How to Start Collecting Rare Books

The rare book world can be intimidating. Walk into a rare bookshop, and you suddenly find yourself fingering a $1,000 pile of paper that, quite frankly, doesn’t seem very impressive. Have the guts to ask the shopkeeper why that particular book is worth such an exorbitant sum, and you’re undoubtedly met with a rant filled with names and dates you’ll never remember, as well as words like signature and square that don’t seem to mean what they usually mean.

It can be even worse at a book fair. Booksellers dressed like used car salesmen schmooze with passersby, whom they’ve already met numerous times; at these events, everyone seems to know one another, even if they’re based on different sides of the globe.

The rare book world, in general, just does not come off as the most welcoming place for newcomers. Or for anyone under the age of 35. Or for anyone who is not dressed appropriately. Et cetera. Yes, things are changing, but the gentleman’s club mentality of many booksellers remains strong.

So, dear readers, I have decided to try to lull y’all out of the idea that a solid book collection is an inaccessible goal. I’m going to do this by offering some tips on how to start book collecting. And, to spice things up, I’m going to illustrate my points à la BuzzFeed, with GIFs of some of my favourite things: drag queens.*

Read on, dahling.


Collect things you like.

This point seems obvious, but it’s a the place to start, middle, and end. There’s no point in wasting your time or money on old Playboy magazines if that’s not what you want taking up space in your house. Sure, old Playboy magazines may be financially valuable, and they may make you seem hip with the kids, but if you’re more into books about shipbuilding, go for those instead. Your book collection can say a lot about you to the people who see it. Also, you might actually want to read some of the books in your collection, and it helps when you like what they’re about.

Like Marie Kondo writes in The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up (which is a surprisingly good book), if an item doesn’t spark joy when you touch it, don’t buy it. And, if you’ve already bought it and it doesn’t spark/no longer sparks joy, get rid of it. Ain’t nobody got time for that.

Start small.

One book at a time, my friend. One book at a time.

The best way to start small is to narrow your focus. Pick a decade, or a publisher, or an author, or whatever. Then, only search for and buy books that meet your predetermined criteria.

For example, my book collection is composed almost entirely of countercultural books from 1960s/70s America. More specifically, I collect things related to the Youth International Party and its founders, Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin. I settled into this collection because the books were ones I liked – their subjects are cool, and they have tons of pictures – and, because these kinds of books aren’t very cool right now, I can get them for reasonable prices. As a young collector, these items work with my interests and budget.

This is not to say that you shouldn’t aspire towards a massive collection if that’s what you want. However, bear in mind that a building a book collection can get pricey, and going about it slowly can keep you out of the poor house. Also, thought and care should go into your collection: each item should uniquely contribute to your collection’s overall theme. Take it one book at a time.

Over the years, your collection can grow to be as big as you’d like. Maybe you’ll even have to set aside an entire room or two to house it. Heck, you might even be able to start answering the phone like this:

Price compare.

The price of a rare book can change greatly as trends change, as condition deteriorates (or improves, in some cases), or as booksellers muck with the pricing to see how much they can get. After all, booksellers have all got bills to pay.

Before you buy a book, look into how much other copies of the same edition are going for. AbeBooks is a good place to start. Auction catalogues and records are also good, albeit a bit harder to sift through, especially if you’re not entirely familiar with how auctions work. Some – but not all – auction houses post buy prices for public reference on their websites: Sotheby’s, for example, is pretty good for this. Knowing the price range for similar items can help you make an informed choice as to whether or not your bookseller is giving you a reasonable deal, or if he’s just trying to rip you off.

That said, remember that each book is unique.

The wonderful thing about a rare book (or any book, really) is that it is completely unique. There may be textual differences between editions, and even within editions. There may be marginalia, left by owners past. They may be rips, tears, scuffs, and rubs that reveal which pages have been most loved. If you’re lucky, you may stumble across a modern first edition with an inscription from the author.

