Close this window to return to BookThink

The Accidental Antiquarian

Becoming an Antiquarian Bookseller
Part I: Knowledge Adds Value

by Chris Lowenstein

#113, 4 February 2008

Last month I wrote an article that discusses the difference between a bookseller and an antiquarian bookseller, arriving at the conclusion that specialized knowledge allows an antiquarian bookseller to create value and, sometimes, even create new markets.

Like all booksellers, the antiquarian bookseller will research the current price and availability of a particular book to determine its current market value.

But unlike other booksellers, the antiquarian bookseller also researches the book to see if others have overlooked anything significant about it that would add to its value. When this type of research turns up something new, the antiquarian bookseller can, with a well-written and well-placed description, set his price above what others are asking, thus driving the market upward.

When I decided to become an antiquarian bookseller, I wondered how I could obtain the kind of specialized knowledge that adds value to books. Was this knowledge something I should possess innately? Was it something that could be taught, and if so, where could I go to learn it? Did antiquarian booksellers ever share their research secrets? In answer to these questions, I learned that several things help build the knowledge of an antiquarian bookseller: experience, education, and expansion. If you're bored just listing books you find based on the prices others are asking for the same book, this article is for you.

When I started selling antiquarian books, I failed to take into account how my prior experience could help me. I was an English major in college and also taught high school English for several years. During my teenage years I worked in a bookstore, for a university library, and for a small publisher. While this might seem very literary, I had little if any exposure to antiquarian books at the time. Still, my education combined with my work experiences exposed me to the names of the high spots in literature and to the processes by which literature is marketed to and judged by consumers. This experience has turned out to be very beneficial in terms of providing a good foundation of literary knowledge upon which I could build.

Wanting to learn all I could about antiquarian books, I read every book I could find on the subject, beginning with Nicholas Basbanes' excellent series on the history of books and book collectors. A few years later, I'm still working my way through stacks of bookseller memoirs, collector reminiscences, and books about books. Whatever your experience prior to antiquarian books is, you can stand on the shoulders of the giants who came before us to get a good introduction to antiquarian books by reading what they've left behind.

Prior experience and self-education are good beginnings for an antiquarian bookseller; however, if you are serious about your career, you should plan to continue your formal education. In addition to reading about antiquarians and their books, several courses are available. ABAA bookseller David Gregor travels to different parts of the country a few times a year offering two excellent, one-day seminars about book collecting and bookselling:

If you find you have the inclination for an overview of all the types of antiquarian booksellers available, take the week-long Colorado Antiquarian Book Seminar.

Offered at Colorado College in Colorado Springs, it features a diverse faculty made up of all different types of booksellers - internet only, open shop, librarian, book conservator, specialist dealer, etc. It covers the gamut from how to find and evaluate stock to buying at auction to writing a print catalogue to selling on the internet and attending book fairs.

The Seminar has existed for 30 years, offers both partial and full scholarships, and offers you the chance to meet other booksellers and to expand your knowledge. I also suggest you read Karen Isgur Bergsagel's highly informative BookThink article about her experience in Colorado last summer here.

If you need less of an overview of antiquarian bookselling and more specific information about antiquarian books themselves, consider Rare Book School at the University of Virginia:

Founded in 1983 by Terry Belanger (recipient of the 2005 MacArthur "Genius" Grant for his rare book prowess), Rare Book School offers courses with names like "Book Illustration Processes to 1900," "Introduction to the Principles of Bibliographic Description," and "Introduction to Illuminated Manuscripts." If you find yourself interested in these subjects, antiquarian bookselling may be just the thing for you! Like the Colorado Antiquarian Book Seminar, Rare Book School also offers scholarships. Both organizations realize the importance of helping antiquarian booksellers, particularly those of us new to the trade, learn to be professionals. New booksellers with serious intentions of becoming professionals are welcome.

Antiquarian booksellers must learn to do thorough research. Good research skills give you the ability to turn up some new or little-noticed fact about a book you are selling, and they are key. If you want to be an antiquarian bookseller, learn about the resources for research - bibliographies and reference books. Learn how to cite your resources properly in a book description. Rare Book School offers many courses that can help in this area.

UCLA also offers a smaller but similar program for those of us closer to the West Coast:

Among the courses offered this summer are "Descriptive Bibliography," "Book Illustration Processes to 1900," and "The Book in the West."

I've attended a David Gregor seminar and the Colorado Antiquarian Book Seminar and recommend both very highly. I plan to attend the University of Virginia Rare Book School this summer, and, if I can gain admission, the UCLA Rare Book School as well.

Closer to home, you can easily expand your horizons by getting to know other booksellers. Those of us who sell only on the internet can sometimes feel as though we are working in a vacuum, and meeting other booksellers can alleviate that feeling, as well as give you a sounding board for your bookselling ideas. Once you make a good friend, you can talk about prices, compare your condition standards, etc. You might even get to know another bookseller well enough to share a booth and exhibit at a book fair or to purchase a very expensive book together. Having colleagues who can assist in fields outside your own specialty and whom you can sometimes assist is a priceless asset.

Though they are often crowded and don't often yield many antiquarian finds, go to your local library sale. Frequent attendance will help you learn to distinguish edition and condition - things you can't learn by spending time in an antiquarian shop, because all of the books there are only very good or better condition. At every library sale buy at least one book on the speculation that it may be valuable. Don't use your scanner, and pay attention to what instincts lead you to choose that book. Is it a beautiful binding or lack thereof? A famous author or illustrator? Take your speculative purchase home and research it. If you purchase a mistake - a book whose value does not lie in its financial return - you likely haven't spent too much money because you purchased it at a library sale.

Another way to expand your knowledge of antiquarian books is to study the catalogues of other antiquarian booksellers. These can help you to get a sense of the market, and more importantly, demonstrate what fine researchers and scholars many antiquarian booksellers are. Auction catalogues are useful to study as well. Many booksellers and auction houses will even send their catalogue right through the computer as a .pdf file. Services like Americana Exchange and American Book Prices Current can give you the results of auctions so you can see if a particular book sells above or below its estimate.

Illustrated catalogues are particularly good for getting a handle on evaluating condition. The next time you see an illustrated catalogue, try reading the descriptions and comparing the images of the books with the condition notes. You'll get a sense of how much evaluation of condition varies among different sellers but also of how much it does not. There are certain standards that go into deciding something is Fine vs. Very Good and Very Good vs. Good or Fair. Familiarizing yourself with those standards is one of the best ways to help yourself learn to choose better books.

Finally, go to book fairs, either as a spectator or as an exhibitor. See what other sellers are offering, in what condition and at what prices. Talk to the other booksellers. Get to know your market and who are the top specialists in particular subjects. Book fairs are also great places to scout books. A book fair is like having 50 or more antiquarian shops in one location at the same time. It's one stop shopping!

Being an antiquarian bookseller takes a great deal of work, but, if you like research and learn to use your resources in a professional manner, it can yield great returns. You need to be willing to rely on your experience, increase your education, and expand your contacts in the bookselling world. If you can do so, you will be well on your way to becoming an antiquarian bookseller.

Questions or comments?
Contact the editor, Craig Stark

Copyright 2003-2011 by BookThink LLC