29 July 2008

The Death of Grass (1957) by Samuel Youd (writing as John Christopher)

Samuel Youd (writing as John Christopher) THE DEATH OF GRASS. Michael Joseph, London, 1956.

Current Selling Prices
$600+ /£300 +

Apologies for a repost but this time we have a pic of the jacket of the true first thanks to Andy over at Library Thing. The Brit's worst nightmare- the death of his lawn, but also an apocalyptic novel of a world devastated by the destruction of all grasses. I have handled this book over the years (in America it was renamed 'No Blade of Grass') but recently, with a greater interest in the ecology and vivid scenarios of ecological breakdown, it has become very desirable. This kind of fiction was once called 'Doomwatch' but is, in fact, part of a tradition of apocalyptic fantasy that can be traced back to S. Fowler Wright's 'Deluge' (1928) and all the way back to Mary Shelley's 1826 three decker 'The Last Man.' A useful list of speculative fiction about ecological disasters can be found at the Magic Dragon site. Highlights include:-
George Griffith. Olga Romanoff (1894) Comet strike and alien invasion.
M. P. Shiel. The Purple Cloud (1901). Poisonous gas.
Arthur Conan Doyle. The Poison Belt (1913) The Earth passes
through a poisonous ether.
J. J. Connington. Nordenholt's Millions (1923) Agricultural disaster
S. Fowler Wright. Deluge (1928). Flood.
Philip Wylie. When Worlds Collide (1932). Dying sun on collision
course with Earth. (Film: When Worlds Collide, 1951).
John Wyndham. The Day of the Triffids (1951) Venomous Plants.
Isaac Asimov. Caves of Steel (1954) Overpopulation -- and a
great mystery story.
Robert Silverberg. Masters of Life and Death (1957). Overpopulation.
J. G. Ballard. "Billennium" (1961) population
J. G. Ballard. The Drowned World. (1962). Flood.
Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. Cat's Cradle (1963) Ice-9
J. G. Ballard, The Drought (aka The Burning World) 1965.
Harry Harrison. Make Room! Make Room! (1966). (Film: Soylent Green, 1973).
William F. Nolan and George Clayton Johnson. Logan's Run (1967).
Overpopulation; destruction of those over 30.
Lee Tang. The Wind Obeys Lama Torus. (1967). From India. Overpopulation.
John Brunner. Stand on Zanzibar. (1968). Young adult novel on overpopulation.
James Blish. A Torrent of Faces (1968)
Fred and Geoffrey Hoyle. The Inferno (1973). Cosmic radiation
David Brin. Earth. (1990). Black hole.
'The Death of Grass' alone of all these choice works appears on Bookfinder's 2007/ 2008 list of the 'Top 10 British out of print books of 2007.' Other titles include Madonna's 'Sex' (1992) 'Brass Dial Clocks' (1998) by Brian Loomes and the easily found 'Forests of England' (1976) by Peter J. Neville Havins.

VALUE? The book of the film 'No Blade of Grass' (1970) was unremarkable* and did not help the book. However it has now become hard to find and is much wanted. I could find no image of the book's jacket and have had to use paperback covers. The most expensive copy is a decent but not fine example in the unclipped Trevor Denning jacket at £200, with a slightly lesser copy at £150 and paperbacks at £20. The Simon and Schuster 1956 US first can be had for $100 in sharp condition. UPDATE. There are now 7 copies of the Joseph UK first all at £300+ and three of them with the same dealer (not always a good sign) and a certifiable chancer with an ex library paperback at £370. Highest price is a very nice jacketed copy at £440. A book on the move but obviously not that scarce. Outlook? Choppy.

Mildly surprising is a £70 Penguin paperback edition at the excellent and normally moderate Westleton Chapel Books (about 7 miles from where I am now sitting.) Living near Sizewell Power Station he may have special knowledge. His condition description belongs to the ultra precise, painstaking Robbe-Grillet school '...Slight browning to pages, contents otherwise clean and unmarked. A little faint foxing or soiling to covers and spine rather browned. Joints show a little rubbing and small (5mm) split to base of upper joint, but covers are firm. Faint creasing to corners and a few light indentations show up when they catch the light. Generally a clean and very good copy.'

* The author Samuel Youd wrote '... I've never actually seen [the film]. I heard such bad reports when it came out that I couldn't bring myself to go to a cinema and watch it. Years later, it came on as a late-night television film, so I settled down to watch it with a glass of whisky. I lasted twenty minutes, then I went to bed. It was awful.'

27 July 2008

Where do you get these books? 3

8. Street Markets, Book Markets. Most cities throughout the world have book markets. Above is one at Essaouria in Morocco beneath that Istanbul, and at the bottom some very modest books on a clapped out car somewhere in the world. There are 100s of such photos on sites such as Flickr--book markets make good photos. With some happy exceptions they are not brilliant book sources but fun to visit and you might find something to read at the very worst.

In Paris they are along the Seine almost every day, in Barcelona check out the Passeig de GrĂ cia, London has the South Bank and book stalls at many of the street makets like Portobello, Camden Lock etc., In Penang ask for the Chowrata complex, when stuck in Old Havana you need the Plaza de Armas, in Kyoto tghere is a large book market at the Shimogamo Shrine every August. There are book markets in Liden, New York, Sofia, Dniepropetrovsk (Ukraine) Amsterdam (at Spui every Friday) Jinan, Morbihan, Cambridge, Milan, Ludlow, Venice (several small markets -not brilliant) and Moscow. Even the venerable book market in Baghdad at Al Mutanabi which was devastated by a car bomber in March last year is still going, it is an ancient market that even the bestial bomber cannot eradicate. There is a highly rated Sunday book market at Daryaganj in central Delhi, in Lima, Peru there is a large book market outside the Museo de la Nacion. Book markets are often near museums or cathedrals. Sometimes they occur in small towns and villages especially those much visited--South of France, Aix en Provence, the West Country in England. Under baking sun at Alameda near San Francisco books can be found in the first Sunday of every month market with occasional cooling winds from the Pacific which laps at its edges.

