Last May the University of Michigan’s famed Union Building featured the 37th Annual Antiquarian Book Fair. This book fair is one of a handful of elite fairs, mostly held in large cities, devoted to bringing eminent American dealers to the buying public. That mid-sized Ann Arbor hosts such an important book fair is a testament to its citizens’ ‘love of the book,’ as well as the organizational skills of local dealer Jay Platt, owner of the nationally regarded West Side Book Shop. Jay orchestrates the event every year, attracting the country’s best antiquarian booksellers to the Union’s beautiful ballroom.
I mention this to emphasize the opportunity that the better antiquarian fairs offer the novice as well as experienced book aficionado/collector. In the realm of valuable collectible personal property – everything else is more or less clutter — rare books represent perhaps the greatest bargain in the marketplace today. The second is antique furniture. A first or early edition of a favorite novel, history, or children’s book can hold or even increase its value over a 10-20 year period, while providing an exquisite sense of personal stewardship of a cultural artifact. Also, in a world of excess media and fractured norms, a graceful retreat to one’s personal home library can provide a welcoming environment in which to mentally fortify ourselves.
Of course, value is enhanced by factors such as excellence of condition; the book’s importance, or degree to which it has been popularly embraced – think The Great Gatsby; the presence of the author’s signature or inscription; provenance, a fancy word for ‘who owned it’ (and possibly their inscription or bookplate); and overall rarity in the marketplace. Sometimes these literary gems will appear in general antiques auctions, underappreciated in a welter of furniture, paintings, postcards, rugs and clocks. I have seen many worthwhile pieces come up for auction this way, with the hammer price capturing a great value for the buyer.
The upshot to all this is: attend antiquarian book fairs and introduce yourself to the dealers, establish relationships with those who sell the works you’re interested in, and also keep abreast of auctions, both local and far afield, that include books. Keep in mind the points on value listed above. But most of all, Buy What You Love. You will enhance your life, safeguard a beautiful cultural resource, and perhaps make your heirs very happy in the future — that’s what we call heritage.