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…]

Joy’s Best of Brooklyn, January 17 through 22

Two tons of sugar, truffled polenta, MLK day of service, borscht belt memories, brainiacs and more
Two tons of sugar make up Aude Moreau's Sugar Carpet, on view at Smack Mellon, part of Brooklyn/Montréal Contemporary Art event in DUMBO.

A carpet made up of sugar—two tons of it—is on view at Smack Mellon,
part of Brooklyn/Montréal Contemporary Art event in DUMBO.

logo_bmOngoing through February 2: Brooklyn/Montréal Contemporary Art. Brooklyn and Montréal, both leading centers of contemporary art, have created events and exhibitions that highlight artistic differences and similarities between the two cities. The first half of this event was held in Montréal in late fall. The second half, happening now throughout DUMBO, has eight art venues and 40 artists participating. At Smack Mellon, Montréal artist Aude Moreau’s Sugar Carpet (detail, shown above) is a large-scale installation comprised of 2 tons of refined white sugar that has been meticulously worked to look like a Persian rug. This is the first exhibition installed at Smack Mellon since Sandy flooded their Artist Studio Program and lower-level spaces. Complete programming information and venues are listed on the event website.

From Mediterranean Slow Cooking

Exquisite ingredients, from Michele Scicolone’s newly-released cookbook The Mediterranean Slow Cooker.

logoJanuary 17 • Thursday: Know Your Books: Free consultation with rare bookseller Honey & Wax. Want to find out if your copy of Nancy Drew: The Password to Larkspur Lane is valuable? The Community Bookstore is hosting a talk about contemporary book collecting, along with an Antiques Roadshow-style opportunity to have your old or not-so-old book appraised by Heather O’Donnell, founder of Honey and Wax Booksellers. Park Slope. 7pm.

January 19 • Saturday: Eat, Shop and Learn with author Michele Scicolone at A.L.C. Italian Grocery and Alimentari (featured in Brooklyn Artisan’s 12 Tastes of Brooklyn). Sample truffled polenta made with Italian black truffle butter, from Michele’s newly-released The Mediterranean Slow Cooker. Michele’s best-selling cookbooks receive high marks from notables such as Mario Batali, Dorie Greenspan and Lidia Bastianich. Bay Ridge. 12:30pm-3:30pm.

January 21 • Monday: Martin Luther King Day of Service. Brooklyn residents can join in with others across the country to honor Dr. King’s legacy by participating in local performances and community service activities. Here’s a few suggestions:

Layout 1Long Island University. Screening of We Shall Not Be Moved: Downstate ’63.” Speakers, discussions, performances, followed by an afternoon of service activities in the community. Downtown Brooklyn. 11am-1pm.

Brooklyn Academy of Music. Tribute kicks off with keynote by musician and humanitarian Harry Belafonte, Jr. Performances by Fort Greene/Clinton Hill’s Brooklyn Interdenominational Choir, and R&B duo Kindred the Family Soul. Included is a live simulcast of the inauguration of President Barack Obama. Fort Greene. First-come, first-seated tickets distributed at 8am for 10:30am start.

Hurricane Sandy Relief Kitchen is still out there needing support.

Hurricane Sandy Relief Kitchen is still out there needing support.

Brooklyn Botanic Garden. Usually closed on Mondays, the garden is open with free admission. 10am-4:30pm.

Stating the obvious: lots of organizations have an ongoing need for volunteers and dollars. On our list: Hurricane Sandy Relief Kitchen, an outcome of the around-the-clock food prep efforts at Two Boots; Masbia, a Brooklyn-based network of soup kitchens; CHIPS with a desperate need for men’s winter clothing.

When the dining room was closed, Kutsher’s Coffee Shop was always open, just in case you needed a nosh. (Photograph copyright by filmmakers Caroline Laskow and Ian Rosenberg.)

If the dining room was closed, the coffee shop was usually open…just in case you needed a nosh between meals. (Photograph © by filmmakers Caroline Laskow and Ian Rosenberg.)

January 22 • Tuesday: Screening, filmmaker discussion and tasting. Revisit New York’s last standing Catskill resort, Kutsher’s, with a screening and discussion of the 2012 award-winning documentary Welcome to Kutsher’s. It was in Kutsher’s large, communal dining room that traditional Eastern European Jewish food collided with American abundance. As part of the evening, you’ll taste traditional borscht belt specialities like Herring Salad à la Jenny Grossinger and Aunt Lilly’s Vegetarian Chopped Liver. Then sample some reimagined dishes from über-popular Kutsher’s Tribeca (the owner is fourth-generation Kutsher) such as Duck Breast Pastrami and Roasted Beet Salad with Marinated Goat Cheese, Fingerlings, Greens and Artichokes. Ah, this is not the eat-til-you-burst menu choices of my Grandmother’s days. Part of the Culinary Conversations series at the Tenement Museum, Outer Brooklyn, Manhattan. 6:30pm.

secretscienceJanuary 22 • Tuesday: The paradigm-shifting Secret Science Club meets at The Bell House. Attend 2013’s first monthly meeting with a group of self-proclaimed brainiacs. Astrophysicist Jeremiah Ostriker will explore the Dark Duo of dark matter and dark energy. You’re requested to strap on your rocket pack, bring your smart self, and enjoy energizing talk, a deep, dark cocktail of the night, and brain-boggling Q&A. Park Slope. 8pm.

2todoNOTEJoy Makon curates Brooklyn Artisan’s Craft & Design coverage and creates the weekly Best of Brooklyn lists. Send items for listings to brooklynartisan@joymakondesign.com

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