How Much is My Old Book Worth?

Cheryl tells me we have to do two or three blog entries a week to maintain a serious blogsite, so I’m going to do my bit and crank out another entry. One of the more persistent questions we in the used and antiquarian book trade get is the title of this entry. I usually get it from customers over the phone. One of the quaint notions many of my customers have is that since I’m in the book business, I must know pretty much every book and everything about books – especially the book they’re asking about – off the top of my head. They’re often disappointed when I explain to them, as I often do, that I’m not familiar with their book, will need to see it, and may have to do a little research in order to come up with a retail value for it.

It’s not that I don’t know a lot about books. I really do. It’s just that there are so many individual titles that it is impossible for anyone to know more than a relatively small part of the book world. Many people approach book dealing and collecting with deep knowledge of their special interest areas. As a general bookshop owner, my approach is more like the Mississippi River – a mile wide and a foot deep. I know a little bit about a lot of book subject areas but many out-of-print and unusual books haven’t come to my attention yet. And I’ll probably never have the kind of deep knowledge of any part of my chosen profession to be regarded as a specialist expert.

What I do have is “Finger-Spitzengef├╝hl,” a term popularized by Leona Rostenberg and Madeleine Stern – two highly regarded antiquarian booksellers – which basically means the art of evaluating antiquarian books by handling, experience, and instinct. The German term (one of those portmanteau words) literally means “a tingling in the fingers.” Any one who has ever bought an old book (or any other antique) not knowing much about it but feeling strongly that it has value knows the feeling. Most good booksellers use Finger- Spitzengef├╝hl all the time, even the specialists.

The first time I got to use Finger- Spitzengef├╝hl was when I began in the business with Everett Cunningham, an eccentric antiquarian I worked for back in the ’70s. He owned a small chain of book shops in the Bay Area variously known as the Joyce Bookshops, The Gull, and the Franklin Street Store. He used to enlist the help of a number of friends and proteges to almost literally swoop down on local Library Friends book sales and make off with as many good books as we could. Since there could be up to a dozen of us in the group, we became for a time, terrors of the local book sale world.

I clearly remember Everett instructing me to only pick out good quality scholarly books. I was a bit fuzzy about what he meant by that, but it was all very easy-going and good-natured as learning experiences went. I’d walk around the crowded tables of books with a cardboard box in one hand and grab almost any book that looked “scholarly” and “good,” then when the box was full, take them back to him to see how I did. Acceptable books would be greeted with comments like “Oh yes,… yes, very good,” while the rejects would elicit a dismissive “Oh no! Very common.” As I got better at this, I actually developed an instinct that felt almost supernatural, especially since I rarely read any of the books I picked out for resale.


(Next time: Some rules of thumb for judging books.)

Biblio: Old Books Rare Friends, Leona Rostenberg and Madeleine Stern, Doubleday 1997.

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