In Beijing go to Ditan Park, there is an evening book market in Madrid (by the Sopia Museum) -also check out Hanoi, Melbourne (Federation Square) Ottawa (Rideau area) Kothi (now in a subway) College Street Calcutta, Lviv, Rome, Nice (Saturdays) Dublin (Temple Bar Square) and Istanbul (Resim Adi). France and Belgium are especially good with markets at Rennes, Damme (Belgium) every second Sunday, and Lyons. I knew a guy who went to a market in a provincial town in France and bought for 10 Francs each (£1) over 60 volumes of Notable British Trials -all in super nick. This series (sometimes known as Notably Brutish Trials) has one or two £100 + books and features also War Crime Trials and financial swindles like the valuable Trial of the City of Glasgow Bank Directors. As Cadillac Jack has it 'anything can be anywhere' and I hope to surpass this by finding a complete pristine set of New Naturalists at 10 Euros each. Dream on.

25 July 2008

Where do you get these books? 2

Auctions are a good source and a place of learning. You see what books sell for, what sort of books sell best and who is buying them. Amazingly, despite the incursions of the behemoth Ebay there are still as many sales as before. Online auctions are a dodgier source and authenticiy and ambitious descriptions are a problem. One can keep a weather eye on top flight sales at Ebay at Rare Book Finder - where I note that the loony with the upside down Harry Potter now has it as a 'Buy it Now' at $19000, about a thousand times its true value. Do not click that button.

3. Bookshops. Second hand bookshops, although an endangered species, still exist and can be found in side streets of many sizable towns. People still sell their books to the owners in house calls (see 4) or by bringing them into the shop (1.) Most shops have too much stock to look everything up, so bargains can be found--also they are anxious to shift the stuff in a lousy economy - so deals can be made. Bookshops are a great source. We have punters who come in three times a day, so it must be true.

4. House calls. These are mostly only available to dealers and have been covered extensively in previous posts. Occasionally collectors sell to other collectors in the mistaken idea that they are paying less to one another than from a dealer -sometimes large collections. This is a parallel market and one hears of collectors paying one another mind boggling sums. Occasionally collectors buy or are given large collections. They usually devolve down to the trade in the end. Conversely one of the mysteries of the trade is that a dealer will often buy a book for more than a collector. In our shop we say 'if a dealer won't buy it the public certainly won't.' In a house in Barnes we bought a large collection of books that had been left (along with the mansion) to a local librarian. So keen as collectors were they that there was evidence that they had bought three substantial collections of books from other collectors. The librarian retired and proceeded to lead his life according to Riley.

5. Garage sales. Yard sales. Less common in the UK but a great source for our American cohorts. A friend in California scans the local paper and presents himself at selected sales at crack of dawn Saturdays and Sundays 51 weeks a year. He has made incredible finds including many boxes of superb pulps (Black Mask etc.,) also the tail end of the library of Robert Heinlein. He goes to the flea market before the yard sales open sometimes with a torch. These sales are also the source of an incredible amount of utter crap - some days he returns empty handed or has to make money on non book items such as records, art, posters and vintage Levi's.

6. Book Fairs. Plenty of these, especially in the UK, and a great source of books for collectors. Resellers are less well catered for although a good deal of cross trading always goes on before fairs start. It was at a book fair in London that someone found Melville's 'The Whale" (UK first 3 vols 1851) for £5, about a thousandth of its true value. Bargains known.

7. Boot Fairs, flea markets, jumble sales, library sales. Plenty of these for the active punter. Often disappointing but as before - 'bargains known.' The general idea is that books for sale should be devastatingly cheap and those charging ambitious prices should be ignored, unless their prices are not ambitious enough. Library sales are more common in America and are the main source of stock for many dealers. Some sales have as many as 500,000 books and dealers come in from surrounding states and fight to the death for the best stuff, a sort of clash of the tight ones.

They are also populated with a new kind of dealer, mostly listing on Amazon, who check their prices with handheld devices such as Neatoscan, ScoutPal and SellerFusion. Fascinating stuff, so far tied to ISBN books but watch that space. These devices work very fast, some old geezer checking ABE on his Blackberry would be left way behind. One good tip with these sales is to watch out for the books that dealers decide to put back on the tables in their final cull- many a bargain there. to be continued

24 July 2008

Where do you get these books?

There is a scene in that true life comedy 'Black Books' where the shop proprietor, the shambling Bernard Black, is running low on books and needs to order some more. He picks up the phone and utters the immortal lines- "Hello? Is this the place from where you order books for when you want to sell them in your bookshop?"

If only it was as simple as that!

People sometimes ask where we get the books from and I tell them briefly-- from auctions and houses etc., However today I am trying to list every source just to get it straight in my mind. When it comes to asking where individual books come from I seldom know and for some reason bridle at the question. There is an implication that the book may have a murky provenance also some dealers are loathe to part with private information. Here is the exhaustive list, let me know if I have neglected anything...

1. People bring them in to the shop--in boxes, bags and suitcases, by hand and by car, sometimes they send them in by taxi and call for a price. We don't let them down. For some shops esp in America this is about the only way. Normally they reject alot and either return them or donate them to charity. Some shops have a guy who takes these unwanted books away for a small consideration. They end up at flea markets, boot fairs ebay or on the web at puny (or punitive) prices. Some shops offer money for the books they want, some exchange or offer a choice between the two with exchange being distinctly higher. We pay with a cheque or cash and occasionally give a credit note to those who specify that they want it. This is not the greatest source of books but has been useful.

