Close this window to return to BookThink

The Ten Top Reasons to Profit from Ephemera (in a Tough Economy)

Buying and Selling Ephemera Series

by Michele Behan

#120, 12 June 2008

First - the bad news. You can't pick up a newspaper or turn on a news show without being inundated by headlines of economic woes. The burst of the housing bubble has given way to the subprime mortgage meltdown and the worst credit crisis in America since the 1930s. Turmoil in the financial sector has affected all areas of our economy. A crisis of confidence has overshadowed freewheeling investors, who now operate in a climate of fear and apprehension. We consumers are left to cope with ever-rising gas prices and exorbitant grocery bills, while our homes are losing value and our credit sources are choked.

The economic ravages of this market downturn have been described by New York University economist Nouriel Roubini as a "very dangerous" crisis not seen since the Great Depression. What's a bookseller to do in these uncertain times?

One word: diversification.

Diversification is defined as "the process of accumulating securities in different investments, types of industries, risk categories, and companies in order to reduce the potential harm of loss from any one investment." Financial investors are advised to spread their risk by putting their assets in several different categories of investments, such as stocks, bonds, money market funds, and even precious metals. At the very least, stockholders are encouraged to invest in funds with a broad range of stocks, rather than hold individual stocks, in order to protect themselves from failure in any one sector.

In the same way, booksellers should consider spreading their financial risk by diversifying in different, yet related, business ventures. Adding ephemera - short-lived items usually made of paper, such as documents, letters, postcards and photographs - to your mix of inventory could be one of the smartest moves a bookseller can make in these tough economic times.

Now - the good news.

Here is a list of ten reasons why adding ephemera to your inventory of books can add to your profits:

10. The collapse of the housing market may increase the availability of ephemera.

Heirs who depend on liquidators or auction houses to dispose of their deceased loved ones' belongings have traditionally derived most of the estate proceeds from the sale of the family home. The dispersal of miscellaneous household items was often little more than an afterthought. I've heard estate sale operators tell stories of ephemera unknowingly discarded by family members. In one true story, a large quantity of vintage Halloween paper dating from the 1920s was found in a home's basement. Since the heirs saw no value in all this paper "junk," it was promptly dumped into the nearest trash can. Luckily, the auctioneers arrived on the scene in the nick of time and retrieved the Halloween ephemera from the garbage - those items alone netted the heirs $3,500! The collapse of the housing market makes the value of an estate more dependent on the lucrative stuff found inside the house. Now that houses have lost 20% or more of their value in some markets, these old papers and pieces of ephemera stand a better chance of being spared from the trash heap and made available to us and the collectors who search for them.

9. Collectors are living longer and continuing to add to their collections.

Changes in life expectancy and advances in health care are enhancing the quality of life for senior citizens. This translates to a new pool of experienced collectors who, rather than planning to dispose of their collections when they reach their 60s or 70s, are instead adding to those very collections. These advanced collectors have the interest and the financial resources at their disposal to provide a ready market for ephemera. Additionally, the increase in healthy and active seniors means that new collectors, freshly retired from the workplace with time on their hands, can be recruited as customers. Longer life expectancies increase the pool of potential buyers looking to acquire good quality ephemera, which we younger folks are happy to supply.

8. The fluctuating value of the dollar is attracting international investors.

Items of ephemera are avidly sought by many collectors outside America's boundaries. Because the dollar has lost its buying power against foreign currencies, international consumers are taking a new look at goods sold in the United States. As the dollar approaches nearly historic lows, merchandise offered by U.S. sellers offers an attractive value to the foreign collector who can take advantage of the exchange rate to nab bargains.

7. Sites such as eBay make it easy to offer ephemera to a worldwide audience.

In conjunction with the fluctuating value of the dollar, never before has it been easier to attract a global base of collectors. The epitome of making lemonade from lemons is to make a declining dollar work in your favor by choosing to sell your wares to a worldwide market. In true melting pot fashion, the fact remains that many paper items avidly collected by Europeans have migrated to America throughout the last four centuries. Finding these items, allowing international customers to purchase them and sending them back home across the ocean can put real money in your pocket.

6. Paper collectibles are perceived to hold their value better than paper dollars.

Not since the 1970s has inflation reared its ugly head at its present dizzying pace. Combined with an ongoing recession, the inflationary pressures in today's economy have been termed "stagflation" by media such as the Wall Street Journal and The New York Times - representing the marriage of stagnant economic growth and destructive inflation. Stagflation is not a pretty picture. Nevertheless, consumers who have lost faith in the power of the dollar will be more inclined to park their inflationary currency in tangible investments, such as ephemera, in the hope that such collectibles will hold or even appreciate in value. Such thinking can only help those of us who deal in paper collectibles.

