant recipient will turn such a book into an association copy and enhance the value enormously.
Recently a very nice association copy of The Origin of Species by Charles Darwin was offered by Peter Harrington Books in England for £225,000GBP. Research can enhance a book’s worth to a collector and sometimes significant volumes will unearthed.
As a bookseller, you get all kinds of requests and queries – the buying and selling of books is not always a straightforward transaction. There are myriad book-related enquiries that I help customers deal with on a regular basis. One situation I frequently help customers with is downsizing. I refer, of course, to downsizing their book collections – please don’t ask me to drive your U-Haul. Customers are often moving to a new house, sometimes interstate, sometimes empty nesters moving to smaller homes, but in any case, looking to reduce their book collection to suit a smaller space.
First of all, I advise anyone in this situation to present the move as a done deal to their families. It’s amazing how many children and family members do not want to claim their books until they think they will be sold or donated. When they realise this is the reality, they’ll dawdle over whether they want to keep things, slowing down the process for the person doing their best to move with as little hassle as possible. Let your family know early, and give them a firm deadline to claim any books by.
The second piece of advice is work out how much room you will have and set up shelving to the exact dimensions of that space. Begin by putting the books you love, the ones you can’t part with, on the shelves. Put those to be sold or donated straight into boxes to go. Go through every book in the house until you have filled the shelves. There will inevitably be the removing and replacing of volumes as you go along, but this will help you really work out which books mean the most to you, and which you can live without.
Do not make decisions on sentimentality. Now is the time to face the books inherited and stored for others, and ask yourself if they’re there because you feel guilty about them, or because they truly bring you joy. Do I sound like Marie Kondo yet? She might have the right idea. If you’re keeping a book for any reason other than your love of that book, let it go to a better home, and free up that space for something that will make you happy.
Once you have donated the old textbooks and magazines and sold some of the better-quality volumes to your local bookdealer, you are relaxed about the books you have kept you are ready to move on. It can be a freeing experience, rather than a traumatic one, if you focus on the books you’re keeping, and the space you’ve made for them by clearing out the things that don’t hold meaning for you.
When times are troubling – and right now, times are downright petrifying for many of us – we tend to dial down our reading. I expect the bravest and more sensible among us are swotting up on dystopian survival skills, but burying my head in a vintage or comfortable read has been my escape, especially before going to sleep.
I’m looking for the tonic of times past when things, in books at least, were simpler, or where I can lose myself in a joyous journey into another person’s life and adventures. All Passion Spent by Vita Sackville West. Nancy Mitford’s Love in a Cold Climate. E.F. Benson’s Mapp & Lucia. Anything by P.G. Wodehouse or H.E. Bates. Happier works, albeit with just the right twist of reality inserted to make you feel a little uncomfortable. These authors knew how to write.
Of course the reality is that so many other time periods – the Cold War, nuclear threats, the peak of the IRA’s terrorist activities, the Red Brigade – were all just as frightening and confronting as the pandemic we’re facing. The difference now, of course, is the internet and 24-hour multi-channel TV. When I was young, TV, horror of horrors, was on for only a few hours a day. In 1956 the BBC was allowed to broadcast television on weekdays between 9am-11pm, with not more than 2 hours before 1pm. There was also a ‘toddlers truce’ from 6-7pm, when no television was broadcast, so responsible parents could bed down their children. At the weekend it was more relaxed, with 8 hours on Saturday and close to 8 on Sunday. They ended the toddlers truce in 1957. As it progressed, we watched Bonanza or Dixon of Dock Green, Gunsmoke and The Donna Reed Show, Sunday Night at the London Palladium and many others – all family friendly. I remember my mother standing in front of the television to block our views when a kiss she deemed too provocative was shown.
Now, when can frighten ourselves on demand with 24 hour news and a seemingly bottomless offering of dramas and thrillers, murders and crime. Midsomer Murders has at least two murders a week in their small English county. We read crime which graphically portrays a world of evil, horror on a scale Edgar Allen Poe would find terrifying, and even a lot of the non-fiction has us at a point of hopelessness.
We can stream all of this through our mobile phones which we are attached to 24 hours a day. I am not being a dinosaur, but I keep a mobile on me only for convenience and my children will tell you I barely know how to use it. I refuse to be available to anyone 24 hours a day - my nearest and dearest can get me by landline, Skype, emails and, god forfend, actually talking to me face to face.
Of course, I am aware that not all reading was gentle and easy in the 50s and 60s. There were plenty of frightening reads and confronting books. Your reading was determined by the bookshops, author’s reputations, the buzz of a good recommendation. I had forgotten how beautifully written and well crafted so many novels of this period were. Orwell’s 1984, Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes, Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood – none of these are for the faint hearted, but masterpieces each of them. There’s also Rosemary’s Baby by Ira Levin, Jacqueline Susann’s Valley of the Dolls. Mary McCarthy’s The Group was a different kind of confronting. And the claustrophobic The Collector by John Fowles is worth a mention. The 1960s produced some really controversial books, Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess being an obvious example. Authors of this period were not frightened to write about the drugs and violence of the time – mix that with post war poverty and you can see it has always been a challenge to live sanely.
All this goes to show, we will get through this time, as we’ve gotten through so many others. Diving into a book has always been a wonderful way of connecting with the broader human experience – a thing I think so many of us need right now. I advise that you turn off your phone this evening and find some solace in a book instead.