28 December 2009

Antonia Forest

Current Selling Prices £20 to £80+

Grown-up children’s fiction/ Young Adult
Every dealer knows to look out for early editions of the girls school stories penned by Elinor Brent-Dyer, Angela Brazil and their like, which all have their fanatical collectors, but one of the most sought after writers of teenage fiction for the past two decades or so must be Antonia Forest, who because her books have only very recently been reissued in paperback after years of neglect, are avidly sought after in second hand state, either in bookshops or on the Net. For it would appear that for the most dedicated fan a pristine but charmless paperback reissue of a favourite title has little attraction when compared with a first, however battered and library-stamped the copy. It seems that for a growing band of collectors condition doesn’t matter too much.

Forest has admirers all over the English speaking world among all those who relish intelligent fiction for the teenage market. Moreover, academics have now joined the throng. In 2006 a high-powered symposium was held in Bournemouth—where the author lived from 1938 until her death in 2003—and doubtless papers exploring the many aspects of her oeuvre were delivered by more than one serious–looking cove from a Mid-West Liberal Arts college. One of the organisers behind the symposium was Forest uberfan Sue Sims, who after years of fighting to get her books in the shops again, must have been exultant when a tiny publisher, Girls Gone By Books, began to reissue several of the titles in 2003. Getting Forest back on the library shelves could possibly take a little longer. A request for any book by her is still greeted in my local libraries with a frown of puzzlement.

I myself had never heard of Forest –not so surprising considering my status as a middle-aged bloke—until having bought at auction the play-scripts, war diaries and miscellaneous papers of one Harold Rubinstein, I found among them an autograph album dated 1924 of his daughter, a Miss Patricia Rubinstein. Through Google I discovered that not only did the junior celeb hunter grow up to become a famous children’s writer, but that Enid Blyton she most definitely was not. I also found out that so closely did the author guard her privacy that few, if any, of her devoted readership ever suspect that the name she used was not the one she was born with.

The truth emerged at her death. Rubinstein was, it transpired, born in 1915, the daughter of Russian Jewish and Irish immigrants , and brought up in bourgeois affluence in South Hampstead, where she attended South Hampstead Girl’s School. Here she was a keen sportswoman, while at home her amateur dramatist and verse-writing father, regularly treated her to theatre trips, fostering a strong interest in English history and drama that never left her.
At London University she studied journalism with a view to writing full time. Her first book, Autumn Term ( 1948 ) was published in the hope that its success would enable her to forge a reputation as a serious novelist, but so well was it received that she decided to continue writing for teenagers. In all she published 13 between 1948 and 1982. Four are school stories centred on the Marlow twins and their fellow pupils at the independent Kingscote School, and six are home stories also featuring the Marlows. Forest also wrote historical novels. All the books are well-written and distinctively intelligent in their handling of the teenage psyche. Part of their appeal, one suspects, is that unlike the many public school stories that trade on the vicarious relish of grammar school products like myself for the values of a vanished race of upper or upper middle class toffs, Forest writes about the progeny of a meritocratic, educated middle-class. Her father was, after all, a cultured member of the bourgeoisie and his values seem to have been inherited by his daughter. It is also significant, I think that Forest converted to Catholicism at the onset of her career and for the remainder of her life embraced the conservatism that characterises many converts. When asked to describe herself she replied with passion. ‘Middle-class, narrow-minded, anti-progressive, and PROUD OF IT ‘.

Though Forest’s conservatism is a refreshing antidote to the dysfunctional world of Jacqueline Wilson, it perhaps contributed to her neglect . But perhaps the recent revolt against political correctness and dumbing-down will fuel a come-back. One bookshop, Peakirk Books of Norfolk, is certainly doing its best to spearhead a revival and today it offers an extensive range of Forest books, both new and second-hand, although the high prices it demands for poor copies of first editions reflect the clamour from fans for her scarce books--a phenomenon which Forest herself comments in an interview of 1995. For instance they want $115 for a second impression, ex school copy of Falconer’s Lure but won’t charge you extra for sticky tape to endpapers and rubber stamps ! Similar prices are asked for library copies of other titles. Most of the other dealers offering ex library firsts demand the same sort of money --but one chancer in Australia wants (wait for it ) $770 for an ex-library The Player’s Boy in ‘ hardly read ‘ condition with a ‘ clean dust jacket ‘. Not to be outdone in the rip-off stakes ( what would Miss Forest have thought of these scammers ? ) the aptly named Renegade Books of London are charging a cool $146 for a perfectly ordinary Girls Gone By paperback of Falconer’s Lure, when paperback Forests of any vintage seem to average around $35, with a few costing as little as $1. [R. M. Healey]

Wise words Robin and useful stuff too. I shall add Antonia to a hit list of YA (young adult) writers along with Robert Westall, Monica Edwards, Jill Paton Walsh, K.M. Peyton (who was a pal of AF) Geoffrey Trease, Jane Gardam, Leon Garfield and Ian Serraillier (author of the incredible 'Silver Sword'). I was looking at the YA section in Borders in Santa Cruz, California last month and almost every book was black with hints of silver and red and almost everyone had a vampire bothering hapless high school kids. The section was way bigger than say 2 years ago due almost entirely to Stephenie Meyer and her Twilight books (my Borders pic below.)

I still have reservations about library books, before the web they were of so little value as collectables that they would be tossed in the eco-bin, the only exception being if the text itself was impossible to obtain in any other way. A new crowd has come forward unversed in such aesthetic scruples, and I'm happy to take their money but wish they could see the true awfulness of a 'retired' ex-library book. Sic transit...

23 December 2009

Park Barnitz. Book of Jade 2

I have had two bad experiences with this jinxed book. First I bought a copy of the Durtro limited edition reprint from a shop I had dropped into whilst bookbuying in America, one of those shops where hardly anything is priced. Before the web they let the pencil write the price unless it was obviously valuable in which case price guides and book auction records came out, later on a CD Rom was spun with prices going back to the era of flared loon trousers.

Nowadays the old geezer checks the web on every single book, but (as I later sussed) does it in a way that tends to show only the higher price stuff, a sort of learned incompetence. He then lets you have your book (in this case the Book of Jade, Durtro ed) at about a third less than the lowest price shown and it appears you have a good deal. However he has put in too much information thus narrowing down the available copies, usually to the classier dealers who have also input a lot of info and know how to overcharge. When you get home you realise that the book you paid $150 for a book that could be had for $100. As a dealer if you are to get anything back you would have to price your copy at $90 thus making a quick but painful $60 loss. Caveat Emptor! Basically less information will usually reveal lower prices. Less is more, as the mantra goes. No names, no pack drill but you may find a shop like this by chance while book hunting stateside.

The 1998 Durtro edition is still available at about $100, although a few dealers want $200 or more. The edition was limited to 300, not a small edition for a book whose fanbase, although keen and sophisticated, is necessarily narrow. The other bad experience, less painful on the pocket and more a kind of experiment, was to buy for $15 a Print on Demand copy of Park's great work. Whilst the text is there, the line breaks of the poems are dodgy and the book is generally about as interesting as non alcoholic vodka. They have a catchall apology for their dismal effort at the front:
"We have recreated this book from the original using Optical Character Recognition software to keep the cost of the book as low as possible. Therefore, could you please forgive any spelling mistakes, missing or extraneous characters that may have resulted from smudged or worn pages? "
If you want the book free you can read it online at UCLA and the text looks accurate.

