For most of us it’s probably the least important reason we have for collecting books, but it’s still something we’re all aware of. Books can be a very good investment. We all have stories about great bargains we have found. I remember walking out of a certain bookstore famous for its high prices and wealthy clientele with a not particularly rare Lewis Carroll pamphlet. The price was fair, if there had been nothing unusual about that copy, but the bookseller had failed to realize that the girl’s name printed at the top of the text in purple ink was written by Carroll himself. Had he known it was an inscription copy, the dealer would probably have added another zero to the price (at least). Needless to say I was pretty gleeful.
Even in the world of the internet, where every dealer can see what every other dealer is charging, bargains (and what we call sleepers—that is books being sold by someone who does not realize their true value) abound. I once unwrapped a volume of essays from the Victorian magazine Vanity Fair purchased online at a modest price and discovered that it had been specially bound for the editor. If you didn’t happen to know that the editor of Vanity Fair at the time was Thomas Gibson Bowles, the initials on the spine wouldn’t have meant anything. The great thing about book collecting is that the world of books is so vast, no dealer can know everything about it. We all have our own areas of expertise, which means that we all, at one time or another, find some great bargains.
Our understanding of books as objects of value also affects the way we treat them. Even if we buy a book new off the shelf of our local bookstore, we never take the one on the top of the stack that has been handled by dozens of customers. We are careful not to smudge or tear the dust jacket while we read (often setting it aside entirely so it can be replaced in a glassine wrapper when we’ve finished reading). A true book collector would never price clip a dust jacket even if a book is a gift (that is cut off the corner of the jacket that has the price). Aside from a signature or inscription from the author (about which more in my next blog) we don’t allow any markings in our books. And we store our books away from direct sunlight, put large heave volumes on their sides to prevent stress to the bindings—anything to preserve the condition of our treasures.
All this is done partly out of love and respect for our books, but part of it is because of our knowledge that we are protecting their ever increasing economic value. There is a certain irony to this, because many of us have no intention of ever selling our books. The fact is, if the average collector were faced with the need to liquidate a collection immediately, he would likely have to sell it to a dealer at a wholesale cost. Nonetheless, we appreciate the value of our books, we love buying a book before it becomes valuable or finding a bargain. And it’s nice to know that the money we invest in the wonderful books that surround us might be at least as safe as what we put in the stock market. Maybe safer.