Getting started: Old books
May 21, 2001: 7:57 a.m. ET
Antiquarian book dealers surviving onslaught of big box book stores
NEW YORK (CNNfn) - There is an indisputable romance, particularly in this age of high-tech frenzied lifestyles, to spending the day in a small, slightly musty shop surrounded by old books.|
It's a very different pace, even compared to other book shops selling current titles. There are relatively few browsers who come in to thumb through stacks of first editions and rare collectibles that go for hundreds or hundreds of thousands of dollars.
One of the true joys of this business, said dealer Bennett Gilbert, is that he sells to people who share his passion in rare books and oftentimes possess a great deal of knowledge on the subject.
Antiquarians surviving onslaught of national chains
There are other good reasons to find joy in selling rare books. This is one segment of the bookselling industry that hasn't been hit by the mushrooming number of big box book shops like Barnes & Noble. A corporate model like the one national retailers use, say antiquarian dealers, can never accommodate rare books.
Rare, antique books cost a lot to acquire, can never be returned to the publisher if they don't sell, and may sit on the shelves for months before the right buyer comes along. Furthermore, it takes a certain expertise that can't be found at most chain stores to be a good antiquarian bookseller.
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One key to success in this world is personal relationships, said Gilbert, of Bennett Gilbert Rare Books in Los Angeles. People spend up to tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars for some rare books, so they need to know they are buying an authentic product.
"With master paintings or rare books, a lot rests on the credibility of the dealer," said Gilbert. Dealers in turn have to guard their reputation by only selling the highest-quality pieces that come with their personal guarantee. Rather than stealing business from the antiquarians, the big national retailers have to rely on them because they realize this is a niche they simply cannot fill.
Thomas Congalton, president of the Antiquarian Booksellers Association of America, said that in the same time that so many independent booksellers have gone out of business, business has been good for the antiquarians. Although there is no count of the number of antiquarian book shops in the United States, Congalton said he wouldn't be surprised if the number has doubled in the last decade.
That is not to say they are springing up on every street corner across America. The average book buyer will probably never see many of the new, and old, antiquarian booksellers. The advent of the Internet has truly changed this industry and has sent many booksellers out of the shop and into the home.
Businesses such as these can thrive on the Internet because most collectors don't browse. Most collectors know what they want and who is most likely to have it.
Know of what you speak
Anyone in the business is going to have to know a lot about the books they hope to deal. Most antiquarian sellers develop a particular area of expertise. Gilbert, for example, deals 300-year old relics from the earliest days of printing – books that are sought after in part for the text but also for the workmanship from the hand press period.
Not only does a good dealer know a lot about the types of books they are selling, but they also have to know how to find these rare treasures. How they go about finding and buying these books is the one great secret of the industry.
"We don't really talk about that," said Ken Lopez, owner of Ken Lopez Booksellers in Hadley, Mass.
All that most dealers will say is that the process is very capital intensive and involves having the right contacts in the right places.
Both Lopez and Gilbert worked in the industry before striking out on their own. Lopez was a scout for another bookseller before opening his own shop in Hadley, Mass. Gilbert worked in an antiquarian shop before starting his own business.
Many people, however, were collectors and hobbyists before opening shops. Although training to become an antiquarian bookseller is sparse, Gilbert said many antiquarians learn about the trade by attending seminars and colloquia sponsored by the Society for the History of Authorship, Readership and Publishing. The University of Virginia has a rare books program that provides professional training for dealers, professors, librarians and collectors.
In vogue: modern firsts
The largest segment of the antiquarian book trade currently is the market for modern first editions of American and English authors. Lopez is one of those dealers who specializes in modern first editions. The demand is higher for first editions, in part because it is less expensive to collect modern firsts.
The prices for these items ranges tremendously. First editions with large printings can sell for as little as $10 a piece, as do some John Updike firsts of his later works. Collectors are willing to pay in the tens of thousands for more rare pieces. At a recent auction, according to Lopez, a first edition of "The Lord of the Rings" sold for $56,000. At that same auction, first editions of "The Catcher in the Rye" and "To Kill A Mockingbird" each sold for $33,000.
The wide range of prices that dealers can collect for first editions is one of the reasons their annual revenues, and personal pay, vary tremendously. On average, most of Lopez's customers spend between $200 and $300 when they buy from him.
Every now and again, however, he gets a big sale when he locates a particularly interesting manuscript or very rare first edition. He recently located a proof copy of "The Lord of the Rings" which he later sold for $200,000.
His own take-home pay depends on the volume he sells and his ability to find and sell a few very special pieces. As a result, Lopez said he has earned as little as $19,000 and as much as $200,000 in a given year.
All antiquarian dealers' pay varies, although perhaps not as radically as this. But Lopez and others said it is not that difficult for a good dealer to earn a "comfortable living" because there is demand for their products.
Most dealers, said Lopez, are willing to put up with some turbulence in terms of their pay because nobody gets into this business to get rich. The fact of the matter is most dealers acknowledge they are living a dream of sorts because they are actually able to make a living out of their hobby.
"Having great things like that (the Tolkien proof copy) pass through your hands is a joy," said Lopez. "Knowing that you are playing a part in seeing that these books are valued and well-preserved is really rewarding."