I narrowly missed a less than fine Doxey edition of the book two years back at £150 and I have heard of copies making $300 on Ebay but a realistic price for a decent copy is probably $500. Several other Doxey editions are of value especially the 1897 Yone Noguchi book 'The Voice of the Valley'. It can show up wearing a jacket and commands about $800+. Emma Dawson's collection of fantastic stories 'Itinerant House', a Bleiler title, (also Doxey 1897) is desirable and can make $500 or more. 'Doxey's Guide to San Francisco and the Pleasure Resorts of California' is for sale at $1000+ but the price may be freakish. Lastly I found a photo of Park Barnitz. My theory is that unlike say, Rimbaud or Dowson, his decadence may have been conceptual rather than actual - he does not exactly look like the guy from party central...

21 December 2009

A Study in Scarlet 1887 - "...flung like a bombshell into the field of detective fiction."

“There's the scarlet thread of murder running through the 
colourless skein of life, and our duty is to unravel it, and isolate it, 
and expose every inch of it.” (Holmes / Doyle)

A. Conan Doyle.A STUDY IN SCARLET. (BEETON'S CHRISTMAS ANNUAL.) Ward, Lock & Co., (1887)

Current Prices $160,000+ / £100,000 +

The first appearance of Sherlock Holmes; the first printing of the first Sherlock Holmes story. "That lurid paper-back of Christmas 1887 is today one of the rarest books of modern times--a keystone sought by discriminating collectors in every part of the world--flung like a bombshell into the field of detective fiction" (Vincent Starrett.) The most valuable mystery and not utterly impossible to find. It is not as rare,say, as an 1865 'Alice' which was withdrawn - it could be bought at news kiosks and railway stations in the magical Christmas of 1887. I thought I would revisit it with all the hoo-ha about the new Guy Ritchie Sherlock movie, said to be not unamusing...

It can show up in a bound annual and occasionally you see stout volumes of the annual and your heart leaps for a moment - but they are always from other years. If you see 1887 on the spine move fast - in case, as Javier Marias, puts it 'the swifter glove of another hunter might appear precisely at that moment and snatch it from you.' One turned up for a pittance on the Portobello road about 1980 - it was bound with other magazines of the period. I missed it by about 20 minutes. The biggest sleeper. The dealer who bought it told the seller the true value what he had found; the unfortunate guy is said to have gone off his rocker. Possibly mythical, but it is bad form to boast about books especially to the seller-he might have other stuff.

Plot? It plunges us straight into the dark world of an unsolved murder in Victorian London, which has links to the American West and the Mormons. 

The Mormon stuff is said to be poorly researched. Watson is seen as a soldier-hero as well as a doctor, and not as a bumbling side-kick to Holmes, who is shown here as a decidedly odd and pompous man, less of an eagle eyed polymath than he becomes in later stories.

VALUE? In 2007 a high end LA dealer had a 'superior' copy at a not unthinkable $250,000. Another similar high end dealer of yore, the late lamented El Dieff had a copy in his 1971 catalogue at $2500. His, however, had 'facsimile wrappers' -- that is a 'sophisticated copy.' Highest auction record was at Sotheby's London in 2004 is $130,000 + 'the juice' taking it to $153,600 and this was for a copy described as 'somewhat creased, worn, and stained, tear, with small loss, to front wrapper and first ad leaf, spine much frayed with substantial loss, but still quite fresh and entirely unrestored.' Unrestored is good - and it can always be put in a handsome 'clam -shell' box. The 1888 first book edition has a 'point' on it - you want the word 'younger' spelled correctly in the preface (paragraph 2, line 3 not youuger which counter intuitively is the second state.) It can go for $40,000 + (that erroneous 'u' takes off about $10,000 and more)-- 2 copies bound in 'modern morocco' (one Bayntun, one Zaehnsdorf) have made circa $20 K in the last 5 years, a copy in a Zaehnsdorf binding (the same?) without original wraps has been on sale this year at a slightly dreamlike $85K. (That was 2007 and it may have sold or been knocked out, a similar copy in a more modern binding is on sale now at £17,500 also without the wraps.)

One dealer, with the 1888 first book edition, claims the colour front wrap is 'exceedingly rare as copies were intended to be rebound without covers at time of purchase' and there may be some veracity in that. Another, or possibly the same, 'sophisticated' El Dieff copy purchased from the Marquis of Donegall in 1975 showed up in mid 2007 and made $156000 (£100K or thereabouts`) it had 'skilful repairs to the margins of a few of the preliminary advertisements and to the frontispiece. Original colour-printed pictorial wrappers; much restored with bits of the upper and lower wrappers and all of the spine (rebacked) supplied in good facsimile.'The book also shows up in bound omnibuses of Christmas annuals usually sans wraps, a copy bound with 4 other Christmas special issues in contemporary half morocco, spine gilt (lettered "Christmas Annuals"), without original wrappers and advertisements, made £18,500 in May 2008. For a really serious earner you need the lurid wraps, or at least parts of them.

OUTLOOK? Are new Sherlock collectors being born? One hopes so. I can see no decline in demand, possibly the many Sherlockian societies like The Friends of Dr. Watson or The Franco- Midland Hardware Company are not filling up with members from the Ipod generation and supply might eventually overtake demand, but not for 1887 or 1888 Studies in Scarlet. Possession of the book speaks of a collector's status and taste and devotion there will, hopefully, always be those who wish to make that statement.

[A rejig from April 2007]

14 December 2009

Park Barnitz. Book of Jade 1

Anonymous (David Park Barnitz.) THE BOOK OF JADE. Doxey's, At the Sign of the Lark (William Doxey), New York (1901)

Current Selling Prices
$350-$600 /£200-£400

I was first alerted to this book by a young solicitor (Karl Potts)-- a collector of the exotic, the erotic, the decadent, the distasteful and the kitsch. He was especially keen on 90s American 'purple poetry' Francis Saltus, George Sterling ('Wine of Wizardry') and Park Barnitz. David Park Barnitz (1878 – 1901) was an American poet, known solely for his 1901 volume 'The Book of Jade', a classic of decadent poetry. It was published by San Francisco bookseller William Doxey, publisher of the humourist Gelett Burgess, as well as many obscure, macabre and forgotten writers. Book of Jade was actually published in New York after his California publishing enterprise, called “At the Sign of the Lark”, had gone bankrupt. By February 1901, Doxey’s new venture was bankrupt again, but not before he had published the Barnitz, probably his finest achievement. The young Barnitz insisted on anonymity, possibly because his father was a clergyman and certainly due to its druggy, death obsessed, oblivionist and decadent content.

He is America's own Rimbaud and in the line of Dowson (not quite in the same league as either) a sort of Marc Almond to Dowson's Bowie. He died at the age of 23 having graduated from Harvard and returned to Des Moines where he haunted the public library. At Harvard his class mates included Wallace Stevens who went on to great poetic (and financial) glory. One of his teachers was Henry James's brother William James, author of the classic 'The Varieties of Religious Experience' (1902.) James pronounced him brilliant and Park became the youngest person ever admitted to the American Oriental Society. The East was an important influence. He has been compared to Count Stenbock and Beddoes. James Thomson's (B.V.) The City of Dreadful Night was a palpable influence. Barnitz was to some extent resurrected by the attention of H.P. Lovecraft ("…and who could have written that nasty, cynical Book of Jade?" he asked in a letter to Maurice Moe), Clark Aston Smith and Donald Wandrei and later by David Tibet and the scholar Mark Valentine who published a splendid new edition under the Durtro imprint in 1998.

