Bits and Pieces

The book collecting world is part of a larger world. If one thinks of collecting in general as the entire, beautiful geometry of a fractal, book collecting is but a small piece of that fractal. Even smaller, is a collecting area known as: Ephemera.

At this point, my writing professor would ask me to redefine myself. A fractal is a design of an object or creature (often found in nature) that has a repeating, symmetrical pattern. A peacock feather is one example. To the human eye, things with these repeating, often colorful and symmetrical patterns, are very, very beautiful. In fact, these patterns are made up of a lot of pieces…sometimes, too many to calculate.

Fractals Digital Fractal - Free image on Pixabay

I feel like I wore this peacock feather fractal on a dress in the 1970s.

Ephemera collectors focus on those often smaller, disposable pieces of our culture. To quote from an article published by the Ephemera Society of America, it is something (usually paper) “briefly useful then discarded.”

These bits of discarded material can take many forms. Postcards are an obvious example. We have all been known to have the greatest of intentions of mailing (once upon a time) a postcard then having second thoughts. And so, it remains with us for years to come, cloistered in a drawer. THIS is the stuff of the Ephemera collector.

Now consider the rest of the multitude of the fractal: Advertisements, wallpaper samples, maps, vintage valentines, tickets and paper souvenirs, posters, letterpress printing, blueprints, trading cards and brochures. In other words, stuff you throw away!

Amusing postcard from an obscure beach in Southern New Jersey.

Of all the paper-based collecting areas, Ephemera does the most to both identify itself and live up to its name. Both books and Ephemera were created in multiples, often by the hundreds if not the thousands. (This is my chance to remind you that even the earliest printed books were published in multiples.)

BUT, Ephemera, unlike books, were designed with a short life span. Their short life span guaranteed that the buying public would buy them again and again. If you like this postcard, well, we have an entire kiosk to choose from…buy two more! The disposable nature of Ephemera was capitalism working efficiently.

Obscurity is key. Scarcity is a must. And collectability depends heavily on Condition. A good start for a collector is to check out the Ephemera Society’s fun and precise website: www.ephemerasociety.org

It can’t be overstated that one man’s Collectible Ephemera is another man’s absolute trash. Collecting Ephemera is not for everyone — it requires a devotion to the particle, the piece. And the sensibility of an archivist. Ephemera, unlike books, does not enjoy merely sitting on the shelf. The question is to display or not to display and this often depends on the nature of the item. Exposure to light is even more of a risk to a very old piece of paper.

Nonetheless, much of the lessons of history would be lost to us if not for one very old piece of paper. What is the Declaration of Independence but a piece of Ephemera so important, yet so fragile, that it must exist forever under glass. What are we Americans without it? I’ll tell you what — BRITISH!

African Americans, looking for clues to their ancestral lines, sometimes have Ephemera to guide them. In the darkest of ironies, it is often the log books ships, slave owner receipts and runaway slave advertisements that help us find long lost members of our family. When something is committed to print, it can become both a beacon and an indictment, but it is most importantly a record of life.

Courtesy of Cornell University’s Freedom on the Move Project

Ephemera can be the final clue to a scholar and archivist or the greatest joy to the collector of circus memorabilia. The fractal of delights. So many delights that in the last decade, the collecting of Ephemera has come forth from the shadow of book collectors into its own little light under the sun.

Collecting very specific bits of paper, much of it reasonably priced, allows the Ephemera collector great freedom of expression. It is the place where the baseball card meets the calling card and the luggage tag dances with the matchbox.

A utopia of paper, where every part is equal.

Stay Beautiful.

Spring Fever among the Stacks (part 1)

April brings rain and Book Fairs. It’s not hot enough to drop everything and head to the beach. It’s just warm enough to get you out of the house and unpredictable enough to force you inside when the weather turns. For Book Fair attendance, this is a perfect storm.

Be warned — it’s not a free library lunch. Book Fairs charge a nifty fee (usually about 20 bucks). If you are taking your family, grab a pretzel or hot dog before you go inside. Parents who take their kids to museums — you know the drill already.

