Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Good for Its Age

You've seen it before. It's all over eBay, and you can't read five listings on any of the major book search engines before it jumps out at you.

It's a phrase you learn to drop quickly once you've spent any time in the book business. You start to wince when you hear it; it's like fingernails on a chalkboard.

Prospective sellers come up to you, hope in their eyes, and tender for your consideration a tattered, worn, ghost-of-its-former-self book. They utter the horrible words, and expect to be told that indeed, their decrepit volume is a prize. After all, it was printed in the nineteenth century!

You, on the other hand, know that there are at least a hundred copies to be had of that particular title, at least half of which look as if they'd just dropped off the press yesterday.

Age is not equal to value. Condition + scarcity + demand = value. It's true for books, just as it's true for cheese, fine wines, and furniture. Keep any of these in the wrong conditions, and you have fodder for the fireplace, and maybe vinegar for your salad.

For instance:
The Finished Mystery (1917) is much sought-after by collectors of Watchtower/Jehovah's Witness books. It is the posthumous work of Pastor Charles Taze Russell, the founder of the Watch Tower Society, and the seventh volume in his Studies in the Scriptures series. Auction prices vary, but an original, intact copy in this binding can retail for over $100 in Fine condition.

This copy has seen better days. The covers are stained, the spine is faded and chipped, the hinges are broken and the super is showing. To boot, the binder made a boo-boo and sewed in a duplicate signature while leaving out the proper one, so that there is a page 417 after page 448.

I'd be lucky to get $25 for this gem.

On the other hand, the copy to the right is in comparatively good shape: You can see a bit of wear along the edges and along the spine, but it's a nice tight copy. This one might go for $75 to $100, depending on the market.
But there are still nicer ones to be had out there, and you wouldn't have to wait too long before one turned up.
When I was in New York in April, I paid a visit to Argosy Books, which has some fine examples of 15th and 16th century books for sale, with beautiful leather bindings and paper that has retained its suppleness and whiteness long after books made with 20th century pulp have crumbled into dust. Even many of these were not priced over a couple of hundred dollars. Why? Demand, for one. Not too many people are interested in theological works in Latin by writers of lesser stature than a Thomas Aquinas.
So when someone says, "It's good for its age," let the buyer beware.

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