Website Review: Antiquarian Booksellers Association of America

Antiquarian Booksellers Association of America website screen capture (top of page) 10/21/2021

One of the questions I receive on both my blog and Facebook page runs like this: “I have a copy of_____. Would you have any idea of its value or how I would find out?” I haven’t a clue regarding the first part of that question. I love reading and talking about books, but have never focused on collecting books, particularly old books apart from a treasured Balzac series that passed down from my grandfather. I always direct people to antiquarian booksellers and to this website representing the association of these booksellers in the U.S. (there are similar associations in other countries).

Spurred by reading about the founding of this organization in Book Row which I recently reviewed, I spent some time nosing around on their website. Here’s some of what I found.

The top menu bar can take you nearly anywhere on the site. “Browse and shop” takes you to a page where you can browse antiquarian books in a variety of categories, see recently listings or search for a particular author or title (you can do this from the home page as well). “About the ABAA” is exactly that including the mission statement, their Guarantee and Code of Ethics, how antiquarian booksellers can join (they must be vetted and sponsored by a current member–they cannot just sign up and they must subscribe to the Code of Ethics), their board members and more. “About Antiquarian Books” is a great place to start to learn about antiquarian books, collecting them, and even the vocabulary that is used. “ABAA Booksellers” describes what it takes to become an ABAA Bookseller and provides a search function for finding ABAA Booksellers by area, region or name. Finally, “Events” publicizes upcoming book events, especially book fairs. There is even an article on virtual book fairs in the age of COVID.

Below this is a scrolling banner with recent postings from “The New Antiquarian,” the blog of the association, and other announcements. The blog may also be accessed from a clickable teal colored box in the upper right corner of the page. The below the “creeping” listing of book categories, one can see recent arrivals of books for sale via member booksellers.

Antiquarian Booksellers Association of America website screen capture (bottom of page) October 21, 2021

The bottom of the page is redundant in many respects, with regard to some of the non-bookselling content on the page. The “About” information is offered again with this statement that ought encourage those wishing to buy, sell, or evaluate their books”

The Antiquarian Booksellers’ Association of America was founded in 1949 to promote interest in rare and antiquarian books and book collecting, and to foster collegial relations. We strive to maintain the highest standards in the trade. All members agree to abide by the ABAA’s Code of Ethics. While our members sell, buy, and appraise books and printed matter, our staff can assist you with finding a bookseller and with other trade-related matters.

Several things stand out. This is a 72 year-old organization–not an internet-come-lately. They work collegially, helping each other serve customers. They have a code of ethics. They are dedicated to serving customers in every aspect of the antiquarian book business.

Also, “below the fold” are a selection of the posts from their blog, other organizational links and a place to sign up for their newsletter. That’s really about it.

One other feature you should note in the scrolling banner is the “catalogues” feature. Catalogues are the lifeblood of antiquarian bookselling. Sellers assemble sales lists of a selection of their books. Glancing through can help you learn about which sellers cater to your interests and give you an idea of the worth of various books and considerations in value. This is a great way to get an education about antiquarian books and you might find something to your liking that could be a nucleus to your collection.

All in all, this is an easily navigable and great place to learn, find books and booksellers, and book events and more, dealing with booksellers who still consider their work an honorable trade worthy of high standards. If you are concerned about such things as you look to buy, sell, or appraise old books, look for booksellers who meet these requirements and display the ABAA logo.

Review: Book Row

Book Row, Marvin Mondlin and Roy Meador. New York: Skyhorse, 2019 (originally published in 2003).

Summary: A history of Book Row, a collection of used and antiquarian bookstores along and around Fourth Avenue in New York City.

Most of us who have loved books for many years have our favorite used and antiquarian bookstores. Many are memories. Others are still operating. Some were in out of the way places, some in bigger cities. In some cases, I remember places with multiple stores near one another. I think of some college towns like Ann Arbor and Madison where you could go from one store to the next. At one time, Harvard Square was like that. Now imagine all of those stores in one place, within walking distance of each other. There once was a place like that in New York City, known as Book Row, with upwards of twenty five stores along a one mile stretch on Fourth Avenue or one of the side streets. The heyday of Book Row ran from the 1890’s to the 1970’s.

