The Bad Words of Bookselling

At least once a day someone contacts us regarding the potential sale of the Bible that they found in the attic or basement. The caller usually starts with "I have a really old book, would you be interested in it?" The expectant lilt to their voice betraying the dollar signs in their eyes. "Well," the process begins, "age is not really of primary importance as far as we're concerned. What is the title of the book?" A snort of disbelief is followed by "This is a bible from 1885 that was my Grandmother's. I consider this VERY old!". And so it goes. Only today I got a call from a person who had a German Bible, that was so old it wasn't even dated! Yes, things from 1885 are, relatively speaking, very old. However, as far as the publishing history of mankind goes the Bible is the most published work of them all! This is not to say we do not seek Bibles under any circumstance. We are interested in Bibles published before 1876, printed in America in small towns and out of the way places. Similarly, English Bibles as well as many in other languages, published before 1800 would be desirable to us. The farther back you go the greater our interest.

As one caller a day approaches us with hopes for retirement funds from an old Bible, every other day someone calls with a set or volume of Shakespeare. Yes, WS is playing second-fiddle in this act, however he would understand that the team of Adam, Moses, Jesus, et al. has an advantage. Like the Bible, the further back you go with Shakespeare the greater the interest. However, where Bibles were already being mass-produced by moveable type printing presses after 1503 Shakespeare didn't go into vast production until around 1630. Because of the "classical" or school-taught aspects of Shakespeare, nearly every household in America from 1830 to the present has or has had at one time or another a volume or set of Shakespeare's work. The second-hand value of these items is in direct inverse proportion to their popularity. It is simple economics: The greater the production of Bibles and editions of Shakespeare, i.e. the greater the supply, the less the after-market value or demand.

This brings us, in a linear sense, to the modern age. Often, we hear from folks with "30 years of National Geographic, the most I've every seen in one place!" and other such ejaculations. As communications advanced and the world became smaller the National Geographic Society was there to bring it all home. And, as I beat the point into the ground, it is only when you get further back to the beginning do these mass-produced things bear ANY after-market value. National Geo was started in 1888 and didn't hit it big with the American reader until around 1911 or so. At that time, Gilbert Grosvenor took over the reins and popularized interest in the far-off places of the world. And, his success in popularizing the magazine, it turns out, is the bane for the second-hand value of the issues printed after 1912 (when circulation advanced into the millions).

So more times than we care to admit, when the phone rings, the "really old Bible", the beautiful set of Shakespeare, and the 30 years worth of National Geographic demand a quick explanation of an overburdened and (sentimentality notwithstanding) valueless market.