My old friend John Thornton who recently made retirement money on a theological library (God bless him) had the fortune to have a lorry turn up one morning at his King's Road shop with the valuable remains of the library of Peggy Guggenheim from Venice. Presumably they had been loaded on to a boat from her Venice villa and on to a lorry on the mainland. He paid the driver off and dealers descended from all over London--loads of 'published in Paris' books Beckett, Joyce, signed art books (Ernst, Man Ray, Breton, Eluard) Americana, antiquarian European books, rare pamphlets etc., Better than almost any house call most dealers will see in a lifetime. Even in 2007 when he hung up his pricing pencil he never used the internet, Google to him was a method of spin bowling. Because of this it was a favourite place for the trade and my first stop whenever I found myself in the wastes of Fulham.

2. Auctions. Both terrestrial and internet. Less of a good source because dealers are buying books to sell on the net and hard won knowledge is quickly surpassed by the hardworking viewer who checks everything up on the net. There are less bargains, less fast asleep sales and books are sold in smaller lots than of yore. Tea chests are seldom seen anymore. to be continued...

20 July 2008

Tall Tales from the Trade 4

Closely related to the tale below is the case of the young dealer who bought a first edition of Adam Smith's 'Wealth of Nations' for £90,000 without having the money to pay for it. Let's call him Ralph Barton. Ralph was a young bookdealer wanting to deal in important books but was not really possessed of the funds needed. He got by and occasionally got lucky. He had a two bedroom flat in Wandsworth shared with his girlfriend Serena -a city analyst who, along with her fiends, thought Ralph was a bit of a loser for dealing in books. She felt he should join her in the financial quarter or go into the law for which he had trained. They had a heavy mortgage but with his occasional windfalls and her decent salary they were able to manage.

One July morning Ralph was at another important London auction and bought a few job lots of rare 18th century pamphlet considerably under what he was willing to pay. Encouraged by this he started to bid on a superb 1776 first of 'Wealth of Nations' which the chatter in the rooms had reckoned would break the £100,000 barrier. He was still bidding at £90,000 when suddenly the bidding stopped and the hammer came down. The book was his. For Ralph this was probably the worst moment of his young life. The flat would go, Serena would leave him and he would be a pariah in the trade. Worst of all people were now congratulating him as if he had the money to pay for the thing. As he dejectedly sloped out of the rooms he bumped into a flustered figure in a ridiculously expensive suit. The man inquired anxiously "what did the Adam Smith make?" When Ralph told him £90K the man said - "I would have gone well over that, damn and blast it..." Needless to say Ralph sold him the book then and there - pocketing a quick £20K profit.

Ralph is now a proper dealer, well able to afford five figure books and has even become slightly pompous. Serena no longer thinks of bookselling as a trade for failures and they have moved to a proper house in Battersea.

19 July 2008

Tall Tales from the Trade 3

In the book and antique trade auction houses are referred to as 'the rooms.' At Alcoholics and Narcotics Anonymous 'the rooms' refers to the ad hoc meeting places where addicts gather to share their experiences of recovery. The difference between the two is that book dealers are suffering from an addiction from which they will never recover. Some dealers have both addictions and thus spend much time shuttling between 'the rooms' and 'the rooms'.

Anyway, one bright June morning in 'the rooms' dealers were gathered to do battle over some choice items from a deceased gentleman's estate--large and important books from a country house library. It was London book fair week and buyers had flown in from America and come through the tunnel from Europe. From the beginning one buyer emerged as a major purchaser. He was an eccentric millionaire type in a white suit and straw hat buying fairly randomly, but when he bid he didn't drop out and dealers, as is their wont, had started to bid him up. This can be a risky business but can earn the dealer kudos as an important player.

A 4 volume first of Jane Austen's mock gothic tale 'Northanger Abbey' thus made a stonking £40,000 - a world record for the book that occasioned some mild applause. The man in the white suit was just getting stuck into some Darwin firsts when there was a loud kerfuffle in the room and 4 nylon coated nurses escorted the protesting bidder out into the street. He had been on day realease from a mental home in a London suburb. The lots were then offered again - many making half what they had made when the Bedlamite was bidding. 'Northanger Abbey', apparently a very ordinary copy, was 'bought in' at £8000.

15 July 2008

Dick Francis. Dead Cert, 1962.

Dick Francis. DEAD CERT. Michael Joseph, London, 1962.

Current Selling Prices $6000 - $8000 /£3000-£4000

Dick Francis is the Queen Mother's jockey who became a horse racing journalist and then a bestselling thriller writer. Dead Cert is his first book and not one of his best, some might say it's the least good of a generally pretty distinguished bunch. It is his most valuable book because it his first novel and has become quite elusive. It is a book that can be found and does not look valuable to the layman. One dealer makes the claim 'one of the scarcest books of the last 60 years...' It would not be hard to name about 100 scarcer titles from this period without leaving the field of mod firsts--Theroux's 'Mount Holly', Middleton's 'Holiday', Larkin's 'XX Poems', Pratchett's 'Colour of Magic', Maclaren Ross 'My Name is Love', Le Carré 'Call for the Dead' Ballard 'I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan...' and so on. The old confusion of value and rarity--even "Lion, Witch and Wardrobe' is both more elusive and more valuable. I have never had a smart jacketed 'Witch' but have had at least 3 'Dead Certs.'

Francis has an enviable fanbase. It is not uncommon to see his books next to Beckett & Joyce --he is considered light reading for the highbrow, also his books will turn up with a lot of sporting books, or country books or amongst lowbrow airport novels. He is asked for all the time--all of his later books are fantastically common and signatures abound. Here is a plot summary of 'Dead Cert:-
'For millionaire jockey Alan York, winning is a bonus. For Joe Nantwich, victory means no cushy backhanders; and for Bill Davidson, front running on strongly fancied Admiral, triumph is an imposter. It means murder - his own. Turning private detective, York uses Joe's underworld connections to go on the trail of the killers - only to draw a series of blanks. But when ambushed by a gang of vicious thugs, he picks up some clues along with his cuts and bruises. Bill's murder begings to make more sense. Until York finds himself in hospital, without a memory.'
This isn't the cosy world of Poirot and Marple, there is often some pretty nasty violence, people get injured physically and mentally and there is as good an assortment of villainous psychopaths and sociopaths as you'd meet any afternoon at Haydock Park. The books are also well researched without shoving the work in your face as a lesser writer like Ian Mcewan might do (I'm thinking of the surgery in 'Saturday'.) The research was done by his wife and partner Mary Margaret Brenchley who sadly died in 2000.