5. Publicized profits in ephemera draw collectors to the genre.

Once upon a time, antiques were heavy duty objects: Windsor chairs, signed oil paintings, Chinese dynasty porcelain, and so on. Antiquarian books were granted a pass in this hallowed world because their beautiful bindings gave them the cachet of decorative objets d'art. It wasn't until the 1980s that photographs finally gained a foothold in the major auction houses. In 1979, the art world was shocked and records were shattered when Margaret Weston paid what was then the unfathomable sum of $10,000 for a single iconic image of a seashell by photographer Edward Weston. Now, the record price for a single photograph is $2,928,000, held by an Edward Steichen landscape photo sold by Sotheby's. A circa 1898 advertising postcard for Waverley Bicycles with artwork by Alphonse Mucha recently set a record auction price for a single postcard when it realized $12,650. News stories and press releases of auction highlights continue to draw new collectors to the ephemera genre. Ranging from historic documents to photographs, postcards and trade cards, ephemera have attained new levels of price appreciation and respectability in the eyes of collectors.

4. The crossover aspects of ephemera appeal to specialty collectors.

I have never sold a piece of ephemera to an "ephemera collector." I doubt that such a person even exists. The field of ephemera encompasses such a broad spectrum that it is virtually impossible to collect everything. Rather, those who purchase ephemera tend to be specialty or niche collectors. Such collectors limit their focus to a particular theme, but want everything associated with that theme, including the little known ephemeral items. In fact, those "missing pieces of the puzzle" often represent the crème de la crème to a true specialty collector. Most ephemera are cross-collectible in nature and will appeal to several different specialty collectors. For example, a couple of years ago, I acquired a piece of 1902 sheet music for the first stage musical of The Wizard of Oz. This interesting sheet music featured lyrics by L. Frank Baum and pictorial cover artwork by W. W. Denslow.

It is cross-collectible on many fronts and appeals not only to sheet music collectors but, also, collectors of author L. Frank Baum, illustrator W. W. Denslow and those who collect The Wizard of Oz. After much spirited bidding on eBay and despite a section of paper missing from the top left corner, the sheet music realized a final value of $202.50 to a dedicated Baum collector. Such is the beauty of ephemera.

3. Ephemeral items are easy to store and ship.

Part of adapting to a tough economy is streamlining your business to lower expenses. If you're looking for a way to keep a lot of inventory in a small space, you can't do better than ephemera. Hundreds of dollars worth of merchandise can be stored in a shoebox - literally! Shipping is also quick, easy (I use rigid photo envelopes available at Office Depot for larger pieces) and, best of all, cheap.

2. History is enjoying a resurgence of popularity.

The HBO miniseries John Adams, based on the book by David McCullough, drew an average of 2.2 million viewers during each of its seven Sunday episodes. Competing cable channel Showtime is enjoying similar success with their series The Tudors, based on the history of Henry the VIII. Especially during difficult times, people seek escape, even if only mentally, to a more idyllic past. Objects of ephemera transport us to the lives of those who lived before us. There is an emotional rapport you experience with an era by holding a relic of it in your hands. Ephemera are the accidental scraps of life that were meant to last only a short time. Those that have survived for years, or in some cases, centuries, provide a unique window to human history and satiate our hunger for the past.

And … the Number One reason to add ephemera to your inventory mix?

1. Ephemera are a natural accompaniment to books.

On the surface, books and ephemera may seem like totally different planets, but the terrain and atmosphere are strikingly similar. Both books and ephemera are printed matter - although books were made to last (for a reasonable amount of time, anyway) and ephemera made to be discarded (within a reasonable amount of time). Both books and ephemera were printed to transmit information, although both are now mainly collected as objects of their time and place. It may help to think of books as the equivalent of professional studio portraits and ephemera as the equivalent of amateur snapshots. Nevertheless, like those old Polaroids taken by Uncle Charlie (after he had a couple of drinks), there is something so charmingly natural about the field of ephemera that it has attracted a large base of avid collectors. Collectors of a specific type of ephemera will purchase a book on a similar subject as readily as a book collector will purchase ephemera to complement their book collection. So, if you're a bookseller looking for a way to diversity, adding ephemera to your inventory may be the way to add a little spice - and a lot of profit - to your bottom line.

Questions or comments?
Contact the editor, Craig Stark

Copyright 2003-2011 by BookThink LLC