In the spring of 2005, I made the first purchase of what would become the foundation for a collection of first edition/first printings of American 20th century literature. Over the years my pursuit and involvement in world of rare books ebbed and flowed depending on the intensity of the addictive “itch” to collect but it has never ceased completely.
From time to time, friends learn of my collection and conversations arise that inevitably lead to mundane – or exhilarating – topics such as points of issue (attributes of specific printings), collation errors, dust jackets or heroic tales of finding a “sleeper” (a first edition) at the bottom of a moldy box at a tag sale. Interest from non-collectors ranges from glassy-eyed boredom to enthusiastic queries, weighted more to the former if I’m honest.
Yet, I find myself unable to resist the opportunity – any opportunity – to share a few entries from my adventures in rare book collecting. To the casual reader, I hope these are at least entertaining. To those with an interest in the subject, I hope to encourage you to take the first steps on this fun and addictive journey.
It began, as some stories do, during wintertime in New York City, about 18 years ago. I was standing in the atrium of the Waldorf Astoria in Manhattan. At that time Bauman Books, a noted rare book dealer, had a storefront at the Waldorf. In their window was a first edition, first printing of Earnest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea. It stood handsomely on a small easel with a price tag of $2,200 and beside it was a description card that read something like:
The Old Man and the Sea
From that moment I was hooked. I didn’t understand everything on the description card, but I wanted to learn. It would be several years before I made my first rare book purchase but during those years and for years after The Old Man and the Sea was my holy grail of first editions.
My first purchase, in 2005, was an education in one of the most significant parts of collecting: research. I love the works of Hunter S. Thompson; specifically, his writing about the 1972 presidential campaign and his other political rantings. His most famous book was and is Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream which was made into a motion picture in 1998 starring Johnny Depp. I’ve never considered Fear and Loathing a particularly great example of American literature, but I coveted the book for what it represented to my life at the time. It was important to me, and that has always been enough for any book to have a place on my shelves.
After some limited inquiry I learned that “fine” copies of the first edition sold regularly for about $1,000. I almost immediately found one being offered on E-Bay for $110 and bought it. It was the most I had ever considered spending on a book and to this day – with a few very specific exceptions – it is still the most I’ve paid for a first edition.
As my experience increased and I learned more about the book trade the $110 I spent on Fear and Loathing came to represent a very important lesson: Condition is everything. Everything.
My copy of Fear and Loathing came, as advertised, with a small “chip” or tear in the dust jacket less than one-inch long. At the time I thought, “that small blemish doesn’t matter” but that chip is the reason it was offered at $110 and not ten times more. Fear and Loathing still sits in a position of pride on my shelves but it represents a warning when I anguish over a purchase today. If significant dollars – a relative term for sure – are going to trade hands, *make sure the book in question is the best example you are likely to find, at the investment level you are comfortable making.*
Want to get started? Look at the books you already have on your shelves. Pick a favorite, research that book, learn about its first edition and first printing issue points. Learn about how rare or common it is and then start your search! Used bookstores like the Book Barn in Niantic are great places to start but there are many others throughout Connecticut and New England.
Keep in mind that book collecting is a marathon. Sprinting is for those collectors with extremely deep pockets, so be patient.
If you have a question, or want to share your own success story or cautionary tale, send it to firstname.lastname@example.org.
The next edition of ASPIRE will publish in September, giving you three months to see if you can find that next great and rare book. Until then, happy hunting.
Helpful sites to begin your search
This site is very helpful in identifying first edition points of a specific book. I have used this site for years as a starting point for much of my research. Get second opinions though. There is no one ultimate resource for all of the information available.
Southern New England Antiquarian Book Sellers is a great website for finding exactly what it says - booksellers in southern New England who can help you find examples of the book for which you are searching. Keep in mind that these booksellers are in the business to make a living, and expect prices that reflect the market.