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Buying and Selling Children's Books

Separating the Wheat from the Chaff
At Sales and Thrifts

by Guusje Moore

#64, 20 March 2006

Thanks to freecycle I've made a new friend who is a budding bookseller. Lou has an eye for jewelry and china - did you know folks collect Starbucks mugs??? - so we are swapping knowledge fields.

By the way, if you have not explored freecycle, I heartily recommend it

There are local chapters in many cities. Their goal is to keep items out of the landfills by giving them away. I have acquired many a free box of packing peanuts. I've also given away books I didn't want to haul to the thrifts or to Half Price Books, so it is also a potential source for books. That is how I met Lou - she came by to pick up a stack of yearbooks I inherited and did not want to sell.

Lou introduced me to some of her favorite garage sale routes, and, in return, I introduced her to my favorite thrifts. That's when I realized how much of my book scouting occurs before I even lay my hands on the book.

Lou kept asking me, "How'd you know to pick that one up?"

"It had a Mylar jacket. I knew it was ex-library."

"But I though ex-library books were worthless."

"Sometimes, but not always. Especially when it comes to children's books." And besides, no matter what "commandment" you follow when it comes to bookselling, there are always one or two exceptions."

So, here are some "commandants" to help you while scouting thrift stores, garage and estate sales for children's books. Remember, unlike those given to Moses, these are not written in stone, and there are exceptions to every one of them.

Always, always, always pick up any children's book with a Mylar jacket. Why? Because that almost always means it is an ex-library book. Remember, as I stated in my first column, when it comes to children's books, ex-library is often all there is, so it is not the kiss of death as it is with so many adult books. Check the copyright date. If it is prior to 1964, you might have a winner, or at least a quick sale on your hands. Do flip through looking for crayon marks and torn pages, etc. - after all, we are talking kid's books.

What is the subject? Fairies, mice, cats, dragons, witches, horses and fantasy of any sort have a ready market. Think outside the box here. People who breed collies often collect books about collies. People who quilt collect picture books about quilting. Beverly Cleary, best known for her Ramona series (still in print and not worth reselling, by the way) also wrote Lucky Chuck, a story about a boy and his wish for a Harley Davidson. And I've sold copies to Harley-Davidson riders. Also, check the illustrations. Are they especially charming? Do you recognize the illustrator? Do they have shabby chic appeal?

Grab any book rebound in buckram (often referred to in book descriptions as "stout library binding"), and take a second look at it. The presence of a buckram binding tells you that the book was popular enough to be read to death and yet important enough to the library that they were willing to spend the money to have it rebound. Do not be put off by a less than attractive appearance. 1960s and 1970s era buckrams are notorious for lurid color combinations, and yet just as often the interiors are clean. This binding is practically indestructible as well, and it's likely the pages will not be falling out. Finally, a grubby buckram binding cleans up fast and easy with any household spray cleaner.

Open up, flip through it and ask yourself the same questions you would ask about a Mylar-jacketed book. At one store, I spotted a thin, little picture book bound in the most unattractive brown binding you could imagine. It turned out to be a copy of Alexander the Gander by Tasha Tudor. This book, with all flaws clearly described, still sold for $45 on eBay.

Every year the American Librarian Association awards the Newbery and the Caldecott Medal to the best novel and picture book of the year. They are frequently given as gifts - they must be good books because they have won an award, right? Wrong! Wrong! Wrong! The award winners are books adults think a child should read, not one a child might actually want to read and often not one an adult would remember fondly later in life. The print runs on these are enormous, all libraries own them, and they remain in print forever. The thrifts, in turn, are littered with like new copies of these titles. There is a small niche of collectors who gather up the award winners but only as first printings published in advance of the awards. If the book has the gold or silver award seal on it, it is not a first edition. If you can get them cheaply, however, they can be sold in lots on eBay to home schoolers or teachers building classroom libraries.

One exception is Chris Van Allsburg. The Polar Express won the Caldecott Award in 1985, and it's very popular, especially around Christmas time. In fact, all of his books sell quickly. Since he won't allow paperback editions of his books, they are only available in hardback, and even the ex-library copies do well. As you might suspect, Van Allsburg's firsts are very collectible. A first edition of The Polar Express just sold for $142 on eBay.