The poems are shot through with opium and decadence, almost certainly theoretic:
“O poppy-buds, that in the golden air
Wave heavy hanging censers of delight,
Give me an anodyne for my despair; … ”

- in late 19th century Des Moines it was probably hard to score opium, it's hard enough to get a beer there even now. Difficult to think of a less decadent place on the planet, even Tunbridge Wells holds more promise of dissipation and excess. I doubt whether absinthe was procurable there but it occurs, as a token, in these wonderful lines:
'Kalliste your Persian ghazal cease to sing: the sun is low
And the sacred hour of absinthe is now very very nigh.'
That beats 'the sun has gone down over the yardarm.' Occasionally the poet displays a great lyric gift but there is much in the book that was written pour epater les bourgeoisie or at least to spite his religious father. His lines on the Madonna are worth quoting:
“Anguish and Mourning are as gold to her;
She weareth Pain upon her as a gem,
And on her head Grief like a diadem; … ”
The problem with full on decadence is you are working from a smallish palette and it is hard not to repeat lines, themes and phrases- the above lines, for example, are reworked again in another context. A slightly edited 'tag cloud' extracted from GoogleBooks for 'Book of Jade- goes like this:
corpse absinthe anguish art Ashtoreth beauty behold beloved beneath the sky body bore Brahma buried censer changeless Cometh a day crown dark dead corpse DEAD DIALOGUE dead things Death delight doth dream earth endless eternal eyes fades fain fair flesh forever forevermore frankincense glory gold golden the worms heaven weary Holy Pestilence houris kisses life's light lily garden lips loathed moon by night mournful myrrh naught neath NOCTURNE o'er opium ordure pale pall pallid Patchouli perfume perish Persia poppies roses rotten sadness scented sepulchre sleep slumber solemn sorrow soul spirit stars strange sunken tired tireth tomb unto vanity wanly wearieth weary wine worms lie...

VALUE? Several Doxey books are highly collectable. ...to be continued with some harsh words for the Print on Demand version of the book and a picture of the young decadent...

12 December 2009

The People's Princess

I had thought this phrase was made up by Alastair Campbell for the famous Blair soundbite on the day Diana died but I just pulled this 1984 book out of a box and lo!- here is the original People's Princess...Princess Mary Adelaide, Duchess of Teck (1833- 1897). She was not quite as good-looking as Diana (indeed she was also known as 'Fat Mary') but like Diana she had a knack for popularity. She was also one of the first Royals to patronise a wide range of charities. She is the current Queen's great grandmother. Elizabeth II seems to have thrown off the Hanoverian look...

The book goes for about £15 as a hardback nice in wrapper, with one online chancer looking for $100. It was published by Kensal Press,London in paperback and hardback. I am told royal books sometimes make more than they are worth on Ebay...

10 December 2009

Book Thieves 1

(From Robin Healey.) I’ve just come across Allison Hoover Bartlett’s recent study of bibliomania, or rather kleptomania, The Man Who Loved Books Too Much . I say kleptomania, because the main character in this series of pen portraits is John Gilkey, who unlike some of the other misfits Bartlett writes about, isn’t so much obsessed with books as beautiful objects or repositories of wisdom, but sees them more as meal tickets to a better life. Gilkey stole $100,000 worth of rare volumes using stolen credit card numbers to pay for luxury items. Earlier on in his career as a credit card thief he had acquired pizzas and foreign currency in the same way.

Two other figures in her books can more properly be classed as true bibliomaniacs, since one ( a Spanish monk ) was insane enough to justify his murder of ten collectors with the chilling apophthegm ‘ Every man must die, but good books must be conserved ‘, while the obsession of a professor in Nebraska led him to sleep on a cot in his kitchen to make room for his 90 tons of books.

Reading Bartlett I was reminded of the rebarbative Farhad Hakimzadeh (mugshot left) , not so much the Bookseller of Kabul but more the Book Destroyer of Knightsbridge. He it was who expertly removed pages out of scholarly works on the Middle East mainly to make up
defective copies in his own splendid collection –a crime for which he received two years in jail. He is now free and facing a hefty bill from the BL. It was Germaine Greer, sworn enemy of book thieves and book breakers, who enlightened me on the methods of such as Hakimzadeh. They, she was reliably informed, simply insert a fragment of Stanley knife blade under a nail and run their finger along the book’s inner spine. The leaves they remove are then hidden among their own papers.

Hakimzadeh was arrested a full two years after his crimes were committed, but how many others who despoil public collections have escaped detection ---their vandalism undiscovered ? The purloining of single leaves is easy enough to do in UK research libraries, mainly because the checking on exit is inadequate and also because white paper and other documents are allowed into the research areas. At the HRHRC in Austin only yellow paper is permitted and researchers are also obliged to deposit all their own documents in a locker before entering the research area. Hence thefts are exceptionally rare. Why UK libraries don’t follow suit is beyond me. Dimness, complacency, shortage of resources. Take your pick.

But there some beacons of light. At Manchester’s John Rylands Library and the BBC Written Archives in Caversham, before a collection is brought to a researcher an archivist will have listed exactly what items are contained in a seemingly ‘ loose ‘ collection of documents .And when that collection is returned the archivist compares what ought to be there with what is returned. And woe betide anyone who removes the most modest of documents from a file. They know where you live !

And if single leaves can disappear from printed books where at least rudimentary surveillance exists, how easy can it be for the ingenious and brazen thief to escape detection in the average antiquarian bookshop ? How is it that so few booksellers can apparently afford to install a magic beam or even a modest closed circuit camera system ? These would pay for themselves over a short period and presumably bring down the cost of insurance—presuming booksellers bother to get cover. In response most booksellers contend that stringent security measures undermine the pleasant relationships they need to retain with their customers—and thieves, of course, take advantage of this.

However, it’s good to know that some thieves are caught in flagrante. I like that reaction by the late Peter Jolliffe of Ulysses Bookshop, who when he caught a regular customer red handed shouted at him ‘Stop stealing my books !’. Upon which that thief burst into tears, fled the premises and was never seen again in that particular shop. On another occasion the unworldly bookseller only discovered that his copies of Virginia Woolf’s On Being Ill and Golding’s Lord of the Flies ( worth a total of £4,000) had been stolen when he checked the shelf where he had last seen the books. The problem seems to be that certain clothing is ideal for hiding books in, and that books and newspapers are good places too. How easy it is to conceal a copy of A Quinzaine for this Yule** in a folded Daily Telegraph , Times or Guardian? It seems to me that booksellers could learn a lot from the HRHRC and its Yellow Paper Principle. All customers should remove overcoats ( Bob Cohen, who stole regularly from the Birmingham and Midland Institute, was a book-in-overcoat specialist ) when they enter the shop and request that if they are carrying books, newspapers and suchlike, that they leave these behind too. After all, bags are invariably barred from basements. Are these simple precautions beyond most booksellers ? Would most customers be offender by such requests? I don’t think so.

Thanks Robin. Sleeping in a cot in a kitchen with 90 tons of books? That's nothing! I have seen such severe bibliomania that the person could no longer reach his own kitchen for books and had to subsist on takeouts. Talking of stealing plates from libraries I was reminded of the scene in Polanski's 'Chinatown' where the Jack Nicholson character steals a page from a book in a public library covering the noise with a cough. It's Chinatown!

