Close this window to return to BookThink

Taking Bookselling To The Top,
Part II: How To Succeed in Bookselling Without Really Trying

by Craig Stark

#51, 5 September 2005

At the conclusion of Part I of this account of my misadventures in bookselling, Mrs. Z. (motivated seller, you may recall, of a substantial collection of George Bernard Shaw books and ephemera) had invited me to look at something else she had, something to do with none other than Abraham Lincoln. You may also recall that up until this point my interest in what I'd already seen had been growing increasingly lukewarm, especially since discovering that G. Bernard was the collectible equivalent of Lee Iacocca on my side of the planet. The $2,000 or $3,000 I'd considered offering her at the outset was starting to feel much more comfortable right where it was - in my wallet.

This soon changed.

When I caught up to Mrs. Z. in her living room, she was carefully withdrawing two dark-green, elephant folio volumes from a bookcase adjacent to the fireplace. She set them carefully on the coffee table, invited me to sit down, and opened the first one.

There, on the first page, inserted in a glassine sleeve, was an old letter dated sometime in 1864. The prose was turgidly formal (typical for that era), but it was immediately clear that this was a parent's heartfelt plea to President Lincoln to pardon a Rebel soldier from Camp Douglas Prison in what is now Chicago, Illinois. Several family members had signed it on the back; so had a few town officials (ostensibly to give it more weight), each of whom had added brief notes praising the prisoner's character and/or lamenting the family's urgent need of his earning power. Mrs. Z. pointed to a scrap of paper affixed to the bottom of the letter, then looked at me.

"It was approved by the president," she said.

"So I see, and it's ..."

"Signed." She then smiled a wry, I-told-you-so smile, and said, "Tell me, does this meet your criteria for being 'collectible'?"

I don't know how you guys are, but when I get into situations like this, I instinctively shift down to a pretty indifferent persona. It's a kind of gift, I suppose, something you're born with, and more than once I've been told that I have strong Stoical tendencies. The thing is, I'm not at all Stoical; I'm just good at cloaking stuff. It doesn't matter if my chest is pounding like a jack-hammer, I can still nod casually and toss out nonchalant that's-interestings with the best of them.

"Collectible?" I said, looking up at her with a now imperviously masked face. "Yes, it's interesting. Of course, I'd need to authenticate it first. Lots of forgeries floating around, you know. Got anything else?"

Mrs. Z., having delivered, presumably, her best shot at impressing me, was now a spent force. She emitted a massive sigh, no doubt concluding that I was hopelessly ignorant of what constituted a valuable document, and passed through the rest of the album in silence. I, of course, looked on with my best casual countenance.

In essence, this album housed a fairly extensive collection of Lincoln ephemera: booklets, portrait reproductions, letters, etc., but I didn't see anything else of staggering interest (that is, no more presidential signatures - more about this later). There was, however, a handwritten document (more about this later too). This one was very old, dated June 10, 1834. "Is this signed?" I asked, flipping it over.


I was relentless: "Anything good in the other album?"

"Oh, just some original Ford Theater playbills," she said in a now distinctly resigned but noticeably sarcastic tone, handing it to me. "At least I think one or two of them are authentic. Most of them are fakes."

I leafed through the album, noted that there were a number of playbills dated April 14, 1865 - that fateful Friday - then said, "Too bad they're mounted. I bet they'd be worth something if they weren't."

I know. Horrible. But the truth was that I still didn't know what was what. I was pretty sure that Lincoln signatures were going for at least a few thousand bucks on eBay, but my hopes weren't exactly sky high for the playbills - or anything else, for that matter. Still, I most definitely wanted the signed letter if I could get it for a good price. I snapped some pictures of it, told her I'd need to do some investigating, and left.

This time, energized by the prospect of happening on something hot, I jumped on things immediately. There were a number of comparables for the Lincoln signature on eBay ($4,000 to $5,000), and I spent several hours hunting down vetted examples elsewhere, carefully comparing them to what I had. I also discovered that mounted, signed scraps of paper on letters, etc., were common among Lincoln ephemera. Everything seemed to check out, in other words, and that's when I began to mull an offer. $5,000 for everything? Worst case would be that the Lincoln thing would get me back to break even, and I'd still have the Shaw stuff and maybe - big maybe - the playbills to make a few bucks on. Seemed reasonable.

One thing that concerned me was that I hadn't been able to find any playbill comps online, and before I called Mrs. Z. back, I wanted to be at least mildly informed before I made a commitment. I think I may have already mentioned that at this time I was also in the process of purchasing what turned out to be a valuable Shaker hymnal from a guy who was building a website for me. He was a part-time eBay seller who focused almost exclusively on celebrity signatures and, of all things, Batman memorabilia. Several times he'd mentioned something about a "contact" he had at Christie's, and I asked him if he knew anything about the playbills and, if not, would he ask his Christie's expert if they had any value.


Days went by. I asked again.

More days. A week. I asked again.

By now, of course, Mrs. Z. had called back and seemed especially anxious to consummate a sale. I told her I had one more phone call to make, and then I'd be able to make an offer.

Well, I gave it one more try, and, what do you know. Mr. Batman, who was probably getting tired of hearing from me, finally had some news: "Oh, that, yeah. I talked to them. They're like postage stamps. If you paste them down in an album, it pretty much about destroys their value. Otherwise, they usually go for about $50 apiece - if they're real."

Fine. It wasn't good news, but at least now I had something to take with me. My $5,000 offer seemed to be the thing to go with, so I called Mrs. Z. and headed out for the umpteenth time.

"$5,000??? Oh, dear, no. No, no, no. My word, I was thinking at least $7,000 or $8,000."

No can do, I said, and briefly explained: Shaw like Iacocca, playbills like postage stamps, Lincoln signature break even.

"I'd really like to get this taken care of. Can you do $6,000?" Her tone seemed different now. Not exactly desperate but, you know, edging there.

After a lengthy, pregnant pause, I said, "Let me look at the albums one more time."

Fortunately, there are times in my life when my good instincts actually do kick in, and thankfully this was one of them. I reexamined both albums front to back, slowly turning the pages, reading some of the letters I had only glanced at before, and for some reason, partly because several of these letters established provenance, I grew increasingly conscious of the fact that I was holding something very special in my hands. I didn't know how special at the time, but I did know I could get up off my price some.

And that's exactly what I did: "$5,500." I shut the playbill album with a snap and looked at her with all the resolve I could muster. "That's the best I can do." Then, in keeping with the legendary Iacoccan spirit, I added, "If you can find a better deal, take it."

Yet another sigh of resignation came from Mrs. Z., then, sitting up straight and taking a deep breath, she steeled herself for the inevitable. At long last we had a deal.

Of course, this was when things started to get really interesting.

To be continued ...

Questions or comments?
Contact the editor, Craig Stark

Copyright 2003-2011 by BookThink LLC