Marvin Mondlin and Roy Meador are Book Row veterans who have captured in a thoroughly enjoyable account the wonder of this place. One can almost smell the books and imagine the booksellers who delighted in the poor college students and the curmudgeons who begrudgingly permitted the worthy into their domains. They begin with George D. Smith, who began selling on Fourth Avenue in the 1890’s and created the ideal of the Book Row bookseller. He was among the foremost of antiquarian booksellers, who both acquired collections and helped build some of the greatest collections including that of Henry Huntington. He started his store near the Bible House, the home of the American Bible Society, which played a surprising role in many of the stores. He was a pioneer in the use of catalogues to market his books. He was a master on the auction floor, trusted by many famous clients to acquire books.

The authors go on to recount the lives of the other stores and booksellers along Fourth Avenue. What is striking is how importance the training of these booksellers was. They worked for publishers, they served as “book scouts” for established stores in acquiring needed inventory, they apprenticed in stores learning every aspect of the business. Then, often still at a young age, they launched out on there own, or sometimes with a partner. (The two Jacks, Biblo and Tannen, complemented each other in temperament and skills in one of the most famous Book Row businesses.) One of the marvelous aspects that comes up again and again is how booksellers actually helped newcomers enter the business, offering lots of books at low prices.

Perhaps part of the reason for this practice was the realization that Book Row was a draw because of the sheer number of stores. Everyone from poor college students buying books in the outdoor bins (seven for a quarter!) to rich collectors as well as business people and travelers from all over the country and the world came to Book Row to feed their particular love of books. The booksellers built on this shared interest and formed the Fourth Avenue Booksellers Association whose first act was to fight efforts to remove the sidewalk bargain stands that moved merchandise and brought people into the stores. They worked together from the 1940’s on to promote Book Row as a destination and eventually to host book fairs. They also contributed support and leadership to the Antiquarian Booksellers Association of America, which continues to promote the ethics and interests of the antiquarian book trade to this day.

Why did Book Row, apart from the venerable Strand, not survive? Two words: “rents” and “age.” Some operations, like the Strand, passed through two or more generations (three at least with the Strand). But beginning in the 1950’s several things happened. Wanamakers, the department store that was a magnet to the district, closed. The building owners started raising rents or seeking to convert buildings to high rent apartments. For a time, booksellers moved to lower rent storefronts. Some converted to doing mail order out of their homes, no longer opening their shops to “off the street” trade. Some moved away, opening shops elsewhere for a time. By the 1970’s, few were left and by the 1990’s they were all gone.

For a time, only the Strand, which owns its own building, was left (and still is, a destination in itself, with its miles of books). Then Steve Crowley opened Alabaster Books in 1997, still in business at the date of this review. The book also mentions Gallagher’s Art & Fashion Gallery, which was still in business in 2004 but no longer appears online. So it is now one store plus the Strand holding up the legacy of Book Row.

Oh, how I wish I’d visited Book Row in its heyday! I would have thought I’d died and gone to book heaven. This book is the next best thing. The accounts of the stores and their proprietors offered hours of delight imagining browsing those shelves. While Book Rows have disappeared in all but a few of the world’s great cities, there are stores still to be found, and even new ones that have opened during the pandemic. If you are so fortunate to have one nearby, treasure it while you can. The business is not easy and not one that usually enriches the bookseller, who certainly cannot survive on your good wishes alone. I cannot imagine that wandering from website to website would every be as delightful as a day spent wandering among the stores on Book Row. What a time that must have been!

Are Signed Books Worth More?


My signed copy of C.J. Box’s Wolf Pack. Photo by Bob Trube, © 2019.

I’m not a book collector in the sense of trying to acquire books for their monetary value. I buy books for what is written in them. So what I write here is simply the result of some research on the question in the title of this post, and should not be substituted for expert opinion. What got me curious is that one of the books I’m currently reading, Wolf Pack, by crime fiction writer C. J. Box, has a sticker on the cover that reads “Signed Copy” and does bear a signature that reads “C. J. Box.” I did not pay extra for this book, but in fact bought it during Barnes & Noble’s Book Haul a couple months back at a significant discount. I’ve discovered that Barnes & Noble regularly sells signed editions of books, the current ones of which may be found on their website. I suspect this is simply a strategy to sell more books.