VALUE? Admittedly it is hard to find a spiffing copy of the book. An indifferent but not price-clipped example described as an 'honest copy' sits on the web right now at £4500. The highest auction record is £2600 + 20% commission at Bloomsbury in 2004 for a copy described as '...in d/j with minor rubbing & fraying & soiling.' About 6 copies have breasted £2000, all with minor faults. Fine copies are not forthcoming and could be found with the publisher, printer or agent or possibly among the collection of a reviewer who never got round to reading it. This year a copy described thus '...offset marks from sellotape on half-title, original boards, dust-jacket, small light strips of tape on inside flaps, minor fraying to spine ends and corners, some very light marking, otherwise very good' made £2850. In 2004 a slightly better copy made £3050.

Francis is known to have presented the first copy of each book to the Queen Mother, often in the royal box at Ascot--even with the parlous state of Royal finances these are not going to turn up for a while. One imagines them on a forgotten shelf in a lady in waiting's under chamber at Clarence House next to the Cecil Beatons, the Beverly Nichols and the Norman Hartnells. At this month's auction of the QM's top servant William Tallon (aka 'Backstairs Billy') the only book he possessed of hers was a reprint 'Mapp and Lucia' with her ownership signature - it made £300. Dick's second presentee was a Dr. Dixey who lived and practised in a neighbouring village to him and verified the medical content in his thrillers. His collection, in less than brilliant nick, failed to sell at Bloomsbury against a reserve of £4000 - £6000.

OUTLOOK? The 'honest' copy is still there, inexplicably £250 more expensive (this entry was first posted 9 months back.) A better copy has come in at £4950. There used to be an old maxim amongst dealers that if something didn't sell that you should put the price up. I guess the idea was that the higher price conferred greater kudos on the book. In the age of the net and the ability to compare prices at a stroke this doesn't really work unless you have something unique or maddeningly desirable. Dick Francis may be leveling off, his tales of the turf possibly a little vieux jeu in the age of forensic and techno crime.

11 July 2008

Winston Churchill, My Early Life, 1930.

When does one first begin to remember? When do the waving lights and shadows of dawning consciousness cast their print upon the mind of a child? My earliest memories are Ireland.

It was at 'The Little Lodge' I was first menaced with Education. The approach of a sinister figure described as 'the Governess' was announced. Her arrival was fixed for a certain day. In order to prepare for this day Mrs. Everest produced a book called Reading without Tears. It certainly did not justify its title in my case. I was made aware that before the Governess arrived I must be able to read without tears. We toiled each day. My nurse pointed with a pen at the different letters. I thought it all very tiresome. Our preparations were by no means completed when the fateful hour struck and the Governess was due to arrive. I did what many oppressed peoples have done in similar circumstances: I took to the woods.

War, which used to be cruel and magnificent, has now become cruel and squalid. It is all the fault of Democracy and Science. From the moment that either of these meddlers and muddlers was allowed to take part in actual fighting, the doom of War was sealed. Instead of a small number of well-trained professionals championing their country's cause with ancient weapons and a beautiful intricacy of archaic manoeuvre, sustained at every moment by the applause of their nation, we now have entire populations, including even women and children, pitted against one another in brutish mutual extermination, and only a set of blear-eyed clerks left to add up the butcher's bill. From the moment Democracy was admitted to, or rather forced itself upon the battlefield, War ceased to be a gentleman's game. To Hell with it!

Winston S Churchill. MY EARLY LIFE: A ROVING COMMISSION. Thornton Butterworth, London 1930.

Current Selling Prices
$600-$12000 /£300-£6000

Winston Churchill's memoir of childhood and early adulthood. It was published in 1930: Churchill was 56 and the Conservatives had the year before been defeated in the General Election; so began Churchill's 'wilderness years' during which he concentrated on writing. It would be over a decade before war and war leadership. My Early Life tells of the author's unhappy childhood, schooldays at Harrow, early military experience and foreign travel- action on the North West Frontier, moving on to the Sudan and then the Boer War. It was the basis of the 1972 film Young Winston with the now slightly underused actor Simon Ward (see below.)

The book, which measures 9 x 6 inches, contains 28 maps and illustrations including a frontispiece of Jennie Jerome, Churchill's American mother. The first state of the first edition should have 11 titles on the half title page - several variants are known. There are either 11 or 12 titles listed on the half title page, the cloth can be smooth or coarse, and the titling on the cover can be in either 3 or 5 lines. The cloth is prone to fading on the spine and the book often turns up in elaborate bindings- at present a garish Cosway binding is offered on the web at £6K with a crushed red morocco binding embossed and tooled in gold and with an inset portrait miniature of Churchill. Someone once said of these bindings that they are 'books for people who don't like books.'

The book is distinctly difficult to find in a jacket, a Churchill specialist who is presumably aware of how seldom it is encountered, wants to see a staggering $20,000 for a copy in a somehat chipped 'truly rare' jacket. This is the only copy available and it is not inconceivable a truly loaded punter might 'pony up' for it. Signed copies abound, but WSC is , so far, so well underpinned that his prices stay firm.