For us book hunters, it can be like stepping into dark matter. We don’t know if we will come out the other side in one piece; there is a good chance we will be leaving our credit card karma behind. Things tend to go black when you look at the RETAIL prices. But, everyone is showing off the best of their stock. You might not get another chance for that…that…whatever it is your customer wants!

For me, the big Book Fairs hit just when I’m coming down with Spring Fever. NOT allergies. Genuine Spring Fever. I get quite irrational and impulsive. My eyes tend to wander from one pretty book to another. Sometimes, even the ugly, 19th century brown ones. I lose focus. My hand is constantly hovering over my wallet.

Don’t let this happen. I have trained myself to pull back. My trick is to actually try to LEARN SOMETHING while I’m scouting. (Also, my first stop is always the food area. Yes, I’m a child. I need to feed before I hunt.)

After feeding myself, I usually attend one of the fair’s programs or lectures. Listen, these are usually free events included in the price of your ticket and some of these lectures are worth paying for. In April, New York City hosts the most important Book Fair in North America, The New York International Antiquarian Book Fair. Spring for tickets on the first day or wait until the very last day (when tickets are discounted) and bring the family.

Post-Pandemic Spring Fever will be great for the Book Fairs!

Warning: The preview and first day are for serious collectors and hunters. Both attendees and booksellers tend to be ON! They have become rare book killer robots, running on pure capitalistic willpower. If you are just a beginner, wait until the last day when folks are more relaxed and the wine is flowing.

Here are 5 things I always try to do at Book Fairs:

  • There is usually ONE ITEM that is a must-see. I try and see that exceptional item first. During the thrill of browsing, I often forget that there is history in the room!
  • I do try and visit every booth. I often walk in concentric circles for hours but I will eventually get to all of them.
  • Both collecting and hunting are social activities. I talk with booksellers and other hunters. I socialize and ask questions and make connections. It’s important to be human. Booksellers don’t want to do business with an anti-social jerk. (Sooo 2019.)
  • I put my hands on books. Don’t be afraid to ask to handle a book; booksellers expect a good collector to inspect their items.
  • Be courteous to everyone. Most people are there just to enjoy being around like-minded people. A fair of any kind is designed to be fun.

If you do go to the Big Fair, prepare to be overwhelmed — in the very best way.

Stay Beautiful.

The Paperback Problem

My mother-in-law can read a long book in a very short time. She reads so voraciously that we are constantly raiding those Little Free Libraries. I have personally made a pirate raid on every single one within two miles of my house

Because, THIS antiquarian does not want to pay full retail for new books.

I am like a vampire when I visit a book store. I hiss at the prices of new titles. I do antiquarian mathematics: If one is paying $30 for a new book, then why do they not spend $100 for the first edition of the same book?

I mean, they are only about one third away from being a collector. A part of me goes down on my knees on the beach of despair and howls, “Damn you, apes!” Why are you throwing $30 away on a title that has been out for two years?

Well, I decided to just chill out about it. After two plus years of lockdown, my family and friends could use a break from pet peeves. I try to live by my new mantra:

Don’t press your luck, they are already sick of you.

Until one day, I visited a used book store. Naturally, I was with my mother-in-law. While she was filling her Trader Joe’s bag with books, I spied a very shiny selection of Penguin Classics. You know…the black ones with the logo on the spine like a cigar band.

Remember them from college? All the hits. The Hawthornes and Brontes and Hardys. The paperbacks were almost square and firm and the pages…soft and off-white. I either sold them after I read them or left them on the stairs when I moved but I have never forgotten them.

titled book lot

And, to give Penguin Classics credit, most of the titles published within the last twenty years, are still readable. The books are still flexible and the acid free pages, still as soft as the day you forgot them in your dorm’s laundry room.

