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The Accidental Antiquarian

Becoming an Antiquarian Bookseller
Part I: Condition Matters

by Chris Lowenstein

#117, 31 March 2008

An early book hunting expedition I undertook taught me an important lesson: Condition matters.

A lot.

On that book hunt, I found a 1920s Arabian Nights illustrated by Maxfield Parrish, a first edition Raggedy Ann story called Marcella, by Johnny Gruelle, and a book with a fantastic dustjacket, Love in a Cold Climate, by Nancy Mitford. I eagerly bought them all, paying about $20 for the three books.

Rookie bookseller that I was, I immediately went home and looked the titles up on BookFinder and AddALL, thinking that looking at what other sellers were asking was the best way to price a book. (Looking at current market prices is part of pricing a book, but for an antiquarian bookseller, it is not the only part. See "Knowledge Adds Value."

There were about three copies of Marcella in first edition listed online for about $250-500. I was thrilled, imagining the hefty profit I'd make on this title, for which I paid about $7. However, when I read the descriptions of the sellers, I noticed some differences between their books and mine.

Yes, my book was a first edition, but it was missing the illustrated box in which it originally appeared. Also, the other copies were in fine condition. Mine was not. It had a faded spine, roughed up edges, and a scratch down the picture of the face of the girl on the cover. Inside, a few pages were torn at the margins.

My book was worth exponentially less than the other three first editions offered online. Worse, did I really want to list a book in such poor condition in an effort to sell it only to have customers associate my business, Book Hunter's Holiday, with the idea of "good titles, less than stellar condition"?

I had a similar sense of dread with the other two titles, which I hadn't bothered to check carefully at the sale. Turns out they were both ex-library copies, which would diminish my asking price to about what I had paid for them in the first place.

Hmmm. Apparently, building an antiquarian book business means that one must have the ability to do more than memorize the names and points of issue of collected books. One must also be able to discern the difference between a book in good enough condition to make it saleable and a book whose condition does not justify the effort of selling it.

A used bookseller might be happy with the books I mentioned above, but there is a difference between antiquarian booksellers, who usually sell a particular copy of a book - a first edition, a signed copy, an association copy, a copy in a unique binding, a copy in the finest condition - and used booksellers, who usually offer books of all kinds and conditions, largely to people who want reading copies. The book world needs both kinds of sellers, and both kinds of sellers serve a specific purpose. The point is to determine which type of seller you want to be and to work toward that goal. In the case of the antiquarian bookseller, condition matters.

A lot.

After this failed foray buying books just because I was so excited to find them, I resolved to pay closer attention to condition. While a price-clipped dust jacket, an inscription, or a couple of small closed tears on a dust jacket might be acceptable, faded or darkened spines, pages or boards beginning to separate from the spine, pen or pencil marks in the text of the book itself are not. Soiling and water damage are almost always unacceptable unless so mild as to be unnoticeable.

I'm the first to admit that such criteria are subjective and might be altered depending on the rarity of the book, like the time I found a book from 1882 in its original, chipped and torn dust jacket. An 1882 dust jacket is uncommon enough to be desirable in just about any condition, so I bought the book. Additionally, any two booksellers might disagree over the difference between a fine and a very good, but all antiquarian booksellers ought to be able to recognize a copy in good, fair, or poor condition and ought to keep books in these lower grades out of their inventory unless they are so rare that any condition is acceptable.

The now defunct, well-known journal for booksellers AB Bookman's Weekly (aka Antiquarian Bookman) had a very usable list of condition grades for sellers. Though the journal is no more, its condition grades are timeless, and provide a good rule of thumb for most antiquarian booksellers.

From AB Bookman's Weekly, November 16, 1998:

"A thriving antiquarian book trade is largely dependent on the effectiveness of catalogue and mail-order bookselling. Transactions by mail are possible as long as buyer and seller recognize the importance of accuracy in describing the condition of the books offered for sale.

Terms used to describe condition of books are as varied and numerous as the creativity and imagination of bookmen can produce. When confusion reigns over descriptions by advertisers or quoters, dissatisfaction is the inevitable result.

In an effort to promote agreement between buyer and seller in the descriptions used for the condition of books, AB first proposed in 1949 a set of terms that could serve as a standard in catalogue and mail-order transactions. The list was published again in the 1975 edition of by Sol. M. Malkin. A revised list of terms used in describing books is now published in each weekly issue of AB to serve as a suggested guide and reference for bookmen:

1. As New is to be used only when the book is in the same immaculate condition in which it was published. There can be no defects, no missing pages, no library stamps, etc., and the dust jacket (if it was issued with one) must be perfect, without any tears. (The term As New is preferred over the alternative term Mint to describe a copy that is perfect in every respect, including jacket.)

2. Fine approaches the condition of As New, but without being crisp. For the use of the term Fine there must also be no defects, etc., and if the jacket has a small tear, or other defect, or looks worn, this should be noted.

3. Very Good can describe a used book that does show some small signs of wear - but no tears - on either binding or paper. Any defects must be noted.

4. Good describes the average used and worn book that has all pages or leaves present. Any defects must be noted.

5. Fair is a worn book that has complete text pages (including those with maps or plates) but may lack endpapers, half-title, etc. (which must be noted). Binding, jacket (if any), etc., may also be worn. All defects must be noted.

6. Poor describes a book that is sufficiently worn that its only merit is as a Reading Copy because it does have the complete text, which must be legible. Any missing maps or plates should still be noted. This copy may be soiled, scuffed, stained or spotted and may have loose joints, hinges, pages, etc.

7. Ex-library copies must always be designated as such no matter what the condition of the book.

8. Book Club editions must always be noted as such no matter what the condition of the book.

9. Binding Copy describes a book in which the pages or leaves are perfect but the binding is very bad, loose, off, or nonexistent.

In all cases, the lack of a dust jacket should be noted if the book was issued with one.

These terms may be arbitrary, but whatever terms are employed, they may be useless or misleading unless both buyer and seller agree on what they mean in actually describing the book. When in doubt, describe the book exactly as it is, as to physical condition, textual reading, and edition.

Always bear in mind that a bookseller's reputation and credibility are his most valuable assets, and accurate description preserves that credibility."

Consistent description standards build credibility. Credibility, like condition, matters.

A lot.

Questions or comments?
Contact the editor, Craig Stark

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