Three simple reasons.
- Old books are a unique bridge between literature and history
- Consequently, they are fascinating – for what they say, and for what they are.
- Book collecting is cheap. I’ve purchased books for £1 that are over 200 years old. That’s pretty good value, however you look at it.
What kind of books should I collect?
Having a personal connection is key. Not only does it make collecting meaningful in the first place, but it will also define your buying choices. Personally, although I will pick up anything that’s particularly interesting, the works of Arthur Conan Doyle are at the core of my own collection.
This clarifies in my own mind what I’m looking for, what I’m prepared to pay, and means that I’m often to buy editions of his work at bargain value from shops and collectors who are less interested in the author of the Sherlock Holmes series.
How can I tell what’s a reasonable price to pay for an antiquarian book?
Research is your friend here. An amazing array of different prices can often be found for the same edition of a book, depending on where you’re prepared to look. I’ve bought books for £8 that I’ve seen advertised for £50 online, and for £120 in shops. Check online and via as many sources as possible what books are retailing for. Sites such as www.abebooks.com are very useful in this regard.
Where can I buy antique books?
There are plenty of places you can go to find antique books – but it does depend what kind of collecting you’re interested in. Obviously, if what you want to collect is 500 year Latin hymnals, then you’ll need to go to a specialist shop, and be prepared to spend a reasonable amount of money. However, assuming a more general interest, then here are my recommended “go to” locations, in order of priority.
Market stalls are a great way to get hold of old books very cheaply indeed. Most markets with an antiques section or over a certain size will usually have a stand that sells books, and I’ve picked up many interesting odds and ends over the years for between £1 – £10 pounds. This 185 year old book of theatre reviews and chit chat, for example, set me back £3 a few months ago, and provides a fascinating insight into the lives of the great stage actors of the 1820s.
The real jackpots to look out for are stalls selling books that they’ve bought en-masse at auction, or who have connections to fully fledged second hand book stalls that are looking to clear stock. Often these books will be very cheap indeed, and while it’s very rare that you’ll find something of real value there’s always the possibility of finding a hidden gem. I found this extremely rare copy of Forms of Prayer for the Use of Christian Families (published in 1792) at just such a stall.
Personal favourite– Spitafields Market on a Thursday afternoon.
Many charity shops will have a few antique books, donated by generous souls. I particularly recommend checking at charity stores in prosperous areas – popping into an Oxfam on a day trip to Tunbridge Wells once netted me several copies of the Strand Magazine at a knock down price.
Because charity shops don’t have the same profit motives as second hand booksellers, it is generally far cheaper to pick items up in these circumstances than elsewhere.
Antiquarian Book Fairs:
A lot of the attendees at Second Hand Book Fairs, such as the London International Antiquarian Book Fair and the Bloomsbury Book Fairs, will be selling top end stock – books worth hundreds or thousands of pounds that they hope will be picked up by dedicated collectors or their agents. However, collectors often bring their surplus stock along too, in the hope of flogging it off. If you stick around to the end of the day prices can be slashed by 50% or more, as sellers look to conserve space.
Ebay is a bit hit and miss when it comes to buying second hand books. Selection is pretty good, but it’s actual quite time consuming to find real bargains – either because they will be spotted by fellow collectors and the price quickly rise, or because many of the sellers are actually professional second hand book salesman (there’s also postage costs to factor in). Still, it’s always worth keeping an eye out in case something slips through the net.
Antiquarian Book Shops:
Unsurprisingly, book shops are where you will find the most books. However, because it’s their job, 99% of all antiquarian book sellers will be aware of the real value of the books they’re selling. If you want to buy something, you’re likely going to have to pay what it’s worth.
You’re likely to have most luck in these scenarios finding books that are not particularly valuable, but which you’re interested in. I found this Pittman’s Shorthand version of the Sherlock Holmes story “The Sign of Four”, a very interesting little curio, at a cut price in an antique bookshop on Tottenham Court Road.
I hope this all helps as a starting point.