“There Is a Seat for Every Ass”

P.T. Barnum is supposed to have said that in reference to filling up his Circus’s Big Tent with paying customers. Or so I’ve been led to believe for many years because I’ve used this quote in the past. But when I go to famous quotes websites I find no attribute to Barnum or anyone else.

Oh well. I still like it because the same could be said for antiquarian books. For every old book there is buyer. Somewhere. I bring this up because that’s what I’ve been thinking as I sort through the 3,000 plus volumes Birchwood Books acquired last month. It’s been full-stop on the novel-in-progress, Knock Softly (working title), while I get this inventory sorted. So far, the oldest book dates to 1631, is in Latin, was printed in France and is about a Spanish Governor. The newest dates to 2001. I’m only about two-thirds of the way through the initial sorting.

To sort, I separate the books into four primary categories: keep; next; too low for online; and donate. Keep means this is a book I’d still like to find on my shelf tomorrow morning, so it will be among the last books to be listed for sale. I’ve found a couple hundred of these. The largest category is next, and that is sub-divided into older and newer books. Newer being post-1960 in this case, and that’s what most of this collection is. The books that are too low for online will be sold, hopefully, in bulk to other bookstores for a few dollars each.

So far, we have donated over 400 books to the John Dingle V.A. Hospital in Detroit and to our local library. Why would you donate a collectable book? Because the market has changed over the past 30 years and these are books that do not have any true collector appeal anymore, mostly due to their condition. Today’s collector, that person who will take out their wallet for a title they really want, is only interested in good looking material. No doubt, there is a seat for this ass (the donated book), but the time and effort it would take to find makes it a losing proposition in today’s market. All collectable books fluctuate in value but they don’t always increase. With the addition of Amazon and eBay, there are more choices for any given title than ever and that has driven the market down sharply over the past decade. Better to take the donation value now and let someone else have the fun of owning it and taking a little profit years later if/when the market rebounds. If it takes another thirty years, I’ll be in my nineties, or my grave. Folks will find some great stories in these books. But in truth, nobody is collecting Christopher Morley these days, or Patrick O’Brian, McPhee, Harte or Haycraft. Their stars my rise again, but with shelf space at a premium around here, I have to be as careful with what I keep as I am with what I donate.

There is a fifth section to the sort; it’s called 2018. As in, do not open this box until 2018. There are only about 75 of these so far. They are all good, collectable books but there’s just too much competition right now. Think Ann Rice, Norman Mailer and John Updike. All shinning-star authors, all first edition books in fine or near fine condition, but only saleable at around fifteen to twenty dollars in today’s market. Their future looks brighter so we’ll hang on to them. You don’t get in the antiquarian book business for quick turnarounds and profits. Some books, many in fact, we’ve held for a decade or longer.

What’s the best thing I’ve pulled out of a box so far? On a personal note, that would be A. Conan Doyle’s The Return of Sherlock Holmes in true first edition. I’ve been looking for an affordable copy for over 30 years and I literally dance around holding the book over my head after I pulled it from the box. But from a collector standpoint, it has to be Thomas Payne’s 1791 Rights of Man. A fine example of the first edition, second printing, in the original paper wraps. It appears unread all these years. America was fifteen years old when Payne wrote this book. Born British, Payne also penned Common Sense – the book that sparked the American Revolution. For Rights of Man, England convicted Payne in absentia for “seditious libel” and issued a standing order for his arrest if he ever stepped foot on British soil again. Now, that’s a book with impact!

Special callout here to friends and fellow Author, Tony and Bonnie Virag (Stove Pipe). It was Tony who told me about this collection last September. Thank you, and, Bonnie, I understand Stove Pipe is in its second printing now! That’s the only sign of success in this business, and you did it! Congratulations. If you haven’t read her book, it’s a terribly gripping story.

Next month, we’ll get back to Knock Softly.

Read on, friends.


    • Book Lover on March 31, 2015 at 9:47 pm
    • Reply

    Phil, thanks for the ideas on what to do with the numerous books crowding my bookshelf.

  1. I’ve always wondered how used book stores categorize and treat their collection of donations and finds. No insult meant to your antiquarian collection by calling it a used bookstore–but a fascinating insight behind-the-scenes of the process.

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