Finding Hidden Treasures:
Shopping for Vintage Books
Where Will I Find Them?
The two best places to check for vintage books (and possibly the only places you won't be fleeced) are:
Your local library. You may think your local library doesn't sell books. Most people I ask in my town don't think the local library sells books, either. However, the only way to find out is to ask! The great thing about this is that you will be helping by making a donation, and at the same time you will get some excellent deals. If they don't have a section of the library for selling books on a regular basis, they may have an annual or seasonal book sale. Aside from selling used library books, people donate books to them, so the books won't necessarily be covered in library stickers and rubber stamp markings.
Your town's annual book sale. Is there an organization in your town that has a book sale as a means of fund-raising? Ask around and see. I have found some real treasures at these sales.
The typical cost at either of the above is anywhere from about twenty-five cents to two dollars per book. Sometimes you can get them for even less. And if you don't like the book(s), you can always donate back to these organizations.
There is also a third place to look--an antique store. My rule for buying from an antique store is that I won't pay more than I would for any other used book (generally, around $5). Remember that just because something is old, it does not mean it is valuable. The goal here is not to buy something that will appreciate in value, but to buy an entertaining book to read.
What are they Worth?
I have been in antique stores and am amazed at what they charge for used books in very bad condition (the ones I saw were around $35). Books are one of those unique things that are really not worth much, except in rare circumstances. You should research about collecting books if you feel you must spend a lot of money in order to get them, or plan on reselling them--and ignore my comments here, since they are not for collectors. Antiques Roadshow Primer (Carol Prisant, 1999, Workman Publishing, NY) says mostly books are valuable when published before 1800 or are first editions of now-famous titles (the copyright date is not the publication date...don't be tricked!), and only when in like-new condition (312+313). You will probably not find any that meet these criteria (I never have...not even in antique stores). And finding books that cost a mint really defeats the purpose of this being an affordable hobby for both children and adults. My tips here are not for collectors, but rather for enthusiasts who have no interest in book values, re-selling, or profiting from this.
Why Collect Old Books?
You may wonder why one would collect old books if they are not attempting to make money. For me, collecting old books is not a money-making venture, but is rather a way to extend my reading choices with good, old-fashioned, clean books.
As a child I was first exposed to old books by an elderly lady who lived across the street. She had books left over from her childhood that were published in the 1900s and 1910s and very graciously gave them to me. I was fascinated by these books and how different they were from books available to my generation.
Yes, you can buy reprinted books, but the choices are so limited. In addition, when books are republished they often lose their picture plates along the way, are re-illustrated, condensed, rewritten, or are re-done in paperback. So much of the charm is lost. Another thing that happens is that many books are not reprinted and go out-of-print. These books have been lost to the general public. Finding such an obscure book is like entering a world that is open only to you. It's magical.
You may also say, "I can find books written today that are about the past." This is true. There are many children's books written today that are based in times past. But they're missing so much. The writers were not there, living during that time. They have lost the vernacular, the special charm. Some of their facts may be flawed. They don't have an insider's view like the authors of those eras did.
Another fun aspect of collecting old books is that you may find treasures left behind by the original reader. Perhaps valuable treasures. I found a postcard being used for a bookmark in one; the stamp on it is worth anywhere from a few cents to $150...but I'm leaving it in the book, where it belongs.
One of the things I have learned along the way--sometimes through a hard lesson--is that being picky is very important. The last thing you want is a bookcase full of books that you're never going to be able to use. Here are some things to check for:
Sniff the book before you buy it. This sounds odd, but if it smells like smoke or mildew, this is possibly not going to come out...the smell has probably been in there for dozens of years, and it's very unpleasant to read a book that is old and smelly. You can do this very discreetly. I usually open the book close to my nose and to others it looks as if I'm reading it...what I'm really doing is sniffing! Don't be surprised if there is a general paper-y or library-ish smell to the book. Just make sure it's an odor you can deal with and that isn't overpowering. You can also air out a book by leaving it in an unusued (!) room in the open for a while; this has helped decrease the smell in some older books I have found.