So the answer to my question is “it depends.” The critical factor seems to be how popular the author is, and how many books the author has signed. A book signed by a popular author who prolifically signs books is probably not worth anything more than an unsigned copy of the same book, or only very little. That’s probably the case with my C.J. Box. On the other hand, according to Empty Mirror, Jack Kerouac did not sign many copies of his works. If you have an authentic signed copy of a Kerouac work, it might be worth quite a bit (especially this year, the fiftieth since his death in 1969).

The type of signature also affects the worth. There are several, according to The Books Tell You Why blog, which offers one of the best explanations of the different types.

  • The autopen signed book. Presidents often used autopens, and these have no value.
  • The signed copy. It has only the signature, usually on a blank page. Many people prefer these to books with inscriptions.
  • An inscribed copy has the signature and a general notation, such as “with warmest regards.” Often, books signed at book-signings have such inscriptions. Some think inscriptions increase the value, particularly if not to a person. If you are Joe, who wants a book inscribed to Jane (unless Jane is a very important person)? Those who think inscriptions have greater value argue this on the basis of having more material in the author’s hand, which may aid in authentication.
  • A presentation copy is sent by the author signed and inscribed as a gift from the author. If it is dated close to publication and represents a first edition, this adds to the value of the signature. I have several such books, mostly of value because they were signed by good and cherished friends, but alas, not famous ones.
  • An association copy is one signed and inscribed by the author to either to a notable close person or a culturally significant person.
  • The most valuable signed copy is a dedication copy. Usually, a book is dedicated to a single person, so when the author signs the dedication page with an inscription to the person to whom the book is dedicated, this is a one-of-a kind, hence the value.

If you are purchasing signed books with the aim of collecting, the most important thing is to authenticate the signature. There are websites that provide reference signatures, for example, this one, at The Books Tell You Why. This particular site also links to listings of collectible books by each author. About the only sure thing, when it comes to avoiding forgeries is to have seen the author sign the book with your own two eyes.

Who you buy from is important. Reputable antiquarian booksellers are members of either the International League of Antiquarian Booksellers (ILAB) or the Antiquarian Booksellers’ Association of America (ABAA), or both. Each organization has rigorous membership requirements. In the ABAA for example, “Before being considered for membership, booksellers must prove that they are established, knowledgeable, and of excellent reputation. Prospective members must be sponsored by current members, and undergo a rigorous screening process. The average ABAA member has been in the antiquarian book business more than twenty years.” The association’s code of ethics includes provisions for the authenticity of materials and full refunds if authenticity is questioned or disproven. Of course people sometimes make great finds from other sources, but equally, they may be greatly duped.

So, it all depends. If your object is investment, caveat emptor. But if you like to read an author and are a fan, it can be a fun extra, the icing on the cake of a good book. I love signed books from author friends as a reminder of our friendship. An inscribed book from an author event where you met and talked to an author you’ve admired can be a cherished possession. And if you are a collector who knows what he or she is doing, and has thought about the focus of what one collects, signed copies of book can be both interesting, and financially profitable. But probably not my C. J. Box. But that’s OK. He’s a good read.

Review: The Bookman’s Tale

The Bookman's Tale

The Bookman’s TaleCharlie Lovett. New York: Viking, 2013.

Summary: Peter Byerly, a recently bereaved bookseller living in a small English village, comes across a hundred year old watercolor that is a striking image of his deceased wife, a find that sets him on a trail leading to what could be a major literary discovery,  but also to danger and murder.

It seems of late that I have discovered that there is a whole genre of mysteries set around the book trade. Most, including this work, on not destined to be literary classics. What this book does is combine descriptions of the world of antiquarian bookselling and restoration, with a riveting crime mystery, and with a tragic love story thrown in.

Peter Byerly has recently lost is wife at a young age and moved to the village of Kingham, England, living in the cottage he and Amanda renovated just before her death. In an effort to resume his bookselling career he peruses the shelves of a local bookseller. Inside a volume on literary forgeries, he discovers a watercolor that must be a hundred years old that could have been a painting of his wife. The only indication of the painter’s identity is an inscription that says “BB/EH.”

