I had my first house call this past spring, visiting the house of a client to purchase the books of his deceased wife. I’ll post another time about what it was like to purchase books at a house call, an altogether different experience than buying books at library sales, book shops, or auctions. There was not much of saleable value there, except for a beautiful Illustrated Edition of the Works of Charles Dickens — 30 volumes, the Letters of Charles Dickens— three volumes, and the three-volume Life of Charles Dickens, published betweeen 1872-1882, and bound uniformly in a signed, half-leather Birdsall binding. Though I wasn’t sure when I purchased it if the set was complete or valuable, it was a lovely set, and I knew immediately that I would offer it to my mentor, Mr. Z., who specializes in Charles Dickens. I took a chance (if the set hadn’t been complete, I’d have lost most of my investment in its purchase) and bought the books, thinking that if no one wanted to buy them, the books still had great bookshelf presence.
Good mentor that he is, Mr. Z. said he was certainly interested in the set, but to please write a thorough description for him, including a collation of all of the plates and signatures. I had never collated a book before, and I was eager to learn how, so I promised him that if he could be patient while I taught myself how to do this, he would receive a very thorough description. I also asked him if he would promise to correct any errors in my description. (I would never normally ask this of a customer, but since Mr. Z. is also my teacher, I ask for help as needed.) Somewhat daunted, I was unsure where to begin.
I started with every book collector’s Bible, John Carter’s ABC for Book Collectors. I looked up the terms collation, plates, and signature, wanting to be sure that my understanding of these terms was correct. Carter’s book is a readable list of terms related books and bibliography, and it was the first reference book I bought when I started collecting books in earnest.
Once I had a basic understanding of the terms, I proceeded to read some books about bibliography. Another bookseller I know had been generous enough to give me his extra copies of Ronald B. McKerrow’s An Introduction to Bibliography and Philip Gaskell’s A New Introduction to Bibliography. I have to be honest and say that these books are not easy reads for the beginner. I had to read them in the evenings, when all was quiet around the house, with my pen at the ready to take notes. Still, I would not have been able to do an appropriate collation of the Dickens set without reading these books.
Mr. Z. also suggested I purchase a Charles Dickens bibliography, Dickens and Dickensiana: A Catalogue of the Richard Gimbel Collection in the Yale University Library, by John B. Podeschi. Bibliography in hand, I was able to learn of the many published editions of the Works of Charles Dickens, including which edition my set was. After careful comparisons of signatures, page numbers, and plates, I determined that the set I had was called the Illustrated Library Edition, the first illustrated collection of the Works of Dickens. Yes, it took a lot of time to collate each of these items, and even though I had my customer in mind, this was not a quick sale because of the time it took me to do the research. However, I love to do research, and my two-page description helped me to get the sale. (I am pleased to report that Mr. Z. double-checked my collation and it did not need any corrections.)
Because I made that sale, I was able to buy my plane ticket to Colorado for the Colorado Antiquarian Book Market Seminar.
And the luxury of a rental car for the week.
And the luxury of buying more books at the Denver Book Fair.
Overall, the sale was worth the wait, much better than quickly offering the books at an estimated price based on looks alone. When you find something you think is good, take the time to do your bibliographic research. Sometimes, you’ll be disappointed, and other times you may be happily rewarded.
I learned quite a bit more about leaves, signatures, collation, and bibliography at the Colorado Seminar. I still have a lot to learn about bibliography, and I plan to learn even more next summer at the University of Virginia Rare Book School. I think that if I gain a proper understanding of bibliography, my research will sometimes lead me to uncover information that proves a book’s authenticity, something which can increase a book’s value. I think a good use of descriptive bibliography also gives my customers information they need and adds to my credibility as a bookseller.
A few more links I found helpful in learning about bibliography:
Oak Knoll is a publisher of all kinds of books about books and bibliography. Visit their site, where there are many good articles on bibliography and many books for sale to increase your knowledge of this subject.
Bibliographical Society of America has all kinds of useful information on bibliography and bibliographic resources.
If you really want to know about bibliography, you should learn it from someone who has more experience than I. Subjects like these seem arcane but are crucial to understanding antiquarian books. One lamentable thing about the closure of many open shops is that it makes it difficult for a new bookseller to first apprentice herself to an established bookseller, where she can learn about things which take more than one simple explanation, like bibliography. That’s why I constantly recommend things like the Colorado Seminar, where you can learn in person from very experienced booksellers.
When I want to see the difference between good descriptive bibliography and bad, I read through the listings on ABE daily. Look at 100 listings for the same title, starting with the highest priced book first. If you repeat this process every day for a month, you’ll be able to recognize which booksellers consistently do their bibliographic research. Now go and compare a good listing from ABE to some of the listings on ebay or Amazon. Again, if you repeat the process, you will with time learn to recognize sellers who understand the significance of bibliography. Frequently, they are the sellers able to command higher prices, and because they have effectively demonstrated their knowledge of a particular subject, they command greater customer trust as well.
There are hundreds (probably thousands) of reference books and bibliographies on any given subject. Learn what the important ones are for your specialty (or specialties) and gradually acquire them. Every time I make a sale, a portion of my profit is set aside for the purchase of reference books. I purchase bibliographical references as I can, and I beg or borrow those I don’t have from other sellers I know. In the antiquarian book trade, knowledge adds value. Don’t be afraid to add to your knowledge of bibliography!
P.S. This post is dedicated to BiblioHistoria, the first person ever to request that I write on a particular topic. Thanks!