Tag Archives: antique books

Your Old Book is not *%#^%$ Valuable, OK?

People come into the shop on a fairly regular basis, clutching a single tome wrapped in plastic. They have the hopeful idea that this will purchase their retirement on a small private island.

Sorry, but here are the seven most common reasons we see on why your book might cover lunch at Applebee’s but no more:old books

7. It’s a paperback. Trust us on this one; by the time a paperback is old enough to be antique, it’s too battered to be pretty. Planned obsolescence in the binding glue, or something like that.

6. You have the book club edition. Jack and I got very excited in the early days, finding we had an old hardback of Laura Hobson’s Gentleman’s Agreement, which goes for $600 in a first edition. We had the sturdy, ubiquitous one instead. It’s like the difference between an Aston Martin and an MGB GT; both are pretty, both are cool, but only one is hard to find.

5. It has worm holes. Yes, even if the worm is dead, even if the cover still has its gilt lettering and hand-sewn edges intact, those holes aren’t adding character, they’re subtracting value. Ask any Science Fiction fan: worm holes are bad news.

4. It has Reader’s Digest in the title. Just stop it, ok? We don’t want to buy it and neither does anyone else on the planet.

3. Something has chewed the corners. Dog-eared, maybe; dog-chewed, nyet. And no, we don’t want to hear what got it, or how. Just leave quietly without touching anything. Thanks.

2. The author is still alive. I once mentioned to my agent Pamela, just before visiting her in NYC, that in the used business, a dead author’s work tends to be worth exponentially more than that of a live one. After a brief pause, she asked in honeyed tones, “Do you like Ferris wheels, dear?”

1. It’s part of an encyclopedia set. Unless it’s pre-1800s (we’ve seen one in six years) make a book angel out of it and be happy.

So your book is probably not valuable in terms of money, but let’s not forget it’s still a wisdom house, a snapshot of words between covers that–barring dogs and old glue–hold them in one place, and through time. It may not be worth money, but it’s still valuable. Enjoy it; display its pretty cover; read it, turning the pages gently (and possibly wearing gloves). It’s yours to discover.

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Dust and Ideas


Someone asked me recently, “What’s that lovely smell, the one you get in old bookshops, made of?”

Dust and ideas, as near as I can tell. And it’s not nearly so esoteric as one might think.

This past Friday some synchronicity appeared when two very different pals from the book world forwarded information on book smells. Lara in Canada sent the above photo about a new (quite nicely packaged) perfume called “Paper Passion.” And my agency, Harold Ober, tweeted this link:

@bookstorewendy: As the authority on Old Book Smells, what do you say to this analysis? mentalfloss.com/blogs/archives…

As the mentalfloss article states, old books carry “a combination of grassy notes with a tang of acids and a hint of vanilla over an underlying mustiness.” Yes, we all agree that the smell of books presents their history–and that it’s a pretty nice smell, to have inspired a perfume!

The vanilla-and-acid analysis is poetic, and as Charles Lamb said, “A book reads the better which is our own, and has been so long known to us, that we know the topography of its blots, and dog’s ears, and can trace the dirt in it to having read it at tea with buttered muffins.” Plus, I have this somewhat silly idea that old books are heavier because they take in not only smells from their readers, but weight, from their readers’ minds.

As a college student I often helped a friend who worked in Psych Services check the meeting rooms before locking up at night. Sometimes when we opened the door of one of those little counseling cubicles, the heaviness of what had been discussed in there lingered on the very air. I don’t mean “vibes and aura” stuff, just that there was a palpable (usually dark) residue in those rooms.

Of course, not all thoughts are ponderous and ominous like thunderclouds; some are featherlight, airy as sunbeams. No matter which, it just makes sense that people reading books, pulling ideas out of them, leave a little of themselves behind–be that the breath of thought or the breadcrumbs of lunch.

All those leftovers contribute to the book’s smell, its appearance, its personality, if you will. This is something bibliophiles know and respect. In our bookstore, we often see people stop just inside the door and take a big sniff. And we know he or she is honoring the long history of humanity’s eternal library, inhaling that wafting odor of dust and ideas.

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Filed under Big Stone Gap, book repair, folklore and ethnography, humor, small town USA, Uncategorized