And so, at this used bookstore, I felt the legacy of my past stupidity and decided to reinvest in these classic paperback titles. It would be nice to have a small library of these in my home for my family. If they have lasted this long, surely my they will wait for my 10-year-old to reach High School.

The bookstore clerk almost dropped his iPhone when I shrieked.

“You’ve GOT to be kidding me!!”

What had originally been a $12 copy of “The Scarlet Letter” was now an $8 dollar copy. What had been a $14 copy of “Jane Eyre” was now a $10 copy. The paperbacks were over five years old. A five-year-old paperback had less attrition than a Tobias Smollett first edition!

With my family out of earshot on the sidewalk, I quietly questioned the very young bookseller. Although he was in no position to argue the prices, he was sympathetic.

“Yeah, those are the prices. I know…you’d think they would be like a dollar but…” he shrugged, made a click with the roof of his mouth and produced a weak smile.

So, I continue to raid the little Free Libraries. I never thought that used paperback classics could be in the same racket as antiquarian books.

Seriously, does Charlotte Bronte still need the money?

Cracking the Secret of the Library Sale

Springtime! And libraries are now ready to burst into bloom. (What?)

Library Sales should be a’poppin in your city, town or neighborhood. These sales are a great place to stock up on books for your home library, or find that elusive title at a reasonable price. However, you will be doing so with a hundred like-minded folks. The quiet, good manners usually enforced by library culture will become something closer to the final days of New York’s Century 21 clothing store.

Book hunters, like me, are always looking for a good book at a good bargain. For hunters, Library Sales can be quite lucrative if there is even one great book worth the usual $20 plus admission fee. We usually have a list of what we want to score and have mapped out the place as if it was a bank in “Money Heist”.

The Evolution of Bank Heists: Is Your Money Safer Than 200 Years Ago? |  GOBankingRates

But, be warned. If you are a mere book lover, folks like me will mow you down like new grass. Book hunters fly the Jolly Roger and come armed with cardboard boxes and a fierce determination to plunder.

Wear your mask! The quiet, good manners associated with the library are set to “punk rock”. The place will be crowded. People will reach over you. American rules of crowd behavior are magnified. If you are a book collector and new to library sales, folks like me will mow you down like new grass unless you know a few good tricks:

#1 Tickets are usually given out. Get there very early. Bring coffee. Get there two hours early to stand in line just to get the ticket which gives you a number. Once you get your number, you are free to walk about but be sure to get back in line according to your number just before the sale begins.

#2 Be polite in the line. All bets are off once you enter the sale but your place in line is honored. Tell those close to you if you need to step away for awhile and you should do the same for them. People are generally at their nicest when they are in the library line.

#3 Bring all sorts of money. Libraries are not retail stores so they may or may not be set up for some types of payment. Bring your credit cards, cash and (wow!) even your checkbook. And if it takes place in a library basement, there is a good chance that both cellphone reception and payment systems will be slow if not nonexistent.

#4 Skip the temptation to bring your kids. I know, it should be a fun experience at the library. But, I’ve seen kids get lost and swallowed up in these crowds. That’s not fun for anyone. Pick up a few books for the kids after you’ve made your big find but leave the poor, inevitably hungry, things out of it.

#5 Know what you want. If you are going to the first days of the Library Sale, these are the days hunters and collectors are there to strike gold. It is not a browser’s paradise. Things move quickly, savagely even. If you just want to stock up on paperbacks, you can wait until the very last day when the prices are reduced and the hunters, like me, have moved on.

Libraries get the best out of both hunters and collectors in this scenario. Much needed money usually goes back into library maintenance and acquisition or to a local non-profit. And, frankly, it’s a terrific place to learn more about books and book collecting.

There is usually an entire room or section set aside just for rare and collectible books. If you get there early, stop there first! That paperback will probably be there waiting for you. But, at the rare book corner, you just might find the find that you need to find.

Stay Beautiful!

I Like Big Books (part 2)

Which leads us to a more modern issue concerning Big Books.

Where to put them?