VALUE? A decent but not fine copy can usually be found sans d/w for around £200, a bit more in half leather, quite a bit more in full leather and, as noted above, loadsamoney in jacket. Churchill wrote a multitude of books and pamphlets. There are dealers, paying mortgages and raising kids, who deal only in Churchilliana. The book you want is 'Mr. Brodrick's Army (London, 1903)--the first issue (44 pages) was withdrawn and is worth north of £20K, the second issue (104 pages) is also seriously valuable. Early WSC pamphlets are always worth looking out for in political collections. In 2003 a British dealer found his early wraps (actually dark red card) book 'For Free Trade' (1906) while 'scouting' America (he declines to give the State) after a book fair for $5. In order not to rouse suspicion in the shopkeeper he asked for, and got, a 20% discount and turned his $4 into £20K on his return. These things are still possible. Do not confuse this with his 'Why I Am a Free Trader', 'Free Trade for Ever and Churchill Now!' or 'For Liberalism and Free Trade'--all bloody useful but a tenth or less of the value.

Outlook? Churchill collecting began in earnest in the early 1970s and is part of a trend of collecting books by powerful and epoch making figures. They are often sought by affluent and important, even self important, people. Persons of 'high net worth' with little time for reading -the book becomes symbolic of their achievement or aspirations or their heartfelt political sympathies and at the same time has status and, vitally, is a sound investment. Jailbird Conrad Black was able to write off all his purchases of trophy books as 'research' -to be fair several million dollars later he delivered a doorstop of a book- his 1,280-page biography, 'Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Champion of Freedom.'

Ronald Reagan is collected in the same way, there are mansions full of Napoleon collections (Napoleana?) and there is now a discernible rise in Margaret Thatcher values. Even the poodle Tony Blair is collected, his signature while in office being distinctly scarce--he was too important to sign autographs. This stuff will always be a significant part of book collecting, auctions and book fairs and shows no sign of abating. With Churchill the really big money is reserved for presentation copies to other bigwigs- in 1998 someone paid $145,000 for 5 volumes of The World Crisis inscribed by Churchill to Edward as Prince of Wales with 4 ALS loosely inserted. Also in 1998 a My Early Life -an 'advance presentation copy inscribed to Ramsay Macdonald - made $22000, and it would doubtless make more today. Whether he will be collected in 2020 or beyond is hard to say. What is certain is that there is a wealth of stock out there to keep auction houses, collectors and dealers supplied well beyond then.

Vladimir Nabokov. Lolita, 1955.

Vladimir Nabokov. LOLITA. Olympia Press, Paris, 1955. (2 vols)

Current Selling Prices
$4000-$10000 /£2000-£5000

Fossicking about on YouTube I found an interview with Nabokov from the 1950s with Lionel Trilling and a bow-tied presenter. Trilling vigorously defended 'Lolita' as a great love story and VN, urbane and surprisingly modest, occasionally spoke -always referring to his trademark Boston file cards. In the 1960s, with nymphet money pouring in, he took up residence on the sixth floor of the Palace Hotel in Montreux, Switzerland and started his 'greatest living writer' act. Certainly it is hard to think of a greater writer alive at that time, with the possible exception of Jorge Luis Borges. A fellow dealer specialising in highbrow lit proclaims that the most important writers of the 20th century are Borges, Kafka, Joyce, Proust and Nabokov -he refuses to accept a sixth writer, John Buchan, who I thought might provide some light relief.

The quest to get 'Lolita' published is well known. It is said there were 5000 copies of the first edition. A friend, now a venerable book dealer, worked for Maurice Girodias, the book's publisher in Paris, during the 1950s. He used to bring them over to the UK to sell for a premium as a filthy, banned book. British Customs officers had been instructed by the Home Office to seize all copies entering the United Kingdom. He recalls trips where he failed to sell all copies and rather than return with them he had to abandon copies in bus stations, phone boxes etc., ( some of them were reprints, no one much cared at the time.) It's not especially scarce, but very hard to find in sharp, unmolested condition- you want a price of "Francs: 900" price on the lower back corner of both volumes to have the first state.

VALUE? A copy sits on the web in fine, bright condition at $15000. I have seen nice but not fine ones sell for £5000. Auction records reveal very healthy prices for signed copies especially those with some associational resonance. At Christies New York in 2002 $265,000 was paid for a slightly worn copy inscribed to Graham Greene with the customary drawing of a butterfly. The story of this copy is dealt with in an earlier piece. When the book was published Greene had told Nabokov that "in England one may go to prison, but there couldn't be a better cause!" A copy of the 1958 US first from 1958 inscribed to his wife Vera made $160,000 in the same year. On the subject of defective books (see yesterday's piece) a copy of the Paris first with 'some pages blank between 129-60' made $100 in California in 1984.

Last year a copy of the Russian edition presented to his wife with whom he collaborated on the translation was 'bought in' (i.e. it failed to sell) against an estimate of $200,000 - $300,000. The inscription, in cyrillic, read "To my Verochka | October 1967 | Montreux"), beneath this Nabokov had executed a spectacular coloured drawing of a butterfly labelled "Colias Lolita Nab. | [female]", and signed his name using three different permutations ("V. Nabokov | VL Nabokov | Vladimir Nabokov"). Effectively it was the dedication copy as the printed dedication is to Vera. It was housed in a black morocco clamshell box by Sangorski and Sutcliffe, the upper and lower covers and spine onlaid with numerous butterfly designs in turquoise, dark blue, violet, mauve, yellow and silver morocco, incorporating mother-of-pearl and gilt, intertwined with flowing design in poussiere d'or (flaked 24ct gold), the spine lettered ''Lolita'' in Russian in rainbow colours (echoing the jacket design), the interior of the box lined with blue velvet. No one raised a hand to bid, possibly those oligarchs who collect books want something in a flashier box.

