In every issue of The Avid Collector, our Expert Booksellers will answer your questions on rare and collectible books.
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Q. I bought a book at the Feria de Libros in Madrid that has not been opened. In order to actually read the pages, I would have to cut them apart. Should I do it? - Lamika

A. Books are often printed with eight or even sixteen (or more) pages on a single large sheet of paper. These sheets are folded down to make a “gathering.” In earlier times, printers and binders often did not trim the edges, choosing to issue their books with the edges uncut and the gatherings unopened (the Spanish term for this is intonso). Such books are difficult—if not impossible—to read because the uncut sheets are literally folded closed.

If you have a particularly rare or valuable book, opening the pages can affect the resale value. However, for most books, opening the pages carefully will not reduce their value. Personally, I prefer to use a standard credit card, working slowly and evenly, while gently holding the textblock closed with one hand. If the paper stock is thin or fragile, I use an index card. Whatever tool you use should be placed exactly in the center of the fold and slowly razored upward. Otherwise, you’ll end up tearing the page margins. Don’t use a letter opener. They can do a lot of damage. A book with crudely opened gatherings is an unsightly thing.
-- Michael Laird Rare Books, Brooklyn, New York, USA

Q. I have recently started collecting leather-bound books. Since most of these books have never been read, and I believe they should be, what is the best way to open a book for the first time? - Al

A. Leather-bound antiquarian books with bindings still soft and supple after a century or more are thrilling to hold. They are also a testament to the craftsmanship of the binder. If treated with care, they can last for centuries, even with moderate use.

When opening a newly acquired book, or a book that is tightly bound, hold the book in your hand, fore-edge up. Then, gently press the leaves down, a few at a time, first at the front, then at back, and so on, back and front, until the center of the book is reached. “Opening up” in this fashion helps the flexibility of the paper and the binding. Be careful, though. Don’t force the book to open all the way and lie flat. That can break its back.
-- Mark Stirling, Up-Country Letters, South Lake Tahoe, California, USA

Q. I want to start a small business selling rare and sought-after books. Is there a list that you can recommend of the bestselling books and also the most expensive ones? - John

A. You are correct in thinking that one of the ways to be successful as a small, independent bookseller is to focus on the best, the most significant, and the most interesting books ever published in your area. However, determining the value of a specific copy involves much more than just the title of the book. Among the factors that impact value are edition, condition, and completeness. For example, a first edition of The Grapes of Wrath signed by John Steinbeck might easily be worth more than $20,000, but an unsigned copy of the first edition, missing the dust jacket, and in very poor condition, might not fetch $20.

Rare and antiquarian booksellers face three challenges: acquiring good books, pricing them, and finding customers for them. All of these require experience. You can attend formal programs, like the Colorado Antiquarian Book Seminar, nicknamed the boot camp for booksellers, or the Rare Book School at the University of Virginia. Or you can learn on your own, through reading, buying, and handling many books.

For lists of sought-after first editions, I recommend two titles by Allen and Patricia Ahearn. Collected Books: The Guide to Values lists over 20,000 books in many fields, and Book Collecting 2000 lists historical prices for thousands of first books by popular authors. Reading the experiences of successful booksellers can also be helpful. I like Old and Rare: Thirty Years in the Book Business by Leona Rostenberg and Madeleine B. Stern. It is both entertaining and instructive.
-- Christine Volk,, Ione, California, USA

Q. Can you explain to me why the first edition of The Hobbit appears in two different bindings? - Frank

The Hobbit, first edition, published by Allen & Unwin in 1937. Image courtesy of Peter Harrington Antiquarian Bookseller.

A. We aren’t quite sure what you mean by the two bindings on the first edition of J. R. R. Tolkein’s classic, The Hobbit. Allen & Unwin published the first edition in London in 1937. There is only one trade binding - light green cloth with titles and decoration in blue. There are, however, two dust jackets for the book. All copies of the first edition, first impression, have “Dodgeson” corrected in ink to “Dodgson” on the rear flap. Later jackets have the name spelled correctly. The second impression of the book, also dated 1937, has color illustrations. A total of 1,500 copies of the first impression were printed, including 152 copies bound in buff wrappers (paper covers) for reviewers.


Houghton Mifflin published the first American edition in 1938. Here there are two issues of the title page. The first issue copies have a figure commonly described as a “bowing hobbit.” This was soon replaced with the publisher’s logo. The reason for the change is not known. All first edition copies of the book have the same green binding, however. If you have a first edition of The Hobbit with a different binding, it’s remotely possible that it is an unrecorded variant, but it is more likely to have been rebound at some later date.

To answer your general question about why books sometimes have different bindings, there are two common reasons: convenience and marketing. Sometimes binders run short on materials and use two (or more) colors of cloth or paper to finish the job. In other cases, publishers bind books in a variety of materials to sell to different markets: leather for the upscale market, cloth for the middle, and paper for the price conscious.
-- Kevin Finch, Peter Harrington Antiquarian Bookseller, London, UK

Q. I am looking for a rare literature book from the Victorian period as a Christmas gift for my friend. Can you please advise? - Mandy

A. Every Christmas holiday season we receive numerous inquiries regarding our recommendations for customers. The Victorian era, which is typically considered to extend from 1837, the year Queen Victoria ascended to the throne, to 1901, the year of her death, offers a lot of interesting possibilities: books with decorative Victorian bindings, classics of illustration, fiction, and so on.

This Christmas season our shop staff recommends the following Victorian-era books:

Cranford, by Elizabeth Cleghorn Gaskell (1810–1865), offered a cherished portrait of Victorian class structure, habits, and society. Part of its particular charm was that Mrs. Gaskell simply and accurately portrayed the lifestyle of the society. The book was first published anonymously in 1853. Most suitable for gifts are any of a number of later editions in attractive bindings, starting around $100.

[Find this copy of Cranford] [Find all copies of Cranford]

Thomas Hood (1799–1845) was a popular British humorist and poet. Hood's Own, or, Laughter from Year to Year was first published in 1838, and it contains humorous sketches, verses, essays, and ribald pieces that depicted and parodied the living conditions of the time. The book offers an original take on life at the very beginning of the Victorian era.

While rather scarce in fine condition, copies are available beginning at about $250.

[Find this copy of Hood's Own] [Find all copies of Hood's Own]

If you are willing to be very extravagant, the ultimate Victorian Christmas present has to be Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol. Dickens’ tale of Ebenezer Scrooge is one of the best-known Christmas stories.

The book has an interesting publishing history. Dickens began writing what he termed his “little carol” in October 1843 and finished it by the end of November, just in time for Christmas. He was feuding at the time with his publishers, so he financed the book himself. He ordered the text bound in a lavish binding, four of the illustrations to be hand colored, and, when he didn’t like original the red and green title page, he had the green changed to blue. He set the price at 5 shillings so that everyone could afford it, and, as a result, the production expenses ate up most of the profits, despite extraordinarily high sales. Within the first few days of its release, the book sold 6,000 copies. A Christmas Carol went on to become a Christmas tradition. It is less well-known that Dickens wrote four other Christmas stories, which all sold well at the time, but are not often read today.

Our set of first editions of all five of Dickens’ Christmas stories, including the rare red-and-green issue of A Christmas Carol, is $42,500.

[Find this set of A Christmas Carol] [Other Victorian-era copies of A Christmas Carol]
[More Collectible Charles Dickens Books]

-- Printers Row Fine and Rare Books, Chicago, Illinois, USA




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