In addition to Van Allsburg, several other children's authors have attracted the interest of the hyper-modern collectors. Two are, of course, Philip Pullman and J.K. Rowling (Harry Potter) - Pullman and Rowling's books are consistently in Pamela Palmer's Top Ten on eBay lists - and a third is Lemony Snicket, author of A Series of Unfortunate Events. This series currently stands at 12 titles and does well marketed in lots. Another twist - if you can find them, British editions of J.R. Rowling and Philip Pullman do very well. I recently sold a British paperback set of the first three Harry Potter books for $38. Not bad for a $1.50 investment!

Every state has a state book award too. In Texas it's the Bluebonnet Award. Usually, twenty or so books are nominated for the annual award, children read a specified number of them and vote on their favorites. Once the award has been presented, the "losers" tend to show up in the thrifts. Again, with few exceptions, they are common as The Bridges of Madison County and just about as valuable. It's worth taking a look at your state award list - it can be found on line by accessing your State Library Association - so you'll know to leave those books where you find them.

In addition to award books, you'll also likely come across multiple editions of the "classics" - for example, Little Women, Black Beauty, Treasure Island, The Secret Garden, Peter Rabbit, etc. These are now in the public domain, which means anyone can print them - and does. Like award books, they are often given as gifts, and just as often they land unread in the thrift shops. They aren't worth the paper they are printed on - unless Easton Press is the publisher. Tasha Tudor did illustrate an edition of The Secret Garden and The Little Princess, but both are still in print - in fact these are two of the few Tasha Tudor books that don't have much value.

There are plenty of children's book club editions too. The oldest and the biggest is The Weekly Reader Book Club (WRBC). It has been around since the 1950s - I was a member as a child. The books are easy to spot: The bindings are shoddy and the paper is cheap, resembling newsprint, and consequently, older WRBCs are often tanned and brittle. Since WRBC titles are still being published, the books abound. And there are several WRBC clubs now, each targeted to different age levels, so you will encounter WRBC picture books and chapter books. You will also see examples of the Dr. Seuss Book Club - the shiny covered "I Can Read Books." Common as dirt and not worth picking up.

Another set of books with shoddy bindings and cheap paper are Whitmans. Shiny pictorial hardcovers, often with a TV tie-in, published in the 1950s and 1960s. Annette, Spin & Marty, The Lone Ranger, and so on. Thrift stores often consider these "special" because they are old, price them accordingly and proudly display them in a glass case. Craig discussed them in a previous issue of the BookThinker, and some are collectible. Most are not.

Paperback children's books are everywhere, and many are worth putting up in lots if the cost of acquiring them is right. Magic Treehouse, Hank the Cowdog, Junie B. Jones, A-Z Mysteries, Goosebumps, Animorphs, Bailey School Kids - all have eBay potential. These are the Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys of the new millennium. Once kids settle on a series they like, they want to read them all. Also, Scholastic paperbacks, which date back to the 1960s, often have nostalgia appeal for the baby boomers. Once again, lot them by topic or author.

Another example: Board books, if in good condition (no teeth marks!), are also worth listing in lots. Try to group books by author or topic. And some things to avoid: Disney books, current TV & movie tie-ins, Clifford the Big Red Dog and Arthur the Badger books. Pop-Up books are another pass - usually the pop-ups are damaged - but if you find one by Robert Sabuda, do give it a second glance. I found a mint first edition of one of his Christmas pop up books at a thrift store.

And don't forget that there are a number of children's books that sell for $50 or more. See issue #9 of 50/50 for examples.

It helps to know where to look for children's books. I live in a large, sprawling city with lots of garage sales. I scour the ads carefully and try to read between the lines. I haven't the time or the gas to waste driving to a sale that's worthless. I don't bother with any sale that advertises cribs, strollers and or baby items of any kind. The only books I'll find there are Disney books and other worthless pulp. My idea of garage sale nirvana is a sale given by a retired teacher. Teachers spend hundreds and hundreds dollars of their own money on their classroom libraries and never throw anything out. Also, they are frequently the recipients of school library discards that date back decades. The potential to mine some gold is high indeed.

While I don't think you make a living only searching out children's books at thrifts garage sales, you can definitely supplement your income.

Questions or comments?
Contact the editor, Craig Stark

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