This is why you can’t just look at the prices of other similar books for sale and immediately assume that your bookseller is overcharging you. Obviously, books signed by the author generally go for more money. Take this edition of Breakfast at Tiffany’s. It’s priced at $4,000 USD, which is significantly more than a trade paperback copy you’d pick up at Indigo. However, it’s a near-fine copy of a first edition (and first printing) of a very famous book, which has long been established as part of the American canon. Plus, it’s signed by Truman Capote himself, who continues to amass a cult following across the Western world.

When you click on the “See all however-many-hundred copies of this book” button, you’ll notice that hardly any of the other copies listed have these same qualities. The unique features of this particular copy, and it’s especially good condition, allow its seller to price it a bit higher. Note, though, that this is not the most expensive copy of Breakfast at Tiffany’s you can buy on Abe. Check out the descriptions in the other listings to get ideas as to why other booksellers have priced their copies even higher. One copy is even priced at $18,000… plus $16 shipping, of course. Just think of how many chicken nuggets you could buy with $18,016.

Keep in mind the financial value of your collection.

Nobody needs a first edition. It’s a want. The sad truth is that owning a bunch of paper with some words on it is not going to house you, feed you, or clothe you.

That is, unless you choose to sell it.

In finance, there’s this thing called liquidity. Liquidity refers to how quickly/easily an asset can be converted to cash (hopefully for its market value or more). It’s important to bear in mind the liquidity of all of your stocks, bonds, real estate, and pretty anything you own that’s valuable, in case you find yourself in a financial bind. As difficult as it can be to get rid of books from your collection, or even just books from your regular reading shelves, people grow so emotionally attached to their books that they can’t seem to part with them. Yet, as Willam Belli would say:

People get blinded by an almost irrational love of books, and forget what they really are: things. They’re just things – items demanding storage space and upkeep that costs both time and money. Yes, many books are historically significant. And yes, there’s that special book that reached out and gave you a comforting hug when you needed it most. Emotions play a huge part in book collecting, and I’m not advising you to disregard them completely. What I am advising you to do is to remain at least somewhat practical when considering the functions of your book collection.

Pay attention to the book market, as a buyer and a seller. Even if you don’t want to sell anything from your collection, if a financial emergency arises you can be aware of what items from your stock might be able to help.

So, when Ed Maggs, as brilliant as he may be, declares that “the return that comes from a book is the pleasure you get from owning it,” I don’t fully agree. Owning things is great. Being surrounded by physical objects that make you happy is great. But you know what else is great? Being able to pay your bills. Financial stability. Sometimes the return that comes from a book is the pleasure you get from being able to feed yourself.

Do not lose sight of that.

Have a budget, and try to stick to it.

To, you know, avoid those moments when you look at your credit card statement and literally scream, “WHAT HAVE I DONE?!”

Try setting aside a certain amount each year to be spent on building your collection. If you don’t spend all of this money, roll it over into the next year’s amount.

Keeping a budget is especially for those who suffer from the disposition to spend money as soon as payday rolls around. Yet, even those who tend towards saving can benefit from a good ledger.

Keeping a record of what items you buy can help you catalogue your collection, and knowing how much you spent on each item can help you gauge your profit margins should you choose to sell anything.

Plus, you know, budgeting is a good life skill.

That said, if you see something that you just can’t stop thinking about, consider treatin’ yo’self.

I’m not advising you to throw your year’s rent at a book, but if you see and touch – touch is important) something that you just can’t get your mind of off – especially if it’s only slightly out of your price range – give it extra consideration.

The other week, for example, I was leaving a local bookshop after an hour-long perusal when I spotted a poster on the ground, propped up against a low shelf. It was for the 1982 On the Road conference in Boulder. I don’t usually collect posters, and I don’t ever collect Kerouac. However, the list of speakers was essentially a list of the people I do collect: indeed, this poster tied the books of my collection together in a way that I had not even considered.