In the last decade, I’ve noticed a decline…hmmm…a better word is hesitancy…to invest in books in general and Big Books, in particular. Understandably, the antique books (see part 1) can be not only big, but precious and do not fit in well in a home of white walls facing glass walls. They tend to be as big as a first grader and possibly BROWN and neither is sensitive to modern aesthetics that bend towards clean and sparse and filled with light.

Those Audubon “Birds” are big birds and fancy picture books from the 19th century stick out like financial sore thumbs, screaming: “I’m very expensive and you are weak and afraid to turn my pages!”

A Rare Copy of Audubon's 'Birds of America' Heads to Auction to Benefit  Conservation | Audubon
SOOO Heavy….

Therefore, in the last 10 years, that includes 2 years of pandemic panic regarding our small, personal spaces, book collectors have gotten a bit spooked about Big (Brown) Books. (I mean…NFTs take up so little space, right?) Right.

So, what’s up with the market?

The answer is right back where we started from. Illustrated Big Books continue to be made by companies, like Taschen and Assouline, who specialize in visual narrative. The are big, they are beautiful and they are not cheap. What they are not, in most cases, are so precious their pages cannot be turned. But they are pricey, and some are quite collectible.

Image 2 of 4 for Jeff Koons
This Jeff Koons Taschen monograph is not a space saver. (see our website)

Big Books have managed to stay in character. They began as luxury items created in very small amounts for a very finite audience, and they remain so. What has changed is us. Most of us can now read, and even possibly afford some of those gorgeous, modern books piling up in cool bookstores and the gift shops of trendy museums (the day after Christmas sale), but few of us have any affordable place to put them!

The new luxury is affordable space. But, some books are just BIG, ya know? If you are a collector interested in illustrated books, there is little choice but to reserve some significant space on your shelves. If you have that itch, it’s best to work with it, not against it. “Big” is not just about size and space but about big money so be aware that the original price for most of these babies was large back in the day and just assume that price is going forward, not backward.

The old Big Books wait patiently.

After all, what do they care if the rent is too damn high?

I like Big Books (part 1)

Big Books are awesome. Humans are visual and Big Books check ALL those boxes. What they lack in type, they make up in glamour.

In the West, those Big Books with their fancy illustrations first turned heads before the age of printing. I’m talking the time of the cold, pale, Monk — his head down, painstakingly illustrating manuscripts for God and civilization. (Admittedly, I am borrowing that image from the movie, “The Name of the Rose”.) And although I am roughly beginning around the 8th century with the devout, Lindisfarne Gospels (Durham, England) there has been no end in sight for the need and want of beautifully illustrated books.

Detail from the Lindsfarne Gospels, St. Matthew (8th century, British Museum)

Illustrated or “illuminated” books were created with a combination of imagination, sweat and quill so the process was only as fast as a Monk’s ambition or lifespan. So, a few centuries later, the introduction of woodblock printing, sped up the process of printing and illustrating books but usually stripped it of color. Woodblocks, basically stamped an image onto a page. If there was to be any color (at an additional cost to the buyer, mind you) it would have to be applied…you guessed it…by hand.

We have come to think that new tech always comes at a cost — literally, figuratively and financially. But, old tech is often elitist. Think on this. Those illuminated Monk books were GLORIOUS. But, they were not meant for the illiterate and poor public…they were created for the church leaders. They were gorgeous, churchy Bibles created in very limited copies for a very small, audience. (That could read Latin.)

Not that I’m complaining. I’m the first to do a happy dance in front of The Book of Kells. Me love it. But, it took me quite some time working as a rare bookseller to put two and two and two more together. Next to those earlier, breathtaking, illustrated manuscripts, the 1493 Nuremburg Chronicle was cool…but a bit of a woodblock letdown. Created as an encyclopedia, the Nuremburg Chronicle uses moveable woodblock printing to create the fantastic, and I will say, pretty impressive worldbuilding.

Take THAT! D and D.

