The Ghosts of Booksellers: Collectibles in Glass Cases

Once upon a time, in a galaxy far, far away, or perhaps in another dimension altogether, sellers of musty secondhand books were important members of the community. In every town you would find at least one used bookstore, whose owners were frankly an eccentric lot. The men wore fresh, tidy bow ties and dashed around the store with feather dusters, or looked like Beatnik refugees from the fifties who had just smoked reefer. The charming women store owners wore black dresses feathered with cat hair and dreamily recited the poems of H.D. I reverently tiptoed , trying to avoid the disapproval of the feather duster men, whose motto clearly was DON’T TOUCH THAT BOOK! and to circumvent six-hour chats with the black-clad chain-smoking women about their favorite author, Simone Weil, whom I had not yet read.

I went through an anti-social phase, when I took to peering at the rare books in glass cases, as if there were some possibility I could buy them. It was like going to the British Library, only there you peer at manuscripts of Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre or Angela Carter’s Wise Children. The cases in our bookstores were full of old books I could hardly imagine anyone coveting. Does anyone really want a first or second edition of Max Shulman’s The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis, though perhaps one does want a first edition of Virginia Woolf’s The Years? Dare I say it? My paperbacks are usually nicer.

And yet I did make friends, or at least acquaintances, with booksellers, because I was a regular, and a buyer of books. One Christmas Eve, I was wandering around a bookstore gloomily, because I had trouble buying gifts for parents and other acquaintances. A shaggy-haired bookseller with rare social charm noticed me admiring a Folio Society edition of The Virgin and the Gipsy. “Take it. Merry Christmas! Nobody wants it. It’s been here for years.” “Oh, no, I couldn’t.” Bring out the midwestern self-depreciating manners! He insisted. It was a dilemma. Would it be wrong to accept the book? But he was not a dirty old man, looking for a snuggle, and I was a longtime customer, so I said Yes. It is far from Lawrence’s best book, but I loved it from this moment.

Heritage Press edition of Anna Karenina, trans. by Constance Garnett

Now I know you will expect to hear that I became a collector after this. I did not. I prefer reading copies, whether they be old hardcovers or new paperbacks. I have acquired a few collectibles, of the kind that are not of great worth: a lovely 1952 Heritage Book Club edition of Anna Karenina, illustrated with lithographs by Barnett Freedman; a weirdo boxed Folio Society set of the Brontes in silk covers; and a Literary Guild abridged edition of Bleak House illustrated by Edward Gorey. Damn! I bought it for the illustrations, but don’t like abridged editions. Still, the Gorey illustrations are worth it.

Edward Gorey frontispiece Bleak House

The problem with these charming collectibles is that they are not all in great shape. I love the Anna Karenina, but I am almost afraid to read it, because the spine is cracking. Do I simply look at it from time to time, or do I read it? One must read! And the Bronte set, with the silk covers, is not really attractive at all. (I bought it at eBay.) There are illustrations in the silk books, but the new Folio editions of the Brontes are much nicer.

Doesn’t this silk edition look a bit weird?

The thing is: used bookstores seem to be in crisis now, because of the pandemic. The prices of used books online are ridiculous, $100 (and even $700) for mass market paperbacks I am sure are not in demand, by forgotten, possibly inferior, authors of the twentieth century. But offline, in their bookstore, the owners face different problems. I know of one used bookstore that is not open to the public, unless you are willing to pay $25 for an appointment. Perhaps the $25 includes the price of $25 worth of books? But I have noticed at the few used bookstores I’ve visit, that prices are way down, not up. Good for me, but probably not for them

Strange to see the high prices online, and to discover that pulp science fiction is now valuable. You buy it in a plastic bag for $10 and just wait what happens to the paper when you open it! In the stores, you can get much cheaper deals on pulp fiction. I say, let’s go back to the physical stores, if the poor owners can afford it.

4 thoughts on “The Ghosts of Booksellers: Collectibles in Glass Cases

  1. Enjoyable post Kat. I’ve recently witnessed customers haggling over prices in my local secondhand bookshops. I think it’s going the same way as music. People like it but don’t want to pay for it.

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    1. Oh my god, haggling! That does seem rude, especially since some of these bookstore owners LIVE IN THE BACK OF THEIR STORES. I’m sure some do better than others, but it is hard for them to compete with internet prices, though, as I say, some of those prices seem to be WAY up online now.

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