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Book Collecting for Pleasure and for the Future by Arne Schaefer

“Look upon books frankly as a vice, but one which leaves some respectable evidence of its pleasure to show for it. It's cheaper than a mistress, and far more amenable to your mood and convenience. And if you pursue book collecting properly, chances are you can't afford a mistress and that alone will save you a peck of trouble! “

It was Norman H. Strouse, head of the successful J. Walter Thompson advertising agency, an avid book collector and learned amateur bookman, who said that. He amassed a fine collection of printed work and donated his personal collection of rare and unusual materials by and about nineteenth century man of letters, Thomas Carlyle, and his era. He maintained the collection and the accompanying UCSC Carlyle lecture series throughout his lifetime and on his death, bequeathed an endowed fund to support the collection in UCSC Special Collections in perpetuity.

Now this is not to say every book collector will automatically end up a millionaire at the end of his allotted span. Just as it is not true to assign huge values to volumes based on their fancy leather bindings, the weight of their gilt adornment and their undoubted age. An old ‘un isn’t necessarily a good ‘un. The chances are that if you embark on this tricky voyage as a novice, without a pilot to steady your maiden course, enough provisions ( read: funds ) for the trip, or a map to chart the progress of your endeavours ( read: plan of collection ) – you could just as easily leave your heirs with heck of a headache. Believe me, a haphazard collection of hundreds or thousands of books in varying condition, on a multitude of subjects, is likely to land up as a donation to a charity shop at best, and landfill or pulp at worst.

So what is the alternative? There are a number of scenarios that will help towards making the addiction to the printed word in its many manifestations a pleasurable one, which can be savoured without incurring too many hangovers, without resulting in the screaming of irate spouses or hungry children. As a starting point one should at least cultivate an interest in reading; it helps to have an eye for illustration; some basic knowledge of the architecture of books can be an advantage; a little easily acquired lore of paper and the terms connected with printing. All these are good – but none are absolutely essential. What you need is to enjoy books. The appearance, the feel, the smell, the promise of the contents that lie between those covers, the serendipitous discovery of fine engravings and lithographed plates – these are qualities the bibliophile and collector should appreciate. Then, no book that is bought in the heat of passion, will ever disappoint. No matter if it is a poorly produced privately published little memoir costing a few Rands, or alternately, a finely crafted, exquisitely bound classic which can set you back the price of a small motor car.

Some twenty-five years back I met a collector; a mechanic by trade, whose wife had an interest in flowers. She started a business picking wildflowers, drying these and having them exported to countries around the world. The business flourished, and later W. her husband joined in these efforts. His wife’s interest in botanical matters kindled an interest in him to start collecting illustrated books dealing with the flora of his country. Since they made many overseas trips promoting their product, he was able to comb bookshops the world over for bargains. Sadly his wife passed away some fifteen years back, but his collecting didn’t stop. At the time of his passing, last year, at an age of 95, he had the most complete botanical collection in the country, which filled an entire apartment. Some of these volumes were priceless early treatises, some five hundred years old, many had hand-painted illustrations, others were ordinary run-of-the-mill guidebooks of no great value. But in total the collection was worth a staggering amount. Yet, when I asked him if he had become an expert botanist through being involved with so much knowledge he said “ I know nothing about botany. You see, I don’t read these books, I just look at the pictures”. That was his way of enjoying the collection.

One needs focus. No one can collect all the books on all subjects. To have any hope of stilling that craving for more, and yet more items to add to the collection, a certain amount of discipline must be accepted. Most collectors start off with bits and pieces, items that caught the eye or snared the fancy in passing. These will accumulate until they become an unwieldy mass, with no rhyme or reason. A word of advice: sort it out while it’s still manageable. If you want to collect books on poetry, decide whether it should be American, British Victorian, South African – or Samoan, or whatever; but decide on a limited field, because the world’s output of poetry is probably too much for your family home to absorb – not to speak of your family. If you want to collect books on modes of transport – choose between trains, planes or cars – not all three. If it’s voyages of discovery you hanker after, be prepared to specialise, pick an area, say the Arctic – or Antarctic. The Pacific is terrific, but don’t mix it with the Atlantic. If America grabs you, well, decide on north or south. If you have a penchant for Africa ( as I have had for the past 56 years ) then it’s best to opt for a small spot somewhere, instead of trying to cover the history, exploration, people, fauna, flora, geology, meteorology and whatever else there is to write about the entire dark continent.

I knew a man, who spent his life travelling Africa, talking to Africans, writing about them, and above all buying books about the continent in all its glory. His huge collection ended up in the university where he was lecturing. He was retired some years back, and the university gave him notice that he would have to dispose of his books. They just didn’t have the space to house these thousands of volumes, many in poor condition, since he had bought whatever he could afford. He believed in quantity over quality and in the final analysis his hobby cost him a huge amount of money for very little return.

Modern first editions are a popular choice for many an aspirant collector. The trick is, to find, (by guess or good fortune) a rising star. A new author who has just published his first book; an offering that was accepted reluctantly by an obscure publisher, who grudgingly printed a few hundred copies to dip his toes into the wild waters of the market.

