Never mind the Morlocks. For a book lover, the most chilling scene in the 1960 screen adaptation of "The Time Machine" is the one in which the Time Traveler is taken to the decrepit library of the Eloi race. "I can learn all I want about you from books," he exults. But when he picks up one of the neglected tomes, it crumbles to dust in his hands. "Yes," he states ruefully, "they do tell me all about you."
We treasure our books, not just the words themselves that in this increasingly digital age can be downloaded to a Kindle or
This piece first ran in Printers Row Journal, delivered to Printers Row members with the Sunday
"My wife and I were given Kindles, and I could not get myself to turn the damn thing on," laughed
First editions and rare books are the highest form of book gift giving. The winter holiday season sees a spike in rare book sales, but they are also popular Valentine's Day, graduation, wedding, anniversary and christening gifts, rare book sellers note.
"You have a relationship with a book," said
"There is something totemic about holding a first edition in your hands," said Justin McShea, a bookseller with Bauman Rare Books. "As the digital age progresses, books are becoming more and more exotic. People have a stronger affinity for the first appearance of the great books that charted the course of civilization."
If that sounds too tony, Judith Lowry, a partner in New York-based Argosy Book Store, which is approaching its 90th anniversary, offers that buying rare books or first editions is much more universal now than in years past when it was considered an esoteric pursuit conducted by "old men in tweed jackets smoking pipes, collecting Wordsworth and Shelley."
One of the beauties of rare books, said Tom Congalton, owner of Between the Covers Rare Books, in New Jersey, is that the field is so wide. There is nostalgia in handling the original artifact of something that means a lot to you, whether it's a children's book you grew up with a book that influenced you later in life or a book that was tied to a special moment in time.
"When my daughter was born, I was given a book by Rockwell Kent," said Susan Benne, executive director of the Antiquarian Booksellers' Association of America. "I just love the thing. It's lushly illustrated and absolutely beautiful. Every time I open the book, it takes me back to that time and I think about the people who gave it to me."
As with other collectibles, it is the high prices that some first editions fetch that get the most press. The most requested classic books include
But prices range. At Chicago Rare Books Center, Nancy Drew fans can find first editions of some of her empowering adventures for as little as $35, while a first edition of
What determines price? As with anything else, it's driven in part by supply and demand. It's not just a question of rarity, Congalton points out. "People collect a book because they want it, not just because it's rare. There may be a sermon by some 19th century preacher. Objectively, that's rare, but nobody wants it."
Conversely, it would take magic indeed to find one of the extremely rare U.K. hardcover first edition first printings of "
Another primary factor in determining price is condition and whether it still retains all the book's elements (the dust jacket, for example). Congalton related fielding a request from "a famous film star" who wanted a first edition of
How can buyers be sure the book they are buying really is a first edition and is priced fairly? The Internet has been a boon for research and transparency, but the obvious answer is to deal with a reputable book dealer with experience.
One place to start is the ABAA's website, abaa.org, which offers a directory of member rare bookstores that can be searched by city. The booksellers, Benne noted, are vetted and must adhere to a code of ethics. You can also search the site for a specific title. A recent search for
When it comes to giving a first edition as a gift, it should be the thought that counts, and not the book's potential worth as an investment.
"We don't sell our books as investments," said McShea, of Bauman Rare Books, "but at the end of the day, they really are investments. The rare book market is very conservative and prices have been trending upward slowly but surely for years. If you are looking to put together a collection and sell it and get rich, it really doesn't work that way."
Lowry, of Argosy Book Store, agreed: "I always tell people instead of waiting for your books to appreciate, you should be appreciating your books."
The value of old books
You can find first editions in all price ranges. Here is a sampling culled from the Antiquarian Booksellers' Association of America's website at abaa.org. The photos represent the editions noted; they do not depict the actual items for sale.
$25 will buy
"In Lincoln's Hand: His Original Manuscripts" by Harold Holzer and Joshua Wolf Shenk
$225 will buy
"The Stand" by
This first edition of Stephen King's post-apocalyptic epic published in 1978 is listed in "very good or better (condition) in a dust jacket with minor soiling and two tape mends on the front panel." Offered by Peter L. Stern & Co., sternrarebooks.com. Or you could go for the $2,500 first edition signed by King in 1994 available from Argosy Book Store, argosybooks.com.
$700 will buy
Signed by the author, this 2005 first edition first printing contains only the author's last name on the book and spine and contains no mention of the author's website or reviews. Offered by By the Book, bythebooklc.com.
$1,000 will buy
"Portnoy's Complaint" by Philip Roth
Roth recently announced he has retired from writing, which should increase the value of his works. This 1969 first edition of his scandalous third novel is No. 33 of 600 signed by the author. Available from Charles Agvent, charlesagvent.com.
$20,000 will buy
Offered by Between the Covers, betweenthecovers.com, this first edition of the 1963 children's classic is a "first edition with the publisher's price and the correct first issue code on the front flap. ... Nicely inscribed by Sendak in 1966 with a small drawing of a dog."