The Carlisle Mosquito Online

Friday, January 27, 2006


Community gathers to learn about old and rare books

In a world obsessed with hearing about the latest in headphone and cell phone technology, it's refreshing to see a crowd exists that wants to hear about books — and vintage issues versus the latest and greatest new features. Kenneth Gloss, proprietor of the Brattle Book Shop in Boston, gave a free talk entitled "Treasures in Your Attic: Old and Rare Books" to a capacity crowd of 60 on Thursday evening, January 19. The talk, co-sponsored by the Gleason Public Library and the Carlisle Historical Society, took place at the Robbins Library of the Carlisle Public School.

People from Carlisle and many other neighboring towns made their way to the library for the talk. Many individuals had brought along a treasured book for a free informal appraisal by Gloss. There were ragged copies and pristine volumes, tiny stocking-stuffers and large books suitable for a coffee table. The real eye-catcher was a huge 28-inch by 21-inch red atlas brought in by area resident Peg Headstrom. Headstrom met the "wows" cheerfully with a humble, "I don't think it's worth much."

How old is old?

Gloss began the lecture part of the program by discussing the value of an old book, referring to the first book ever printed — the Guttenberg Bible in 1456. Just five years ago, half of the book sold for $5.5 million. Single pages range between $25,000 and $50,000 on average, and some even more.

The whole Book of Psalms, first printed in the New England colonies, is worth over a million dollars, according to Gloss. The book collector put time into perspective, explaining that while many books from the 1720s and 1730s exist in New England, they are not considered old since earlier books exist. However, in Pennsylvania and Ohio those dates are considered old. He went on, "1840s is old for California, and 1900 is old for the Gold Rush Klondike region in Alaska."

Content characteristics can make a book "old" and "valuable." Gloss explained, "A book on religion from the 1870s may not be considered old, but on the telephone and telegraph, that's an old book. The years 1900 and 1910 are old for airplanes, 1940 for electronics and computers, late '50s and early '60s for space travel and exploration." Gloss gave a very current example of an old book: "The first edition of the first Harry Potter book in England isn't ten years old, but it's worth $15,000 to $20,000."

Aside from age and content, condition can affect prices if multiple copies are available. Paper dust covers can also be important if there are several copies out. "Prestige is important to book collectors," says Gloss. "Everyone wants to have the best."

He also explained that being a "first edition" alone does not make a book valuable. Every book must have a first edition, and any succeeding editions make the first valuable. Gloss added, "A book has to be historically, scientifically, literally, or for some other reason important."

Signed books are valuable, depending on the author, and the number of existing books that the author has signed: the fewer the better. Again, book collectors want to have something that no one else has.

Preserving books over the years

Ken Gloss ponders John Steinbeck's inscription on Bonnie Miskolczy's book. (Photo by Midge Eliassen)
The Brattle Book Shop was founded in Boston in 1825, and has had seven locations to date. Brattle Street, the original location, doesn't even exist anymore. The Gloss family took the store over in 1949. Father George and his son Kenneth have developed the store into one of the largest antiquarian bookstores in the country. The current three-story building includes about 250,000 books, maps, prints and postcards. The inventory includes collectibles and fine leather bindings in its rare book room. Today, Gloss appraises books for major universities, and a wide number of interesting clients like the FBI. He also serves on the associate board of the Boston Public Library. He even shares his antiquarian expertise on the nationally televised "Antiques Roadshow."

After his talk, Gloss addressed questions about effects of the burgeoning Internet on book values. He cautioned that although you can easily sell an old book online, you can just as easily understate the value. He encouraged anyone wanting to get an old book appraised informally to simply bring it into the store, "especially if you have a little pamphlet called 'Tamarlane' by Edgar Allen Poe" (valued at $198,000). He did note that a book owner can expect to get only a third or so of the retail value. For higher-priced items, the owner may receive up to half of the quoted price.

Another member of the audience wondered about caring for old books. Gloss quipped, "If you're comfortable, the book is probably comfortable." He did share some advice of what not to do: no direct sunlight and not to stack books too tightly nor too loosely.

When asked about the care of family documents, Gloss suggested copying originals whenever possible, and displaying the copies while keeping the originals stored away. He talked about the worst product to use to fix tears: Scotch tape. If you can afford it, Gloss recommended getting professional assistance to preserve and restore books.

Finding out what books are worth

After the talk, Gloss gave attendees with books a quick verbal appraisal. Their value ran the gamut from only $5 to $10 to several hundred dollars. There were scores of books, but a few — and the comments Gloss made — deserve mention.

Bonnie Miskolczy brought In Dubious Country with an inscription by author John Steinbeck to her aunt that read, "This is a lousy book." Gloss questioned the validity of the signature, claiming that Steinbeck's handwriting was quite small. Miskolczy, however, affirmed the authenticity of the inscription. An Audubon book of birds, dated 1937, brought in by Ginny and Arthur Mills, came in on the low side as it turned out to be a reprint. An early copy of Walden was appraised at $1,000 due to its poor condition (better ones have sold for as much as $5,000.) A first edition of Mark Twain's Celebrated Jumping Frog, brought by Midge Eliassen, came in low at between $200 to $500 because the book's binding was not original.

And what of the "worthless" huge red atlas that Headstrom had lugged in? Gloss looked admiringly over the large book, Description of Egypt, dating back to 1824. Headstrom related that her parents lived in Egypt in the 1960s. Her father was the Cultural Affairs Officer at the American Embassy in Cairo. Her mother found the book one day at a bazaar. Gloss valued the book at several thousand dollars, and offered to conduct a more formal appraisal at Headstrom's home.

When it comes to rare and old books, Gloss will even bring the expertise of the Brattle Book Shop to you.

2006 The Carlisle Mosquito