Then I saw an edition in color! What?? Well, that changed my impression. Not only was it more beautiful, but, I came to a conclusion: I was naïve.

While the manuscripts were like Dior, the later woodblock Big Books, were more like Zara. One was couture, the other was pretty and wearable, but for mass appeal. The Nuremburg was for PURCHASE. And to sell something, it is wise to have more than one and give buying options.

By the 15th century, the printing press had been invented. (And exploited quickly!) With the rise of the classes in Europe, and literacy expanding (oh, so slowly), there was now a market to sell books. And not just to students of Philosophy! (shudder)

Just a head’s up…you will probably never see these books for sale on my website.

I’m illuminated…just not that way.

But, if you are a little more curious about the history of these Big Books. You can “holla”.

Stay Beautiful.

The Auctioning of Phillis Wheatley

Finding and collecting Black Americana used to be easy.

Even a decade ago, folks would bring in boxes of incredible Americana and just “throw in” some book or novel item by or about Black American History. Sellers treated books by and about Black Americans as an interesting side note. It was similar to getting free undercoating for your new car.

Seller (digging through a box): “There is a Lincoln document, a lock of George Washington’s wig and Thomas Paine’s fingertip bone and some pretty poetry books by Black people… I can throw those in.”

Collectors and sellers and buyers were not only underwhelmed by these books (with a few exceptions), they were baffled by them.

As recently as twenty years ago, the demand for books by and about the Black American experience were misunderstood and practically unexplored in High School history class. Unless you count those so scary and so dreaded chapters. I learned the word “ambivalent” that year in Social Studies class when we all turned to the thin chapter on Reconstruction.

I almost fainted when I acquired this signed, first edition biography of A. Philip Randolph.

Luckily, in the last 100 years, books by Black folks of prestige fetched high enough prices to be displayed by booksellers and collectors. The usual suspects included: Frederick Douglass, Booker T. Washington, George Washington Carver, and Phillis Wheatley.

Unsurprisingly, the line up is mostly of Black Men born within less than one hundred years before and after the Civil War bearing familiar names of dead, white statesmen. (But, so did the collectors.) The one lone female, Ms. Wheatley, was a poet and child of another war, the American Revolution. It is with Ms. Wheatley’s book of poetry, Poems on Various Subjects (1773), that the collector of both Black Americana and Americana in general, turn their eyes up in aspiration.

Almost anything written by Ms. Wheatley, if brought to auction today, will set you back the price of a couple of fresh Tesla automobiles. A woman, captured in Africa and then sold for a trifle, was the writing sensation of the Revolutionary era. Material by Ms. Wheatley is now considered foundational to the collector of Americana with prices a decade ago being ridiculous and prices now being stratospheric.

The arrival and interest in Ms. Wheatley’s published poetry decades ago (ironically, she cannot escape the auction block), set off a spark with collectors who had either run out of ideas for collecting or were inspired by her appearance (many never having heard of her before). Including this writer.

She was the foot in the door. Now, the door is wide open and first edition books of first hand accounts of the Black Experience are becoming so collectible, that the price, like the universe, is expanding. Sourcing has been difficult and great books harder to find. (Just try and find a book written by any of the Black Panthers in a second hand store these days. I mean…you can’t find even find these books in Maine, people!

JUBILEE! Books about the Black Experience are HOT!

BOO!! They are too expensive for most folks — especially those witnessing the Black Experience first hand!

But, don’t let that stop you from looking.

I might try the multiverse.

Always keep the faith.

That’s the American way.

Phillis Wheatley - Poems, Quotes & Facts - Biography
Stay Beautiful.

The Dreaded Box Drop

“Do you buy books?”

The answer you get borders on offensive, “It depends.”

Why don’t Antiquarians want to buy books?

I’ll tell you why — Your books are terrible.

Antiquarians with a soul will attempt to shine a good light on them: “They are not for us.”

When in fact, your books are not collectible at all. They are either not First Editions, or they are just not popular to collectors…or TOO popular and not a scarce commodity.