I attended an official auction of a book thief's library thefts about 10 years ago in Suffolk and bought a few modest lots. He seemed to have stolen from libraries in the Northampton area and was currently banged up. The trouble was that this 'tealeaf' (sometimes 'booster') had trimmed and treated all the books to remove ex library evidence and they were hence unsightly, also he had poorish taste in literature. It seems that you don't get great minds going in to this field of crime. Curiously it was the last time I saw Charles Traylen. He must have been in his 90s and was wheeled in to view this sorry lot. I remember him laughing at the stuff. Oddly enough this was the man who practically invented the modern cult for collecting plate books...

** Ezra Pound's second book (1908) which would probably now retail at $20,000 especially the Pollock and Co., edition.

05 December 2009

Books as investment / an old G.F. Sims catalogue 3

George F. Sims had just returned from the Bay Area, at the time of this catalogue, with a haul of American books which are scattered throughout the catalogue. Sims was probably best with collection buying, as a scout he was obviously proficient but lacked the guile of, say, Martin Stone or Adam of Hunstanton. In 1977 he published a thriller set in a dangerous part of San Francisco "Hunter's Point". I
could never get on with it, possibly because it was not a bibliomystery.

He brought back a lot of Conrad Aiken - not a great investment but not a loss-maker - also some signed limited Updikes now quite prized, some rather expensive loss making Ambrose Bierce, some decent Hart Crane, Caresse Crosby, Frost (including a presentation copy to Elizabeth Bowen) late Hemingway, Henry Miller, Robert Lowell, Thomas Merton, Willa Cather etc. He was also fond of first foreign language editions of heavyweight British and American writers, possibly less collected these days due to persistent dumbing down. He was also keen on proofs, well ahead of the game (they became hot in the 1980s). Sadly proofs in general seem to be less desirable in 2009 and are banned altogether at Amazon. Here goes with a final selection starting with the kind of proof that has held its value:
George Orwell. COMING UP FOR AIR.1948. Author's corrected proofs with many corrections in Orwell's hand also another unknown and Roger Senhouse. £85 / £1020 / £4000

Henry Miller. TROPIQUE DU CANCER. Paris 1945. Fine condition, copy no 1. Sims states that only 'a few copies were printed before the edition was aborted' a statement which the net does not bear out, also HM seems to have gone distinctly 'soft'. £85 / £1020 / £650

John Updike. BATH AFTER SAILING. 1968. One of 125 signed. Fine. £15 / £180 / £300

Ezra Pound. PROVENCA…(Boston, 1910) Apparently a fine copy in a used vg first state d/w. £85 / £1020 / £600

John Galsworthy (John Sinjohn) A MAN OF DEVON. Even then Galsworthy was in decline but the 4 Sinjohn titles were still sexy. They are less so today, but is always good to find them completely overlooked. Short stories with one "The Salvation of Swithin Forsyte" having the first appearance of a Forsyte character. George's was near fine but still represents a troubling loss to our portfolio. £75 / £900 / £400

BILDER LEXICON (SEXUALWISSENCHAFT) A weighty German sex encyclopaedia finely bound in original publisher's pigskin. Like all decent booksellers GFS had a proportion of erotica. If nothing else it almost always sells fast. Unfortunately German books have mostly fared badly due to every bookshop in Germany putting all their stock on the web and generally driving prices down, sometimes disastrously. £85 / £1020 / £450

Sylvia Plath (left). A WINTER SHIP. Tragara Press, 1960. GFS had much Tragara in the catalogue but none as good as this, Plath's first publication. For £30 he had a proof with corrections in her hand 'indicating that her name should be removed from the title page.' There were a few other proof pages but it was not clear whether this was complete, so to be sure one would have to buy (£20) the next item - a fine complete proof with her name on the title page. It was omitted from the published version. So £50 / £600 / £4000 (conceivably more...)

R.L. Stevenson. VERSES. Privately printed 1912. Presented by the publisher Luther Livingstone to RLS's bibliographer. Posthumous limited edition (100 copies). The kind of book that is now very hard to sell for serious money. BAD BUY! £80 / £960 / £250

Now is the time to do the math. If we had got every book we had ordered we would have spent £1207.50 (call it £1200 and George might have given 10% on top of that.). If we sold the whole lot in a sale next week with some doing better than others and some doing worse we would very likely get £33, 460. With auctions there are expenses so take off 10% and say another 10% for storage and the depressant effect of the auctioneers 20% to sellers and we get £27000, so the books have increased in value by 22.5 times which keeps pace with stocks and shares and represents 9% annual compound interest which is just short of what Madoff was offering (but with him you would have lost the lot!)

If you take out the bad buys (almost half the outlay but with £24000 coming back) the return is a stellar 42 times. In retrospect manuscript material was a good buy and should stay so but there are not many other clear lessons to be drawn from this exercise and to quote Scott Fitzgerald (himself a good investment) '...so we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.'

04 December 2009

Bruges-La-Morte: Georges Rodenbach 1892 / 1903.

'Bruges was desperately depressing at this time...that was the reason Hugh liked it so much...a mysterious equation established itself between his own spirit and that of the place. In the eternal fitness of things a dead town furnished the corresponding analogy to that of a dead wife. The bitterness of his desolation demanded an environment that harmonised with its poignancy. ..his longing was for an infinite silence...'

by Georges Raymond Constantin Rodenbach.
Swan Sonnenschein, London, 1903. / Flammarion, Paris 1892 (Bruges-la-Morte: Roman.)

Current Selling Prices

$450-$1200 /£300-£750

Having caught up with the excellent comedy thriller 'In Bruges' starring Colin Farrell, Ralph Fiennes etc., I thought I would revisit Rodenbach's classic of decadent literature. It seems likely that the writer and director Martin McDonagh or at least the fine cinematographer knew of the work, as some shots echo the images from the 1930 edition with colour plates by Levy Dhurmer. Rodenbach created an image of the Flemish city - haunted, melancholy, adrift in time - that endures today. When it appeared first in 1892, the novel was quickly recognised as one of the greatest achievements of the decadent movement -Huysmans and Mallarme, among others, championed it. It became a best seller that has been reprinted many times. It even became fashionable to visit Bruges and feel its melancholy vibes.

As Terry Hale says in his intro to the 1993 Atlas Press re-issue of the 1903 edition, Rodenbach - as a consciously Symbolist writer conveys 'a mystical sense of a deeper reality:- ' ...that sense of the secret meaning of things is portrayed as invading every corner of the brooding city with its belfries and its beguinages, its sombre canals and its old, silent dwellings...'

When I started this book list I vowed not to give away too much hard won knowledge about 'sleepers' but this book is so interesting and so resolutely unfindable that -- what the hell. It's the UK ed that can't be found, the French is not impossible in fact I have just bought one. I have heard of 2 copies of the Swan Sonnenschein edition in the last decade. I think Hale has one that was used as the text for the 1993 re-issue and another decadent collector lucked out and found one at an internet book site for a pittance. An attractive illustrated edition appeared in 1930 with 18 colour plates by Levy Dhurmer. Levy Dhurmer is responsible for the 1890s portrait of GR (above.) There is a good article about the book called 'Bruges of Sighs' by Alan Hollinghurst at The Guardian site occasioned by the new English translation that appeared in 2005. Hollinghurst, also a highly rated novelist, who introduces the new Dedalus translation notes that '...the opera Die tote Stadt (premiered in 1920) is based indirectly on Bruges-la-Morte...and is now the form in which the novel is most widely known. Its immediate source was Le Mirage, the four-act theatrical version of Bruges-la-Morte which Rodenbach prepared at the end of his life, but never saw staged.' The opera was written by the 23 year old Erich Wolfgang Korngold.