One should buy a copy or two, get the author to sign or suitably inscribe them, and then put them into airtight plastic sleeves in a dark cupboard. Then you sit back for several decades, and wait. You wait for the author to repeat his tour de force, to become wildly acclaimed. You buy each of his subsequent efforts and add them to your growing stash. You count your appreciating hoard and gloat over it. Problem is, you can’t even take them out to read them, feel them, or otherwise enjoy them, for fear of diminishing their ‘mint’ condition. You have to become a Scrooge of book-collecting. If, as so often happens, the author fades into obscurity instead of becoming a supernova, one is left with so much wastepaper – in very good condition. Better to enjoy your collection. Read them, admire the illustrations, pore over the maps, feel the silky touch of the fine covers and savour the smell.

Ignorance is a natural condition, not a disgrace. The good thing is that one can take remedial action. All you need is someone a little more knowledgeable, who is willing to jiggle your elbow, when you need a hint. Someone who has your well-being at heart in a self-interested sort of way. This may sound like a contradiction, but let me explain. If you want to collect seriously, passionately, with one eye to the future and the other on the depth of your pocket, find yourself a sympathetic dealer. It helps if he has been touched by a similar madness to yours, and if you confide your hopes and aspirations to him, he will probably bust a gut trying to find what you want. Because he has helped you, you will return to him with further requests. This is how he makes a living; so the more often you return, the more you get, the more he gets. This is known as symbiosis – a partnership of two disparate beings, each with different aims in life, combining their efforts to the benefit of both parties. So cultivate your guru, dealer, soul-mate, chum – whatever you want to call him. Accept the fact that there ain’t no such thing as a free lunch. You’re going to have to pay him for his time, his efforts and his expertise that he puts at your disposal – not to mention the ruinous cost of keeping all those ancient tomes on his shelves for years, while he waits for some wonderful collector/client to come into his premises.

Most aspiring bibliophiles have at one or other stage in their lives been wooed by an old, rare or otherwise wondrous book – in poor condition. In the majority of cases, they would have regretted their purchase after the first heady flush of acquisition had passed. If there is one cardinal rule in this game, it is: buy the best example you can afford. Many collectors buy a copy of a desirable book, then stay on the lookout for a better copy, for which they may then try to trade in their now second-rate darling which has fallen from grace. It’s rather like buying an up-market house every few years as one’s circumstances change. The better the condition, the more likely it is that the book can appreciate in value over time, while the likelihood of a tatty item staging a miraculous recovery are somewhat less likely. There is, of course, the possibility of rejuvenating a damaged item – but only with expert care, not by slapping on a generous application of superglue or causing irreversible damage in any other amateur way. Total re-binding is sometimes resorted to, even by bookdealers, who cannot bear to throw away a mouthwatering textblock which has had the covers ripped off. With the exception of truly scarce and desirable works, this mostly does not increase their value in the eyes of potential purchasers and purists will often sneer at such offerings.

In assessing the desirability and potential value of this paragon of the printer’s art that you are about to purchase, consider the following. Are all the pages present, all plates and illustrations, and maps, if any? If not, then be warned – steer clear of it. Is the textblock soiled – as in showing grubby thumbprints, or traces of the last supper ? Is there any foxing; those ubiquitous brown spots that especially afflict books in the tropics and coastal locations. These are only a few of the basic caveats to consider. If you are a collector of books on African exploration, for example, it is good to know that during Victorian times readers on both sides of the Atlantic were hungry for news of new discoveries. Works were often printed in London as well as in New York. To the uninitiated they look much the same. Not so – since the London versions inevitably command far higher prices. Yet many US publishers during different periods have produced some stunning work in other fields of literature. Only experience, the scanning of many catalogues containing the opinions of the sellers as to condition, desirability and scarcity – which is finally expressed in the asking price, will educate the bibliophile in his passion – with a little help from his bookseller.

What is the value of your precious investment?? What can you sell it for ?

A price is only an opinion in this business. If the seller’s opinion coincides fairly closely with the buyer’s opinion – a deal can be struck. In these days of easy access to information on the internet, don’t be fooled by finding an item you want to evaluate, priced at the top end for $1000. This does not mean that is what it is worth; it is merely an opinion. The moment that book is sold for that price, that is its worth – at that time. Knowing how to distinguish between ‘ I wish ‘ prices and ‘ can get’ prices, is part of the trick. The chances of locating a bargain tucked away on a shelf in a little bookstore in a back alley of Rotorua, New Zealand, are greater than finding it priced way below its ‘real value’ on the shelves of a well-known antiquarian dealer in London. Go to fleamarkets to browse through the offerings. On a number of occasions I have picked up books worth thousands for a few Rands. This treasure-hunting is the exciting part of the hobby – serendipity will strike now and then, be assured. On the other hand, if books have been chosen with care, taking into consideration the intellectual effort and craftsmanship that went into them, their continued relevance and popularity – then, taking into account their increasing scarcity – they should appreciate in price. Out of print books are very much like good real estate – they don’t make ‘em any more. The ravages of fire, insects, water and plain neglect, will always ensure that fewer and fewer examples of certain publications will survive.

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