The problem with Antiquarians who try to spare your feelings is that they are sending you on wild goose chase. You will end up dragging that heavy box of books to the next guy…and the next.

Frankly, this is unfair to you.

Antiquarian booksellers are there to sell rare books. Collectors are picky about condition. Understandably, booksellers can’t afford to consider anything less than than the best.

Some booksellers can barely contain their disgust (even over the phone) when they see an unknown cardboard box of books come their way. They are envisioning a very big glass of wine instead.

Nope!!

In the seller’s defense, these books represent a burden and the bookseller is a way to cash in on that burden. But, the box will become heavy. The time spent will not return. The money made may not make up for the effort.

It is in the best interest of anyone selling books to Antiquarians to do their homework first. Here are five things to check first before you load those books into that cardboard box:

#1 Are any of my books First Editions? (Compare with online resources like the American Book Exchange.)

#2 Do all of my books have near-perfect dust jackets?

#3 Is there any demand for this book? (Do people pretend they’ve read it when they haven’t? Then, yes!)

#4 Signed books are always more sellable.

#5 Research booksellers by checking their websites and call them first!

Finding the right bookseller for your books is key. Contact them and make sure that your books fall in line with what they sell and that they have room in their inventory. (And some time to look at them.)

I’ll be honest, they will probably reject them anyway. But, if there is even a chance that one book is big bucks, it might be worth it. And the rest can collect social security at a Senior Center where they will be read and appreciated.

Send me your questions! (Just not a carton of old books, please.)

How to Love Modern Books

Survival. That’s what collectability is all about. Darwin, of course, was right…throw in that sexiness vibe too. Collectability is a combination of toughness and desire. Kind of like Pam Grier.

When books were first created, they were battleships, like my old Uncles, made out of aged, ungreased leather. They have lasted too many lifetimes to count and can sit, waiting in a vault like Universal Monsters, just waiting for a reboot. Yawning refreshed after a nap of hundreds of years.

First time collectors, however, do not gravitate towards these “imponderables”, to steal from Deadwood. They go for the Moderns. The Moderns come in recognizable content and paper jackets.

Consult our Website for description and price.

If you DO choose the Moderns, and you probably will, be aware that the prices can range from the astronomical (think The Great Gat$$$by) to the recently published modest (see above).

Moderns need more physical protection than their ancestors. (Again, think about my Uncles.) Invest in book jacket protectors, made out of “mylar”, a protective film that cuts down on ultraviolet light and keeps out dust. Most importantly, it protects the book from your dirty hands. Do you think the white dust jacket pictured above could stay clean for even one year without protection? (Not in my house!)

Leather books love your greasy hands but Moderns are the equivalent of modern people, not as tough with a strong urge to stay pure.

So, if you go Modern, keep your collectable as clean as your Instagram.

I’m sure you know what I mean.

Stay Beautiful.

Questions? Contact me here:

www.beautifulamericanbooks@gmail

For book jacket covers and archival protection try here:

https://www.gaylord.com/

Stealing vs. Loving

On Valentine’s Day, we are reminded that there is someone for everyone.

As a bookseller with a heart made of pages, I like to think that for every book, there is a thief.

The Book Thief is as rare as the books they choose to steal. For most, if an antique book was sitting out on the street, it would be treated as the equivalent of a penny stuck to a hot sidewalk — unnoticed and avoided.

Most book thieves steal, not for money, but out of love. They got it bad. Licorice Pizza bad. The love of an object is a significant love. In this case, the Book Thief and the book are destined for one another. Where others shrug, the Book Thief has a romantic, mystical attachment to a 1616 map of New England or a gilded, illustrated edition of The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam.

Jane Austen is often a target of unwanted suitors. I’ve seen more than one collectible set of Austen reduced to a “filler” set because of a missing Pride and Prejudice. No one steals Northanger Abbey…just sayin’.

So, if there was ONE BOOK you would go to love-jail for…what would it be?

Leave me a note. No judgments.