VALUE? Although rare there must be a ceiling on the value of the 1903 British first. Punters are not plentiful and possibly not holding a lot of folding money. The top price for a limpid example might be £600 with the French going for about the same in Euros for a copy in original wraps with no foxing or obvious signs of wear. Right now in December 2009 a Signed presentation from the author to Jean Lorrain sits on the web at £900 (howver it lacks the frontispiece which is almost fatal.) The 1930 illustrated edition has an auction record of $100 from the late 1980s, so say $600. The illustration of the bridge above is from that edition, the original is illustrated with moody photos. The serious money with Rodenbach is to be had for Les Vierges - Les Tombeaux (Samuel Bing, Paris,1895) a 2 vol livre d'artiste with with 4 original lithographs by Hungarian painter Joseph Rippl-Ronai ('the Lost Nabi') in the first volume, and 3 woodcuts by his friend the Scottish painter James Pitcairn-Knowles in the second volume. Hard to find for less than €4500. STOP PRESS. In 2009 I sold reasonable but not fine copies of the Swan Sonnenschein edition and the first French at £325 each. Need replacements.

Below is the remarkable grave of Rodenbach. Along with Edith Piaf, Proust, Oscar Wilde, Jim Morrison and the Black Prince he is buried at Pere Lachaise in Paris. His grave is much admired and visited, especially by Goths and latter day decadents. As can be seen he seems to be pushing open the lid of his sepulchre ...

TRIVIA The movie seems to break a record for the amount of swearing. The DVD has an amusing one minute collage of every damned expletive. It's somewhat politically incorrect and certainly Belgist with lines like "There's two things Belgium is famous for; chocolate and child abuse, and we all know that they invented chocolate to get at the kids." Farrell at one point attacks and downs an obnoxious American diner who complains about his smoking in a restaurant "That's for John Lennon you fucking yankee..." It's a long way from Rodenbach's doomed romance but the same feeling of melancholy comes through, especially in a scene with the Dubliners singing "On Raglan Road" over scenes of brutal mayhem. One wonders if the movie has encouraged tourism to the 'dead' city, just as the novel did.

03 December 2009

Books as investment / an old G.F. Sims catalogue 2

A further word on George F. Sims. He should not be confused with George R. Sims (1847 - 1922) English journalist, poet, dramatist, novelist, social reformer, bon vivant and criminologist. George R is still mildly collectable with a couple of Bleiler titles under his belt. George F is also collectable and may even be a 'penny shares' investment himself. You could probably pick up his entire oeuvre for about £400 (about 20 books and pamphlets) including his first effort 'The Swallow Lovers' - a collection of poems privately printed at his father's expense on the occasion of his 18th birthday. Signed presentation copies should be fairly uncommon, as he did not believe in signing books (probably saw too many as a dealer) and had a small label for pasting in copies of his own books sent to him for signing: 'Mr George Sims regrets that his signature spoils book.' The label depicts a branch and a noose.

The book label hints at a slightly difficult type of person confirmed to some extent by his obituary in 'The Independent' : 'He did not suffer fools gladly: indeed it has been said of him that he refused to suffer them at all.' Not suffering fools gladly tends to be obit-speak for an insufferable rageaholic yet GFS appears to have had many admirers and could be generous to other dealers and collectors. It was not so much fools as bores that he could not abide. I remember a completist collector who used to be seen round the book fairs and could bore for Britain (and America) on his chosen subject. He told me that he thought Sims was very rude- he had cornered him on some minor issue point and had launched into a lengthy disquisition when he noticed that Sims had wandered off to the other side of the room while he was still talking. A wise and audacious move, not available to the tethered stall holder. James Joyce once said 'I never met a bore' - but he had probably never been to a provincial book fair.

I only have one Sims catalogue with me and I know there were many better than this, but even chucking in a few duff buys the selected books are looking like a sound investment. To outperform the stock market you need a return of 20 times original investment from 1971 and to show a compounded annual 10% return you need to get about 35 times original investment over the 37/ 38 years. Even Madoff was only offering this. Let's start with a cracker:

Vladimir Nabokov. LOLITA. First ed, Paris 1955. 'Original wrappers, fine.' £25 / £300/ £3000 (possibly more if still fine.)

John Le Carre. THE NAIVE AND SENTIMENTAL LOVER. Typescript /manuscript with many changes in Le Carre's hand and additional passages including 'two attempts at a different ending, both being deleted.' £65 / £800 / £6000
Hard to value this. In 1990 at Sotheby's Horowitz paid £1800 for Le Carre's The Good Soldier, with corrected typescripts, comprising 16 revised versions, & page proofs; 1990. Over 400 pp, 4to.' This was possibly 'The Secret Pilgrim' and was also likely to have been an espionage novel which is better than 'Naive and Sentimental' - JLC's attempt at a non-spy novel. Still it's hard to imagine the Sims MS would make less than £6000 and could conceivably make many times that.

Charles Morgan. SPARKENBROKE. (1936) One of 200 signed. £15 / £180/ £40. Bad buy! Morgan is hard to sell and copies are thick on the ground. An old customer once explained the demise of Morgan (actually an interesting writer) 'no-one has the time to read him any more.'

George Moore. PERONNIK THE FOOL. (1932) One of 525 Signed copies. Fine in slip-case. £20 / £240 / £60. Bad buy! George Moore despite being Irish and a close friend of Nancy Cunard has become slow to shift, especially these large run limited eds.

Lord Alfred Douglas. SIGNED HOLOGRAPH LETTER TO C. S. MILLARD. A deeply unpleasant 4 page letter basically threatening the openly gay Millard with the police ( 'I have had a long discussion with Inspector Macantire about you') and calling his ideas 'lunatic'. Talking about Oscar's friend Robert Ross's 'unspeakable filthiness and vileness' and saying of his former lover " ...I still pray for OW hoping that there is a bare chance that he may have escaped going to hell...' With envelope with the Douglas seal. £25 / £300 / £650 [that's him left looking uncannily like Jude Law]

George Darley. THE LABOURS OF IDLENESS. (1826) Used but vg. Sims was fond of this now highly rated poet (aka 'Guy Penseval') and was comfortable cataloguing older books. There are some great Dickens rarities in here but useless for our purposes as they are marked [SOLD] -a depressing but honest practice that you see less of these days (that is if you still get book catalogues.) £65 / £780 / £1000

WOOLF, Virginia. BOOK OF CHEQUE-STUBS. (1930) Includes 2 cancelled signed cheques made out to husband Leonard. Sims has fun with this speculating on what VW meant by some of her stub entries and predicts they will puzzle literary detectives--one simply says 'Panto' and she spent £9 on a writing desk and £2.17 shillings at Fortnums. £10 / £120 / £1200 (surely more)
In the hands of one of the many Bloomsbury fanatics one could now imagine a $10,000 price tag but in 1971 Virginia was in the doldrums. Huge price surges (and declines) are all a matter off shifting tastes and predicting them needs the literary equivalent of a Warren Buffet! [VW's desk below--was this the 9 quidder?]