He teams up with an art expert who can shed no further light on the mystery. Meanwhile, the Aldersons of Everlode Manor invite him to help them sell some of their books. Julia, the sister reveals a box of documents in a box labeled “never to be sold.” They all appear of value, but none more than what Peter finds at the bottom–a slim volume that appears to be a first edition of Robert Greene’s Pandosto, on which Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale was based. Valuable as the edition may be, the real find are the marginal notes that appear to be written in Shakespeare’s hand–the Holy Grail of literary finds. There was something else: a list of owners where once again the initials BB/EH appear. This launches a quest to determine the book’s genuineness, provenance, and particularly the identity of BB/EH and how the book and painting are connected.

There is much more at stake than simply a great literary find. An art scholar who is working on a book that may shed light on the identity winds up dead with Peter framed for the murder. He and Liz are faced with the challenge of finding the true murderer before Peter is arrested, which brings them into greater danger yet.

This narrative is broken up with two others. One is the narrative of the Pandosto’s history, passing from one owner or bookseller to the next. The other is the growth of Peter’s two loves: for antiquarian bookselling and restoration under Francis Leland, the curator of Ridgefield Library’s Amanda Devereaux rare book collection, and for another Amanda, Amanda Ridgefield, the granddaughter of Amanda Devereaux, and whose family gave the school its name.

The three narratives alternate, tracing the book to BB/EH, Peter and Amanda’s relationship until her death, and the exciting denouement of the story. Apart from the many late night lovemaking episodes on the carpet under the portrait of Amanda Devereaux in the library, which seemed a bit creepy, the alternating narratives worked, both sustaining and relieving the plot tension. As I noted earlier, the reader gains a glimpse into the meticulous cared of book preservation, restoration, and binding, and something of the world of antiquarian bookselling and the authentication of rare and valuable works. Combine this with a murder mystery, and you have a delightful diversion for  bibliophile.


Review: The Man Who Loved Books Too Much

man who loved books too muchThe Man Who Loved Books Too MuchAllison Hoover Bartlett. New York: Riverhead Books, 2009.

Summary: The story of book-thief John Gilkey, “biblio-dick” Ken Sanders whose work resulted in Gilkey’s arrest, and the world of book lovers and rare books.

No, this is not my autobiography! But this book is a fascinating glimpse into the world of rare and antiquarian books and the people who love them. It is also a glimpse into a world of crime, exceeding that of art theft. Most of all, this is the story of two men, Ken Sanders, who, as security chair for the Antiquarian Booksellers Association of American (ABAA), notices a strange pattern of book thefts, and through dogged detective work, and the help of a real police detective, succeeds in identifying and bringing to justice a most unusual book thief, John Charles Gilkey. The other intriguing part of this story is the author herself, whose research of this fascinating story brings her in contact with these two unusual men, and the passionate world of rare book lovers.

Ken Sanders is a bookseller in Salt Lake City who ends up as the ABAA security chair. Inheriting a “pink sheet” system of book theft notifications that were only slowly disseminated to other booksellers, he sets up an online system to speed notifications and track thefts. He begins to notice a strange pattern of thefts, mostly on the West Coast of books paid for with stolen credit card information, often picked up by a “friend”, and which no one attempts to re-sell. Through his eyes, and the booksellers he works with, we see what a sense of violation this is, and how threatening this is to their financial bottom lines, as well as their reputations. This fires his persistence, which pays off eventually in the arrest of John Gilkey.

Gilkey is a well-mannered young man with a passion to acquire rare books, and with this, the sense of accomplishment and affluence that a room lined with these books brings. The only problem, and what distinguishes him from other rare-book collectors, is that he cannot afford these books. And so he steals them. He discovers that a retail job with Saks, for which he is well suited as mannerly, soft-spoken, and able to present himself as attentive to the customer, is the perfect place to acquire large numbers of credit card numbers. Bartlett narrates his methods. He often works with his father, researches carefully, only uses a number once, calls from hotel payphones, arranges for a “friend” to pick up the book (sometimes himself under an assumed name, sometimes his father or someone else).