Check inside the binding very, very closely; especially toward the inside of the spine, by cracking open the book (and look right inside the front covers). Old books occasionally harbor "bookworms." The real kind--not the people kind! One time I got an old book (Louisa May Alcott's Eight Cousins) that was "infected." The bugs spread amongst almost a whole row of my bookshelf, and the books and bookshelf had to be destroyed. Since then I've checked other books being sold and have seen holes bored into them by bugs. No matter how great the title or author, if there's any evidence that points to bugs (even just one creepy crawly), I won't get it because of what happened to me before. These are virtually impossible to get rid of and destroy not only the book they are in, but also any other books nearby and potentially even bookcases.
Don't pass up books that are falling apart. Most people would pass these up because they feel they are too hard to fix. It's easy to fix a book just by using clear Contact Paper and school glue. I never worry about decreasing the value (these would decrease it, by the way, if it is originally worth something...don't do this to any book you would think about reselling) because I have no plans to sell the books. My favorite old book is one that was in bad shape that I had to fix up.
It never hurts to take your time and try and get lost in the book for a paragraph or two. Try and see if the writing is easy to understand and engaging. If there is too much outdated vernacular being used, it may not be worth getting. Old books can be incredibly boring, just as present-day books can be. Some of them are even more so, since they can be more difficult to understand.
You can probably tell from the above comments that I will only buy a book I can see in person. I want to smell it, inspect it for bugs, and try and see what it is about. I would never buy an antique book online or through mail-order, because I want to be able to view its condition in person. Even newer books I've purchased have been smelly or even mildewed. Be careful!
How to Find a Good Story
Finding a good book can be like finding a needle in a haystack, though cliché. When looking for current books you can read reviews online, ask friends for suggestions, and read the back cover copy or front leaf of a slipcover. You can't do any of this with old books you may come across. Here are some of the criteria I try to have books meet when I'm looking:
I check the publication date of books (this is located on a page near the front cover). New books can look old! I've found that I like books from the 1800s to 1950s. By the 1960s stories began to be a little more negative (this is one reason I love older writings; today's children's fiction seems to be so negative and less of an escape than old fiction). I enjoy many books from the '40s and '50s and will get books that go as far as into these eras, but the real gems seem to be books written for girls from the 1890s to 1910s. If you like books such as the present-day, historically-based American Girl series, you will adore books from this era.
These books are so old that they are generally missing their slipcovers, potentially have no illustrations on the covers, and it's impossible to tell what they are about. If a book you find has been withdrawn from the library, check inside the back cover. It could be that the library has cut and pasted in a description of the book. This can be very helpful in deciding if the subject matter is of interest.
When looking, always keep in mind famous authors that you greatly enjoy. You may be able to find other titles they wrote that have been forgotten to most people. Eleanor H. Porter wrote Pollyanna...I found an obscure book by her entitled Just David. Harold Bell Wright wrote the famous Shepherd of the Hills...I found a few books by him. These books are no longer in print, unlike their famous counterparts, but they're usually just as good and are like finding hidden treasures.
Look for books that have frontispieces and/or illustrations or picture plates. If there are drawings, you can sometimes tell who the main character is in a pinch, as well as potentially a bit on what the book is about. Picture plates and frontispieces also generally have a quote from the book or summary from a page, explaining what is going on. I prefer kids' vintage books, so I look for ones that depict younger kids in the drawings, and the books are usually about those kids pictured.
Check the back few pages of the book. A short summary of the book may appear on the last few pages in advertisements for similar books.
One of the things I am still struggling with figuring out is whether a book is for a child reader or an adult. Books were not clearly marked with their reading level as they are today, and children's books were more "challenging" reading than they are now. At times you can tell by the title, but this is still something that is difficult to discern. Sometimes you won't figure this out until you are actually reading the book. I find books for adults from this era to be less interesting than those intended for children. But you may have to try them to find out your own preference.
What to Do When Reading
When reading the books, pay close attention to the language...it is richer than the language we use today. Incorporate your favorite "new" words into your everyday language and stump your friends. If you don't know what the words mean, look them up in the dictionary. The language is so unique, at times you may want to read one sentence again and again.
Pay attention to foods, hobbies and games that are mentioned. What ones sound interesting to you? Are there any you could try? If the book does not explain them well, you can look for instructions on the Internet.
Have a wonderful time on your hunt for these hidden treasures! Here is a treasure I found in one of my books...
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