Hilaire Belloc. A COLLECTION OF POLITICAL POEMS. ( Oswestry 1924) A fantastically rare Belloc item printed for private distribution on handmade paper and inscribed to Lord Howard de Walden. George's price is equally fantastic, a stonking £175, equivalent to £2050 in today's terms. Bad buy! It is possible he had a punter in mind. I was a young shaver then but I don't recall Belloc being that hot. The most any Belloc has ever made in auction is another privately printed rarity from 1931 'The Praise of Wine. An Heroic Poem by H. Belloc to Duff Cooper.' Inscribed to Andre Simon it made £1000 in 2005 at Sotheby's. Some highish prices were also recorded back in 1990 at the Bradley Martin sale, but surely the most you could get for this 1924 pamphlet would be £1200. Have put it at £900 to be cautious. £175 / £2050 / £900

Will conclude in the next posting and add up figures to see what kind of return our fantasy investor might have got....

02 December 2009

Books as investment / an old G.F. Sims catalogue

I have a catalogue of the great bookseller G. F. Sims with me on the road. It is from 1971 and could give an insight on books as an investment. If you imagined that you had bought a dozen or so books from this catalogue and were now selling them nearly 40 years later, what kind of return would you be getting on your initial outlay? Bear in mind that we have the benefit of hindsight and also that even if one had got on the phone at 8.00 on the morning of the catalogue's first day the books may not have been available.

A word about George Sims. He was probably one of the greatest booksellers the world has ever known. This isn't like being one of the greatest architects or racing drivers, it's a fairly small and mostly undistinguished field. He certainly wrote great bibliomysteries (green Penguins--easily obtained.) Even Evelyn Waugh thought they were good. In my opinion he is up there with Dunning. As a bookseller he realised that, in his field (mainly modern firsts) most of the really good books were actually in the libraries or estates of writers and he went after them.  As a writer himself and using charm and dexterity he got into the collections of the Powys family, Eric Gill, Richard Aldington, A.C. Benson, Julian Symons and thus his brother A.J.A. Symons's collection and thus Baron Corvo. He is probably responsible for triggering rampant Corvomania in the early 1960s - not quite Beatlemania but a force to reckon with...

His catalogues are well written, amusing and incisive with mindblowing material and fantastic rarities. I am not sure if his prices were reasonable or expensive. Most look cheap now - wbich might not be said of some other catalogues of  that time--e.g. Dr Notmann's Covent Garden Bookshop where prices of  recent material still seem toppish.  Economics sites on the web seem to indicate that, across the board, prices have gone up by roughly 12  times since 1971 (according to Resale Price Index,but it's more if you relate it to wages)-- so I shall put three prices: The Sims price, what it represented in purchasing power then (ie 12 X) and the putative, conservative value now.  I have put in a few books that have not gone up -
out of interest and to make the picture more realistic.

Aubrey Beardsley. HOLOGRAPH LETTER TO OCTAVE UZANNE. 1 i/2 pages. £25 / £300 / £2000

Rupert Brooke. EARLY SIGNED PHOTOGRAPH. From Roger Senhouse collection with his notes on rear and in 'fine state.' £85 / £1020/ £2500 (probably more)

Truman Capote. A CHRISTMAS MEMORY. Signed Limited (600) 1956. 'Very fine in slip-case.'  £15 / £180/ £400

L.F. Celine. ORIGINAL MANUSCRIPT.  5 pages from a late work heavily revised. £35 / £420/ £2000

G.K. Chesterton. LONDON (1914) with photos by Alvin Langdon Coburn . Fine copy 'completely unopened.' £7.50 / £90 / £500 (it's the photobook effect.)

Cyril Connolly. ORIGINAL MANUSCRIPT OF INTRODUCTIOn TO BILL BRANDT'S 'SHADOW OF LIGHT'. 10 pages, 'heavily revised.' £25 / £300 / £900

Aleister Crowley. ACELDAMA (By a Gentleman of the University of Cambridge) 1898. One of 88 copies. Japanese vellum slightly marked but nice £40 / £480 / £1600
Sims was an early proponent of the Beast as a collectible proposition…

De La Mare. THE LISTENERS. 1912. £15 / £180 / £60. An ordinary copy with the Senhouse bookplate and our first bad investment. Sims gives it his best shot however , he writes : 'Thomas Hardy is said to have read this delightful book on his death-bed.' This may be from his own reading or, more likely, old sales patter handed down by forgotten booksellers.

To be continued with a few more winners (inc an Orwell hand corrected proof for £85, scarce Plath, a very nasty 'Bosie' letter to Millard and an astronomically priced Belloc rarity + some George Moore's and Charles Morgan's that have fared very badly…

Many thanks to bookseller and publisher Callum James for the above Sims catalogue collage...over at his site Front Free Endpaper he keeps the Corvo flame burning bright.

29 November 2009

Stephen Spender, Poet as Printer 2

continued ....as with all legendary rarities, the fact that no-one knows exactly how many copies were produced will always feed the imagination of collectors. The Holywell Press have no information on the number they printed for Spender. And no-one who received copies from Auden is alive today.

So it seems probable there are copies still at large. For a number of years collectors, dealers and librarians have played a numbers game in which an imagined figure of 45 copies has been set against the number of copies traced. By late 1962 thirteen copies-- ten in private hands and three in public collections-- had been recorded. One of these private copies was acquired in a distinctly serendipitous way by the collector H. Bradley Martin in February 1962. According to The Book Collector Martin ' happened to be sheltering...from the rain one gloomy afternoon ' in El Dieff's shop when a copy of the Poems inscribed by Auden to C Day Lewis ' fell into his hands'. Two months later, according to the same source, another copy was ' conjured up' by Mrs Henry Cohn of the House of Books on the opening night of the Antiquarian Book Fair in New York. A further copy was sold to the Morgan Library eleven years later for a ' landmark ' $8,500 .Today, the number of recorded copies remains at 14, with possibly the same number ‘out there’. [R.M.Healey]

Thanks Robin. That's Wyndham Lewis's portrait of Spender above and Auden by Avedon beneath. I vaguely know why Spender was going for so much 20 years back; there were at least two punters around building completist collections of major twentieth century poetry. There are some nearly impossible early Sassoon items but when you have 'The Waste Land' and Pounds 'A Lume Spento' and the difficult Wiliam Carlos Williams, the last challenges remain the 1928 Spender and Auden booklets. The Spender is probably twice as hard to find. The sums don't seem to work because Auden is several times a greater poet that the talented Spender. If Auden is Dylan then Spender is probably Donovan. Time and time again in this game you realise that price does not reflect literary greatness, even within an author's own work. Sometimes an author's worst book is his rarest and most valuable.

In April of 1990 Spender's book made $57,500 and 3 months later another copy described as 'one of thirty' made £24000 (then $43,200) to one 'Stone.' None have appeared since. This was the late Bernard Stone bidding for a completist who I shall call Swiss Henry - in that same year he bought a 1928 Auden (not nice but inscribed to Spender) for the guy for £10500. In 1996 a decent Auden 1928 Poems made $17000 and it returned to auction 11 years later In the Annette Campbell White sale in 2007 where it made $58000. A decent investment, but as I recall Ms White was a fund manager.

