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How to Live With a Bitch

And Other Herter's Collectibles

by Craig Stark

#169 24 March 2014

It's near axiomatic that the best reference books - and this also applies more specifically to book-related reference books - are inevitably those in which the author is both present and witty, at least on occasion. The explanation is obvious: It brings otherwise dead content alive. Take English usage. We'd be hard put, I think, to come up with a subject that shows less promise for entertainment, and yet one of my favorite books to spend time with is H.W. Fowler's Modern English Usage. So omnipresent is Fowler in this book that the book's purpose itself becomes, at times, almost beside the point, and the intention to spend a moment or two clarifying a point of usage often becomes a lost hour spent smiling with the master of clarity. Closer to home, John Carter's ABC for Book Collectors accomplishes much the same thing, and innumerable pages can be read with pleasure at a single setting.

But I'm here today to talk about catalogs. Most of us know and have enjoyed the Whole Earth Catalog - a third and notable example of readable reference books - but how many of you have ever leafed through a Herter's catalog? Or even heard of one?

Herter's, Inc., was a mail order sporting goods retailer that flourished for a few decades, reaching its peak in the 1960's and ultimately going out of business in 1981. Huge catalogs with a dizzying array of products were issued, let's say, chronically, by the hundreds of thousands per issue. Remarkably, all of the ad copy was penned by founder George Leonard Herter:

As ad copy goes, Herter's was often hyperbolic. Products were not just good; they were world famous, expertly crafted, made from the finest materials obtainable, etc. - and, if nothing else, far superior to those produced by competitors. But they were also reasonably priced and, based on my own experience purchasing primarily Herter's archery equipment in the 1960's, often pretty good. To this day, many Herter's branded items go for hundreds of dollars on eBay - animal traps especially, but also hunting bows and much more. I say "branded" because, though the catalogs strongly implied that Herter's itself produced the products it sold, almost everything was purchased for resale from other manufacturers.

George Herter was a cranky eccentric with a gift for producing, setting aside its hyperbolic tone, entertaining prose. You could easily spend an hour or more with a Herter's catalog, not only because it was down-home readable (and densely illustrated to boot) but also because there were many products featured in its pages that you'd be hard put to find in other catalogs. Or stores, for that matter. If you had an interest in some sporting niche, say, fly tying, all the better. You could buy tails, I kid you not, from seemingly every known mammal to make your own flies with. Just an example.

In today's market, I can tell you that Herter's catalogs are highly sought after. Trouble is, there are just so dang many of them still out there, and outcomes reflect this, typically falling in the $10 to $30 range. Very early catalogs (late 1930's to mid 1940's) - the earliest were issued as supplements for 3-ring binders, by the way - do better, primarily on the basis of referencing more collectible sporting goods. Since these catalogs are somewhat perishable, however, look for values to at least remain steady and likely increase over time. For now, grouping them makes sense.

Herter also penned over a dozen equally, perhaps more eccentric books that have established a sort of cult following, though there is no shortage of "reviewers" who have dismissed them as trash. As booksellers, this is perhaps our best opportunity for making a few bucks. All were published as hardcovers, and many were bound in instantly recognizable gold or silver paper covered boards. Herter's best known and most popular effort is Bull Cook and Authentic Historical Recipes and Practices, which had two sequels, that is, Volumes II and III. As cookbooks go, again, these are entertaining/readable in their own right. Put all three volumes together, and three-figure outcomes are possible.

The title How to Live With a Bitch may startle some - I won't dare present a synopsis - and some of its content may too, but it's common and a surprisingly consistent performer at $50 to $100.

Another strong yet common performer is How to Get Out of the Rat Race and Live on $10 a Month - $30 to $80, typically.

Though not as common as the above titles, Herter's Moonshiner's Bible also does well, especially given that it's a staple-bound booklet - $50 to $100.

Finally, there are a number of booklet-format guides pertaining to archery, fishing, trapping, etc., also several other books, that will certainly sell but may need to be grouped to realize good outcomes. Have fun with these. I do.

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