What Makes a Book ‘Rare’ –– And Do You Have One?

Heather O'Donnell at the Community Bookstore meeting, living-room style. Plenty of social skill goes into face-to-face book evaluations, and the rare book expert never knows what to expect. (Partially visible behind Heather is her young daughter, sitting sideways, absorbed by "The Guiness Book Of Records, 2013."

Rare-book advisor Heather O’Donnell at the Community Bookstore’s living room-style meeting. Plenty of social skill as well as professional knowledge goes into face-to-face book evaluations with the owners. (Partly visible behind Heather is her daughter, absorbed by “The Guiness Book Of Records, 2013.”) (Photograph by Brooklyn Artisan Photo Pool)

ON THURSDAY NIGHT AT THE COMMUNITY BOOKSTORE ON SEVENTH AVENUE, Heather O’Donnell set out to shine a little light on the subject of rare and collectible books for more than a dozen of her Park Slope neighbors. “Rare books are my passion,” she said, and hastened to reassure her listeners sitting with books on their laps that she also enjoyed seeing and evaluating all sorts of interesting or cherished books from personal bookshelves, no matter how modest, and hearing the stories about them. Literature is her specialty: Before founding Honey & Wax Booksellers in 2011, Heather earned a Ph.D. in English literature, taught at Princeton, and then worked for seven years for Bauman Rare Books, on Madison Avenue.

That location was open to the public, she said, and though usually she enjoyed the social contact and always cherished the occasional surprise discovery of a valuable volume, Heather allowed as how yes, as in any business, there were occasional bad days. In her business, a bad day can be opening the doors to “belligerent people with worthless books.” (Chuckles around the room.)

A pristine Gatsby jacket of the first edition,1925, can multiply the value 50 times over.

A pristine Gatsby jacket of the first edition, 1925, can multiply the value 50 times over.

The rarity of a book is determined by its scarcity balanced against its desirability, she said. In general, book collectors look for first printings of books of importance, in good shape and with the dust jacket intact. Ideally there would be no fading, heavy wear or tearing of the book jacket or its binding; no stains or coffee rings, please, especially not on the cover (note to self: buy more coasters); no loose or missing pages, and – god forbid! – no yellow highlighting or disfiguring scribbles on the pages. Daintily penciled notes in the margins okay? It all depends on the collector.

Heather gave the example of a first edition of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby: in pristine condition including its dust jacket, it would sell in the neighborhood of $200,000; without the jacket, not so much – in fact, probably around $4000. (A quick glance at nearby laps showed few intact jackets; Brooklyn Artisan felt a little better about the bare-naked books we’d brought.) Authentic author’s autographs may enhance value but don’t guarantee it, we learned, and inscriptions like “Happy birthday to the best boy in the whole world, Love, Grandma,” while certainly not sought after, aren’t necessarily disastrous, either. Again, it all depends.

We got some pointers on research we could do ourselves such as looking at the standard reference works by Allen and Patricia Ahearn and searching on AbeBooks, which a librarian can help with, or even using amazon.com or ebay.com just to begin to get a fix on availability and price. Looking at auction records is better yet; again, the right librarian can coach you. Once you’ve done some homework, if the signs auger well, then you may be ready for the next step: approaching a dealer.

The moment had come to show the books that had been brought. It felt just a little like an audition. There were some nice books: a first edition of The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, by Gertrude Stein, still wearing its jacket. [Read more…]

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