28 November 2009

Stephen Spender, Poet as Printer 1

W. H. Auden, Poems, S. H. Spender, Hampstead, 1928
Current Selling Prices
$50,000 /£30,000

Stephen Spender, Nine Experiments, S. H. Spender, Hampstead, 1928
Current Selling Prices
$40,000 /£25,000

The story of how the 19 year old Stephen Spender, after just one year at Oxford, printed what would turn out to be two of the most elusive ( and expensive ) slim volumes in the history of modern English literature is a romantic one. Of Spender’s Nine Experiments and W.H.Auden’s Poems—both the size of a pocket diary and containing a handful of leaves--are now so sought after that the appearance of either for sale would probably make the national press. In the story of the Auden Generation Spender’s first collection is of negligible interest, but Auden’s poetic significance began with Poems, which contains several pieces that would reappear in the Faber Poems of 1930.

‘ The sprinkler on the lawn
Weaves a cool symmetry,
And stumps are drawn….

This fragmentary offering was not one of them, but the unmistakeable Auden voice is detectable in it. The wonderful 'Taller Today' was included, as were ‘The Watershed’ and ’The Secret Agent.’

Spender had only known Auden for a few months before the older man decided to entrust him with the poems in his possession. Others were obtained from A. S. T. Fisher, a contemporary who also wrote poems and who had frequent late night discussions with Auden on religion. But before Auden’s work could be printed Spender decided to print a selection of his own work, which he entitled Nine Experiments. So back home at Frognal, near Hampstead village, early in the long vacation, having spent £7 on ' a very primitive printing press' ( an 'Adana' label printer ) he set to work on the somewhat challenging task of laboriously producing a slim volume on a machine totally unsuited to the task. As an example of amateur printing Nine Experiments is a brave effort, but after seeing his work in book form for the first time Spender may have wondered why he’d bothered. There is a juvenile jokiness about these scraps of verse and the echoes of P. B. Shelley are obvious:

‘ Blow forever in my head !
And ever let the violins, tempest-sworn
Lash out their hurricane…’

Looking back 36 years later Spender remarked that the volume contained nothing ‘ worth preserving ‘. And sure enough not a single poem in it appeared in the Twenty Poems brought out by Blackwell’s in 1930. Spender could hardly fail to compare his sorry offerings with those of Auden and he hunted down all the 30 or so copies he could locate, which is perhaps why a copy of Nine Experiments today will fetch around £25,000,though in 1990 a enthusiastic collector ( funny to think anyone would be that enthusiastic about Spender’s poetry ) is reported to have shelled out £40,000 for one of the remaining 15 or so copies.

The degree of physical stress the Adana must have undergone in performing its unusual task can be imagined, and Spender’s physical maladroitness didn’t help. By the time he came to print Auden’s Poems Spender possibly suspected that the machine was unfit to complete the task, although the amateur printer must have been reasonably pleased by the first few pages he produced.

B.C.Bloomfield, Auden’s bibliographer, analysed Spender’s printing methods and identified various problems, including mis-alignment of impression and uneven inking in the two copies he examined . In one of these Spender's amateurishness as a printer is apparent on just about every page, and it is hard to determine whether the failure of certain type to take up ink was due to wear and tear, poor inking, or Spender's carelessness in setting down type ( or all three ). At any rate, when the 'h' in three successive lines of poem IV refused to print correctly Spender was obliged to ink in the letter by hand ! Similarly with a 't' and an 's' in the following line and a 'b' in the next. By page '18' it is quite apparent that around a third of the type used wasn't doing its job and though pages '19' and '20' showed some improvement, the situation seems to have reached a crisis point by the printing of page '22', when, after correcting three further letters, Spender must have come to the painful conclusion that, with only just over half of Auden's poems printed, a completion of the project was beyond him.

And so Spender was obliged to ask the well known Holywell Press in Oxford to complete the printing in a similar style. He also asked for the book to be inexpensively bound and provided with a wrapper. If we examine pages 23 to 37 of one copy the change of font and the higher quality of printing are quite obvious, but there are still errors. It would seem that for all their printing expertise, the professionals at Holywell were at a disadvantage to Spender when it came to deciphering Auden's handwriting. In the end 5 words were corrected by hand, possibly by Auden himself.

There is some dispute over the number of copies of Poems issued. Spender told Bloomfield that he had no exact memory of the edition size. 'About 45 copies ' is what appears opposite the dedication page, but in World Within World (1951), Spender mentions a figure of thirty. A copy inscribed by him to D. G. O. Ayerst and dated February 1929 bears the number ' 24--about', and Bloomfield supposes that by this date most of the copies would have been distributed. He guesses that the figure of 45 made no allowance for wastage in the printing and binding process, and that therefore Spender's 1951 figure of 30 was probably nearer the mark ...[continued]

pic at top is Wystan and Stephen (tall guy) and 'Herr Issyvoo' right (Isherwood)

26 November 2009

Kindle and Ebooks revisited


Our posting on Kindle sparked a muted debate. I even had an email from someone at Oracle suggesting a further Kindle pun (in advance of our 'Dell, Book and Kindle')-- something about reading on board his yacht- a 'Kindle in the wind.' He also suggested that hand held devices such as Kindle are actually a good way of introducing today's children to real books--many have become accustomed only to screens, cellphones and computer games and hardly ever read or hold a book - so a Kindle is more natural for them and could be a portal into the world of reading and then real books. Whatever it takes, I say.

Somehow I can't see today's eight year olds growing up interested in Horace's Odes or Boswell and Johnson or even Edgar Allan Poe. Will they haunt second hand bookshops? Will Charing Cross Road still have any bookshops or will they be replaced by milkbars full of Droogs drinking drugged milk to hype themselves for the night's mayhem. Over here in the USA millions of 'young adults' are actually reading the Twilight novels which, like JK Rowling's work, has made them familiar with books (even quite fat books.) I will look at this phenomenom sometime soon but Stephenie Meyer's first book 'Twilight', a vampire-romance novel ( Little Brown, New York ) published in far off 2005, can fetch $1000+ and even the 2006 London edition from Atom can fetch £180.

On one of the Twilight websites a discussion broke out about reading on Kindle with 2/3 of the YA's being pro-book and about a third of them Kindle enthusiasts or users of both platforms. A few views from the Twilight world:
'I bought my Kindle just so I wouldn’t have to drag around 10 lbs of Twilight books with me when I travel! (It paid for itself when I forked over the extra fine’s for overweight luggage a few times!) I have to say that I love the convenience of Kindle on the road but I still grab my books whenever I am home!'

'...a dog-eared book is BEAUTIFUL to those who understand it’s beauty: having the book to hold in your hands is soooooo much nicer than just absorbing the story, either through audio book or kindle. i want the book in my hands. it makes me feel…. complete.'

 My Kindle is my favorite possession, hands down! And those who get headaches reading from a screen… you most likely won’t have that problem with a Kindle, it looks just like a book page, it uses ink! AND you can change the font size, so in fact, it can drastically help those who get eye strain, etc.
 And just think of all those trees that will be saved! Hahaha!
 Not to mention how much easier it is to hold than a thick book… being able to take 1500 books on travel… and let me tell you how much I love being kept waiting in doctor’s offices, take out places, and the DMV now!'

Talking of Poe I have been reading one of his tales of ratiocination 'The Mystery of Marie Rogêt", a sequel to "The Murders in the Rue Morgue". I downloaded it for a dollar onto an Iphone along with many other of his stories. Reading is easy and it is particularly convenient for badly lit places like airliners at night, motel beds and bus stops. It's not the same as reading a book, it seems slower and it is slightly harder to browse or skip...boring passages seem even duller on a screen. Hard to imagine ploughing through 'War and Peace' on a cellphone, but the short stories of the 'divine Edgar' (as Humbert Humbert called him) are ideal. I hadn't realised that Poe was not only writing some of the first detective fiction but also in 'Marie Roget' the first forensic thriller -- a 100 years before Reichs and Cornwall were born. There are no blowflies but serious medical knowhow and mycology...