I was so excited that I tweeted about my find:

I did not buy that poster when I first saw it. It’s not in my budget, I told myself. I can’t justify that purchase. Yet, as the days passed, I found my thoughts repeatedly returning to the poster. I researched its rarity, and scoured the Internet for price comparisons. I even sought parental and grandparental advice as to whether or not I should buy it. “You’ll regret it if you let it go,” my father advised. “And it’s not that far out of the price range you’ve set for yourself.”

My father is my financial advisor. ERGO, my financial advisor advised me to buy the poster. (Note: my financial advisor still owes me $10.) So, the next day, I called the shop and – thankfully! – the poster was still available for me to put on hold for purchase that evening. It now sits on top of the shelf that holds my collection, and seeing it every day adds joy to my life. #noregrets

I got lucky in that the thing keeping me up at night was within my financial reach, albeit a bit more expensive than I would have liked. Depending on what you are collecting, the thing that keeps you up at night may not be so easily acquired. Note that many booksellers are willing to set up payment plans to help you buy higher-priced items. They’ll work with you to arrange instalment amounts and deadlines that work for your personal situation. If you find yourself losing sleep over an item that you know would enhance your collection, don’t be afraid to put on your best “please, please, please?!” face and ask about payment plans.

Image result for drag queen gif.

Don’t think about it too much.

I know, I know – this contradicts what I’ve been writing about this whole post. Sometimes, though, just sometimes:

If you’ve ever listened to any Motley Fool investing podcast, you’ve heard the hosts go on about how, sometimes, knowing too much can cause investors to act in ways that actually do damage to their portfolios. You don’t need to sell all your shares at the first sign of a bear market. You don’t need to rid your portfolio of a stock just because the grapevine told you that a member of a company’s board might have a bad case of the flu and miss next week’s annual meeting.

To the best of your ability, do your due diligence to check that what you are buying is legitimate, and is not stolen property. Aim to get a fair price, whatever “fair” means to you. Ask your bookseller questions and, if he/she gives you an answer full of gobbledygook, ask for clarification until you are both on the same page.

After that, though, follow your instincts. If you can’t help but feel like an item is a ripoff, even though it seems to be in high demand, don’t buy it. Likewise, if you can’t help but feel like an item is being undervalued, scoop it up. Just because something isn’t expensive or isn’t widely recognized does not mean that it will never be considered valuable. Trends change, and very few books (like Shakespeare’s First Folia, for example) consistently maintain their financial value.

Plus, this is your collection. Make it what you want, using the resources available to you.

Finally, be proud of your collection.

You might get some dirty looks from people when you tell them what you collect. They might ask you the dreaded question: Have you actually read all those booksThey might scoff at how much you’ve spend on your books and – don’t forget the hidden costs! – your shelving.

But this is your unique collection. You’ve built it, and you’ve decided what to include and what to omit. This stack of books, at the risk of sounding cheesy, is an extension of you.

… this seems like an appropriate time to reference Shel Silverstein’s poetic masterpiece, “Hector the Collector”. Here’s a video that someone made for the poem, “to help illuminate how divorce affects children too young to understand.” Huh.

Hector the Collector
Loved these things with all his soul
Loved them more than shining diamonds,
Loved them more than glistenin’ gold.
Hector called to all the people,
“Come and share my treasure trunk!”
And all the silly sightless people
Came and looked… and called it junk.

There will be at least one person who calls your books junk. Just like people who can’t tell the difference between a Subaru and a Lambo can’t understand why someone would be obsessed with cars, these people just probably aren’t too fussed about rare books themselves. You can try your best to educate them, but if you’re aching for some true book-loving friends, there are tons of secondhand bookshops that host regular public events, as well as universities/colleges/libraries that host book collecting lectures (if you’re in London, check out the free monthly lecture series at Senate House).

It may not always seem like it, but anyone can create an incredible rare book collection, with any budget.

Start by going to your nearest bookshop and striking up a conversation with the person behind the desk.

And consider bringing wine.

Booksellers love wine.

* I’ve tried to source the GIFs, but these things can be hard to trace.

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One Comment on “How to Start Collecting Rare Books”

  1. […] How to Start Collecting Rare Books […]


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