Outlook? Nabokov is never going away, he is not John Galsworthy or even John Fowles, and successive generations will discover his wonders - so prospects are good. At the highest end he can be a little risky- the above is not the only 'buy in'. Copies of Lolita have to be very clean, shabby copies are worth 20% of great copies. It can be seen rebound at about £1000, but the Olympia Press green wraps have an erotic and forbidden charge about them which it is a shame to hide.

TRIVIA. In Feb 2008 bedroom furniture for little girls with the brand name 'Lolita' was withdrawn by Woolworths UK after pressure from parents. Nobody at Woolie's had heard of the book, Nabokov or even the movie. There is a perfume called Lolita Lempicka which cross-pollinates the nymphet with the doomed Deco painter, and also a range of shoes from the Far East (see below.) In the 1960s Nabokov wrote "I would say that of all my books Lolita has left me with the most pleasurable afterglow —perhaps because it is the purest of all, the most abstract and carefully contrived. I am probably responsible for the odd fact that people don't seem to name their daughters Lolita any more. I have heard of young female poodles being given that name since 1956, but of no human beings." Indeed there are pictures of pampered poodles called Lolita all over the web and in our post literate age the name will probably drift back into human use. Oscar was a no-no name for about 50 years after Wilde; the only name I can think of that is still verboten is Adolf and in England, possibly, Myra.

09 July 2008

Very silly prices on Ebay or Great Expectations

At the Rare Book Finder website, they list top of the market (price wise) Ebay books. It's a useful site if you just want to see the rare and classy stuff, but books with ridiculous price expectations creep in. Last week a guy wanted a starting bid of $30,000 for a cloth bound set of Thackery (sic) probably worth no more than £50 ($100). He was very jazzed about the dedicatory preface by Thackeray which he showed in a picture, merely a printed page without even a facsimile signature.

You could get a limpid 30 volume full leather set with ornate inner dentelles, watered silk endpapers, loosely inserted letters, drawings and even substantive manuscript material for $30K. Instead you get a late Victorian reprinted cloth set that most dealers would attempt to leave behind if they bought a lot of books with them in it. The seller appears to have withdawn the items possibly after flabbergasted emails. I nearly sent one myself but there is very little satisfaction in informing a fool that he is a fool.

Almost as silly is the chap who wants $25000 for a late Harry Potter printed upside down. I know that some Harry Potter collectors are lunatics, bedlamites, bereft of reason, 'away with the fairies' and mad as march hares but none are so deluded as to even pay a fiftieth of this price (surely?) The traditional wisdom is that misprinted books, unless they establish some kind of precedence, are basically defective and thus without value and to be thrown in the eco bin. However self generated dealers and collectors on Ebay seem to have established a new market, possibly influenced by stamp collecting where faults count. Many sellers have tried to sell defective Potters, occasionally with some success--usually only $30 or $40 but there is talk of some chancer once getting $400.

If enough people want something it becomes a market, there are no enforceable rules in collecting but no one will be looking for upside down GWTWS or Joseph Conrads, in fact JK (and possibly Tolkien) is really the only author the misprint thing works for. Deep searching on the web reveals where the seller may have got the price from. A listserve chat room from 2005 reveals the following cheerful banter:-

Person A. Ok, i went out to my local store and was browsing the books. i picked up an edition of harry potter and the order of the phoenix, i opened it and it didnt have a chapeter one or even the front page with the copyright thing. it starts with page 721 to page 786, after that it continues with page 68 onwards untill the end.

Person B. Weird

Person C. Sell it on Ebay for bajillions.

Person A. Do you think its worth something?

Person C. E-Bay it. I bet you'll get between $20,000-$30,000 for it.

Person D. If its a misprint then it could be worth A LOT. These types of mistakes are sometimes very rare. If you think it is a legit thing and real misprint, well lucky you. But I wouldn't ebay it until you find out how much it is worth.

Person F. I was working on a job in Tesco's the other day and they had one in the returns pile which was mis-printed but I thought it wasn't worth picking up.

Person C. There there my friend. Poor you lol.
Missed out on millions, man..
The equally bathetic words of the seller are worth preserving also:-
Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. Very Rare Book! This is a brand new book never taken out of the bag except to discover the ERROR! So it is in Perfect Shape! This book is completely printed UPSIDE down, every page! How is that for a mysterious fact for a mysterious book! I have been looking and have never seen that as an error. I have seen some of the silly errors people report, but to me this is the best. ... I have 100% rating and this is all truthful... We will require insurance with the sale.

08 July 2008

Gone with the Wind. Margaret Mitchell, 1936

Margaret Mitchell. GONE WITH THE WIND. Macmillan, NY 1936.

Current Selling Prices
$5000-$8000 / £2500-£4500

Classic Southern Civil War novel well filmed with the fabled Gable and our own svelte Vivien Leigh. Oscars all round. This is what the correct first looks like (from a dealer's catalog) " Black cloth-backed gray patterned boards, spine lettered in gilt, with the red endpapers, and red topstain (ie to the top fore edge of the book) in first issue jacket, without the phrase, "Complete Unexpurgated Edition" printed, which is found on the front panel of later issues, and with the original price of $3.00 intact, listed in the bottom corner of the inside front flap . First Printing of the First Edition, First State/First issue with "Published May 1936" on copyright page, and in the First Issue dust jacket with rear panel headed "Macmillan Spring Novels" listing GWTW as the second title in the second column.' The novel above it should be Charles Morgan's forgotten and unsaleable novel 'Sparkenboke.' 10,000 were printed. The jacket can, of course, be price clipped -- but that means an expensive slice in the price. This emphasis on first/ first / first comes from the phenomenon (esp on ebay) of persons trying to sell reprints as first editions ('First edition, 17th printing' etc.,) When someone has the real thing they have to make it unequivocal-- even then they will get inquiries asking if it is really a first, or more annoyingly having described a really nice copy a buffer emails to ask if it's ex library. Infinite patience required.