What is most fascinating is how he justifies his thefts. Bartlett writes:

“When he walks into a rare book store and ogles the riches lined up on the shelf, he sees them almost as the personal collection of the store owner. What a wealthy person this is! It is not fair that he charges so much for a single book, Gilkey thinks. Books selling for $10,000 or $40,000 or a half a million–they are all out of his reach. How am I to afford it? he asks with righteous indignation. So he takes what he sees as duly his. That dealers pay a lot for their books, and, with the exception of relatively few lucky or especially savvy ones, barely make ends meet does not occur to him. Even after I brought this to his attention, he chose not to acknowledge his guilt. As he sees it, if he owns fewer rare books than the next collector or dealer, the world is not fair, and, as he put it, he means to ‘even the score'” (pp. 101-102).

At one point Bartlett confronts the ethical conundrum of going with Gilkey to a bookseller who he had previously stolen from as he narrates his methods. Later, she learns of the deep anger of booksellers toward the idea of giving Gilkey this kind of press, which only seems to glorify a thief. And she questions whether her knowledge of his crimes in some ways implicates her as an accessory.

The reader can judge whether she has done this or not and whether she was an accessory after the fact. Bartlett actually sought legal counsel, and her portrayal of Gilkey is of a man who is at once “polite, curious, ambitious” and also”greedy, selfish, criminal.” We see someone who plainly is so warped by a love of books that he has willingly exchanged prison for the chance to pursue his ambitions. Meanwhile, Bartlett also introduces us to booksellers and book-lovers like Thomas Jefferson who in their “gentle madness” end up preserving our history in the great works they sell and collect.


Bookstore Review: Caliban Books

Caliban BooksThis is torture for a book-lover. You are on a tight schedule and discover a really cool bookstore and just don’t have the time to really explore it. The other day I happened upon Caliban Books on the way to a meeting while visiting Pittsburgh. I just didn’t have time for more than a few minutes to give the store a quick once over, grab a business card, and snap a couple pictures. But I thought I would pass along the word to any fellow book-lovers who live in or will be visiting Pittsburgh.

Caliban Books is located in the Oakland area of Pittsburgh in a modest sized shop at 410 South Craig Street, off of Forbes Avenue, in a trendy location of boutiques and eateries situated between the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University campuses and near the Carnegie Museums.

The store stocks roughly 40,000 books, covering just about any category, on floor to ceiling shelves radiating from the checkout counter near the entrance to the store. You will find additional books stacked on the floor at the ends of shelves. They also sell original prints, maps, and art.

20150910_170115They are also a store within a store. Near the front counter, you will find the racks of LPs and CDs that make up Desolation Row Records, self-described as “a small, independent record shop (located inside Caliban Book Shop) specializing in Indie Rock, Sixties Pop, Punk, Americana, Folk, Blues, and Jazz owned and operated by Kristofer Collins.” Vinyl and books all in one place–why couldn’t I have had a free hour or two? Perhaps it is God’s way of saving the family budget and delivering me from temptation!

I also learned from their website that Caliban Books is a member of the Antiquarian Booksellers Association of America. John Schulman, the co-owner, spent several years appraising books for Antiques Road Show and can appraise for estate, legal, tax, and insurance purposes. The store will consider purchases from individual books to whole libraries in the Pittsburgh area.

So where do they put all those books? Some are at the S. Craig St. store but many are kept in their warehouse located in nearby Wilkinsburg where they house approximately 150,000 items. The warehouse may be visited by appointment Monday through Friday.

Hours and contact information (from the website):

410 S. Craig St., Pittsburgh, PA 15213
(412) 681-9111

HOURS (Caliban Book Shop and Desolation Row)

Monday-Saturday 10am-5:30pm*
Sunday 12pm-5:30pm
*open most Thursdays until 8pm

Wilkinsburg, PA.  Open by appointment.

HOURS: For phone inquiries, please call Monday-Friday between 10am and 5pm. If we don’t answer please leave a message — we will get back to you within 1 business day.

I only had a few minutes but I’ve mentally bookmarked this store for a return visit when I get back to Pittsburgh.