VALUE? Amazing copies of this book have shown up, esp related to the movie--signed by the cast, with drawings by the designer, loosely inserted letters from Gable or David O. Selznick etc.,. A copy turned up in 1994 signed by 75 members of the cast and crew with 26 related photos- making close to $60,000 at Christies East. MM signed quite alot and her signature can add a grand or two. Hard to get a nice unsigned one in decent d/w for less than $5000 - except possibly in a poorly attended auction or a bookshop unused to highspots. In the 1970s decent copies were going for as little as $80. In 2005 a decent signed one in a fancy leather box topped $12000, another made $9000. Unsigned it doesn't appear to have gone much over $5k although a copy described as 'pristine' made $4500 as far back 1990. 'Pristine' is a word you don't use lightly.

Updating this entry from Feb 2007, a decentish jacketed copy with a letter from Clark Gable discussing his playing of Rhett Butler and his talk with Margaret Mitchell sits on ABE at $80K, probably valuing the letter at $70K, a price that must be taken with a pinch of salt. Decent copies seem to be $7500 or more, there are a lot of signed copies around often of reprints or in later states.

TRIVIA. The title comes from the poem 'Non Sum Qualis eram Bonae Sub Regno Cynarae' by decadent poet Ernest Dowson. Dowson, a superb poet, is the ultimate doomed writer--decadent, drunken, and deperately in love with unattainable girls etc. The third stanza of the poem (usually known just as Cynara) reads:-
I have forgot much, Cynara! gone with the wind,
Flung roses, roses riotously with the throng,
Dancing, to put thy pale, lost lilies out of mind;
But I was desolate and sick of an old passion,
Yea, all the time, because the dance was long:
I have been faithful to thee, Cynara! in my fashion.
In MM's words, it was the "far away, faintly sad sound I wanted" for the title and she found it with the pale Dowson. Other books, songs and movies come from Dowson's verse. The last line above was the inspiration for the song title 'Always True to You in My Fashion' from 'Kiss Me, Kate' by Cole Porter. The phrase 'days of wine and roses' comes from his poem 'Vitae Summa Brevis':-
They are not long, the days of wine and roses:
Out of a misty dream
Our path emerges for a while, then closes
Within a dream. /
This inspired a movie, a soap opera and three smoochy songs ((Henry Mancini, Andy Williams, Dream Syndicate.) Fittingly the movie is about alcoholism. Potentially some of Dowson's own books are worth more that 'Gone With the Wind.' His 'Verses' (1896, one of thirty on vellum) made over $10000 25 years ago when Ms M's books was selling regularly for $100. Sic transit...

04 July 2008

House Calls 6 / Box Clever / Drug bust etc.,

Things to take to a house call--mobile phone, boxes, tape, marker pen, cheque book (sometimes cash.) People are often way off in their estimation of quantities-- we went to a house in Harrow said to be bulging with books. On the phone the earnest young man claimed there were 10000 or more academic books from three generations of nuclear scientists, economists and religious scholars. There were less than 500 rather dull books which we suggested they donate. We had bought 200 'flats' in readiness - 'flats' are the technical term for boxes that have not been made up.

On the subject of eventful calls, our now ennobled colleague (noted earlier for doing a house call during an orgy) found himself getting arrested during another house call. His patch was South London - which explains it. He was at the appartment of some fallen posh boys, like something out of 'Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels'. He was up a ladder looking at some pretty decent leather bound sets (not just Scott, but Wilkie Collins, Hardy, Le Fanu, Gissing etc.,) the last gasp of a country house library. Suddenly the police burst in and arrested the half dozen upper class layabouts and hauled them off with our friend who was ordered to come down off the ladder and shut up. He protested vehemently about having nothing to do with it all. Later that day he was released with an apology, his father being some kind of Q.C. Apparently the lads had been importing hashish from Morocco. He never got the books.

A great rival in the auction rooms and occasional on house calls was the late great George Jefferies whose family had run a bunch of book stalls on Farringdon Road, London for most of the 20th Century. There is a photo of the stall in Mary Benedetta's THE STREET MARKETS OF LONDON (John Miles, London 1936--photos by Moholy-Nagy and worth about £300 nice in jacket, half that for lesser copies sans jacket.) George always paid cash and cleared the books in sacks which didn't do them much harm but certainly didn't improve them. The perfect size for a box is a matter of some dispute but I can report that the former ABAA president Peter Howard (of Serendipity in Berkeley) has his boxes made up specially and they are 'double wall' and 16 by 9.5 (deep) by 12.5 inches; he is also very keen on sturdy grocery bags with string handles and once moved shops using only these bags. We are of the 18 by 12 by 10 school. A former president of the British ABA eschews boxes entirely and loads the books in phalanxes in the back of a large estate, claiming you get more in that way. The debate continues...

03 July 2008

The Chronicles of Clovis. Saki, 1913.

Saki (H.H.Munro) THE CHRONICLES OF CLOVIS. The Bodley Head, London, 1913.

Current Selling Prices
$250-$400 /£120-£200

Hector Hugh Munro, or' Saki' wrote most of his best work for newspapers such as the Westminster Gazette, Daily Express, Bystander, Morning Post and Outlook. A master of the short story, he takes us into a vanished and jaded world of upper class rural and metropolitan life in England (and Europe) before WW1. Christopher Morley writes that Saki provides one an excellent introduction to "the mysterious jungles of English humour, a savage country with birds of unexpected plumage."

A sample Saki witticism, oddly topical - 'We all know that Prime Ministers are wedded to the truth, but like other wedded couples they sometimes live apart.' Another apercu brings that era into focus- 'To be clever in the afternoon argues that one is dining nowhere in the evening.' Others include '...good gracious, you've got to educate him first. You can't expect a boy to be vicious till he's been to a good school...' and (useful for writers)- 'A little inaccuracy sometimes saves tons of explanation.' His witticisms are sometimes dismissed as being sub Wildean and some ('Beauty is only sin deep...') seem a little strained these days.

He was born in Akyab, Burma on the 18th of December 1870, and was killed by a sniper on the 16th of November 1916, near Beaumont-Hamel, France. In Burma he raised a tiger cub and was always intereted in wild creatures. He was also a historian, travel writer, political satirist and author of novels and plays. His pen-name Saki (used for stories, skits and satires) was taken from the Sufi poet Hafiz, who addressed several of his verses to a saki, or cupbearer. His complete short stories can be found in one small fat volume at modest prices.

A recent Channel 4 documentary on his life featured celebs talking about him - Will Self, Alexi Sayle and Jeffrey Archer. Self was as, always, incisive and made you want to re-read some of the stories (Sredni Vashtar, Tobermory) - he called Saki a 'shapeshifter' - possibly a reference to Saki's gay side. Then seeing Archer praise Saki made one wonder whether Saki was that good - his presence, as always, diminished the programme. Saki would not have liked Archer. It seems odd that they used him- but in our fallen times any celebrity will do--if David Gest had ever read Saki they would have had him on too.

'Chronicles of Clovis' is one of his more attractive books but is not scarce, there are usually a few firsts at ABE. Beautiful copies are less common, jackets are rare and valuable, in fact, I have never heard of one.

VALUE? A sharp copy can he had at less than £200. None of his books are especially scarce. Almost all are in Bleiler as the stories occasionally have fantasy elements including werewolves ('Gabriel Ernest.') His 1913 future war novel 'When William Came' is listed in Clarke's 'Tale of the Future' with the following note -"The best of all the 'German Invasion' stories; a merciless and very effective analysis of moral, social and military weaknesses." It goes for about £200 in very nice shape but is not scarce. Auction records reveal the following:
Munro, Hector Hugh ("Saki") - Collection of 15 A Ls s & A Ns s, 10 Sept 1902 to 2 Feb 1909, 45 pp, various sizes. To Reinee King. Discussing a variety of subjects including life in Russia as a correspondent, his work, social life in Russia and Lord Alfred Douglas. With holograph envelopes, some missing stamps. - Victor and Irene Murr Jacobs Collection - Sotheby's New York, Oct 29, 1996, lot 410, $3,250
With the premium probably equivalent to £2500 and in today's money say £4500. It still doesn't seem enough; however compared to, say, Hemingway or Waugh or even Sassoon, he is minor and will surely stay minor. However he is known throughout the reading world and will always be admired, read and wanted.

There are a handful of serious collectors -now mostly looking for manuscript material. Saki only gets serious money when you find presentation copies. They do show up (we have had 2 in the last 10 years) and he usually signs as H.H. Munro. Early jackets would also turbo charge prices. Saki is big in Russia, where he spent some time as a reporter, and there are several websites in Cyrillic devoted to him.

Undramatic and probably not rising or even tracking inflation. If someone like JK Rowling or Sarah Jessica Parker said he was their bedtime reading prices might perk up. Unlikely and no matter- at least the feisty Christopher Hitchens wrote a good piece on him in Atlantic Monthly June 2008. Thanks to the reader who pointed out that the cove below is not Saki. It was used as the cover of a Penguin and is possibly supposed to evoke the period and even the character of Clovis.

01 July 2008

Red Roses from Texas, 1964.

"Three times that day in Texas we were greeted with bouquets of the yellow roses of Texas. Only in Dallas they gave me red roses. I remember thinking: How funny - red roses for me." Jacqueline Kennedy.

Nerin Gun ( with Thomas Buchanan.) RED ROSES FROM TEXAS. Frederick Muller, London, 1964.

Current Selling Prices
$400-$600 /£200-£300

Kennedy assassination conspiracy theory book --looks like a novel but is non-fiction. The 1964 British Muller edition is the only edition of this book and I don't think there is even a second edition. Something of a sleeper which I am slightly reluctant to awaken but as I am now in my anecdotage I am less guarded about these things. This is a book that looks like nothing, one of the first conspiracy theory books to appear after the Kennedy assassination and, so far, always exchangeable for a £100 note minimum.

The book has been surpassed by many later works and is generally discounted as poorish stuff by Kennedy assassination conspiracy theorists. The findings of Nerin E. Gun (with Thomas Buchanan, who wrote Who Killed Kennedy?) were ridiculed as Communist garbage by the psycho FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover when he testified before the Warren Commission on May 14, 1964. A later review by Walt Brown cites various inaccuracies:-
Gun was there, in Texas, and Mexico, for much of the time between the assassination and his subsequent publication. His asides, commentaries on Texas, political assassinations in general, the life and times of JFK, and the events that made November 22 unique, are well taken, but they turn a narrative into what seems like a series of essays or thought pieces. And, again, much is wrong. It wasn't 85 degrees in the shade that day, the SS were not all carrying submachine guns on the running boards, and half of the SS agents did not stay in Dealey Plaza. Nor were witnesses Harold Norman, Jr. Jarman, nor Bonnie Ray Williams cited. Instead we learn of "Negroes" under the sniper's window named Ralph Erwing and Washington Harris. Is it real or is it Memorex??????
VALUE? There are several copies on the web at between $500 and $800, with some guy on Amazon (often the source for the cheapest and also the most grossly overpriced copies of books) wanting $500 for a non-jacketed ex-library cop and a fine in fine example being available at $600 elsewhere. We have sold two very nice jacketed copies this century both at £220 each. The book is not especially scarce and can be found overlooked in a charity shop if you are lucky - and they are not plugged into the mainframe.

Outlook? Eventually it will be reprinted or POD'd so not a book to hold. It has been about the same price for 5 years, so if you find a copy, sell it. We put a fine one on Ebay where it failed to make our modest reserve - confirming my feeling that, unless you have something very trendy or very rare Ebay's customers tend to be bargain hunters, cheapskates and bottom feeders. At least that's why I go there!