21 November 2009

Ignition!: An informal history of liquid rocket propellants

John D. Clark. IGNITION! An informal history of liquid rocket propellants. Rutgers University, USA 1972.

Current Selling Prices
$250-$1400 /£150-£800

This is rocket science. Cult book among rocket geeks or the aspiring 'rocketeer.' Includes amusing stories e.g. an attempt to use skunk oil as a fuel. Talk about stinks and bangs! 232 pages with illustrations. Couldn't find a pic of the book so used a stock ignition type photo (but see below...)

VALUE? Mainly available as a POD (Print on demand) at about $85, the actual book is scarce and only one is available at Amazon USA. Takes 2 to 4 weeks to source which often signifies that the book will not be found. Also typically there is no mention of condition and no one to ask (you can't talk to a monolith) and there is an assumption that it doesn't matter. To paraphrase Russell Crowe -- 'Condition isn't everything, (it's the only thing!)'

As an old thesis it can also be got as a POD from UMI (University Microfilms) in Ann Arbor at about $100. This is said to be true of all university theses although I have never tested it. You need patience. I have had those funky UMI paper wraps books through and they do a pretty good job. Depends whether you want to use the book or collect it. Rockets, space exploration and astronomy are all very saleable subjects - watch this space.

STOP PRESS. In late Feb 2008 the only available copy to be found at abebooks.com is $90 from Babbit's described thus:
Rutgers University Press, New Brunswick, NJ [published date: 1972] Hardcover Typical library defects. Boards moderately smudged with library tape residue, spine and boards slightly edgeworn. Endpapers mildly soiled. Interior clean, binding tight. Dustjacket mildly rubbed, smudged, and edgeworn. ; Ex-Library; 8vo 8" - 9" tall; 214 pages; Rare--technology kvk orange/black scicat.
I.e. a pretty nasty copy stopping just short of hideous. The POD is still there (and will be till 2525 as it only comes into being when desired) and a copy (at Alibris.com) described thus - 'New, authorized, professionally-bound facsimile reprint. Any photographs may not be as crisp as the original' commands a stratospheric $180. Reprint it Rutgers!

UPDATE NOVEMBER 2009 Have at last found a photo of this fabled book. No one seems to be selling the Print on Demand anymore and one crackbrained seller on Amazon UK wants $1400. Cheapest copy anywhere is $249.99 for a reasonable jacketed example. Cannot understand why the book has not been reprinted (or Kindled) - right now the world needs a light-hearted rocket book (at a down to earth price.)

20 November 2009

Books as Investment

I've been pondering the question of books as an investment since posting about the Stieg Larsson phenomenon. I tend to distrust booksellers who try to sell books as an investment ('here's one for the pension fund') and some booksellers organisations specifically prohibit it's use as a sales tactic (as do some estate agents, oddly enough.) The main reason is that unless you have the foresight of Nostradamus it is very difficult to know what books will go up and which will fall. Sticking to proven world famous classics is usually considered a good bet. William Rees Mogg, editor of 'The Times' and sometime bookseller, wrote an interesting article showing how first editions of certain classic books (Wealth of Nations, Johnson's Dictionary, Blackstone, Malthus etc.,) over the years had performed as well as the stock market. However it depends on how well you bought them and where and how you sell them; bought and sold in auction a lot of value evaporates in commissions...

Odd corners of the market can unexpectedly prosper- ephemera, photobooks, manuscripts etc., Leaves from the Gutenberg Bible have appreciated significantly. They usually come in a 1921 leaf book called 'Noble Fragment' which has an essay by A. Edward Newton and a leaf (occasionally leaves) from an imperfect copy of the 1455 Bible which was divided ('broken') by Gabriel Wells, a New York book dealer. A dealer on ABE wants $80,000 for his and an internet Bible specialist wants $79000 ('the “Holy Grail” of book collectors everywhere') and $120,000 for a chapter heading leaf (Deuteronomy.) He suggests these leaves are appreciating at 20% a year which means they will hit the half million in about 2018, an extremely unlikely scenario. In 1988 leaves were making $5000 regularly. Extrapolating from the value of the leaves he values an actual Gutenberg bible at $100 million which may be a tad optimistic, although in a world where Beedle the Bard gets bought by Bezos for $4 million anything is possible. The market has not been tested for over 20 years - in 1987 one of the two volumes made $5 million, 30 years ago the great Breslauer paid $2 million for the full monty.

If the Larsson 'Tattoo' was to appreciate from £500 (which it made on Ebay this week) by 10% a year it would be worth about £1200 in 10 years time. This is assuming that in 10 years it is still well esteemed and that the supply is not greater than was originally thought. The reason why 'Corelli's Mandolin' tanked (from over £600 to less than £200) was that there were simply too many about; the lousy movie did not help either. The internet responds almost perfectly to the laws of supply and demand, however when a book first starts becoming collected the market is in flux and the true value is, at that point, hard to call. If you wait you may be able to buy at a much reduced price, but you may miss out badly on a real winner (Harry Potter comes to mind if you were buying in the late 1990s.)

There was a real buzz about John Dunning's great bibliomystery 'Booked to Die' in the early 90s and prices of $1000 were being asked and occasionally achieved, but 16 years later you can buy an excellent signed copy for $400. No consolation can be had from smug advice about buying the books you love (because if they don't go up in value you at least have something to read.) Attempts to corner the market are also very risky. The murdered attorney Rolland Comstock bought the remainder of Jim Crace's first novel, 'Continent' (1986) 1085 copies. Because the book is now in ready supply (possibly from the Comstock Lode itself) the book can be bought fine/ fine/first for £5 ($8) although some bravehearts are still wanting $100. It's like the 'Diamond as Big as the Ritz'--the supply has to be carefully monitored. Our 300 Octopussies (bought around 2000 and sold at a measured pace) have now all gone although somewhere I have about a half dozen 'as new' (for the pension fund.)

Last word on investing. In X. Driffields classic 'Not 84 Charing Cross Road' he notes that the billionaire financier Michael Milken had at one time invested in the rare book world-- whether it was books themselves or a book business I am not sure. X.D's book is not yet on GoogleBooks and as I recall it was about as impenetrable as Finnegans Wake. There is a story of Milken leaving the house of a colleague after dinner one night. As he stepped into the night his host's wife looked up at the skies and remarked how beautiful the stars were. Without looking up Milken replied 'You can't buy them, you can't sell them so why look at them?' As the Italians say "Se non è vero, è ben trovato".

16 November 2009

Book Runners

I’ve never met Martin Stone, legendary book-runner, but I’ve wanted to interview him since I first heard about him—I can’t exactly remember when—and have tried several times to get his address, most recently from an old drinking pal of mine in Birmingham-- Francophile and occasional blues busker, Charlie Mitton, caricatured as Bad News Mutton, one of the infamous Ketamine Kreeps of Iain Sinclair’s Landor’s Tower , whom I still occasionally meet in Brum. I might even have asked Sinclair himself or his friend Chris Petit, both of whom I’ve interviewed. I can’t exactly remember. Of these contacts Charlie, although ignorant of rare books, always seems most willing to help me in my quest, though the intelligence that Stone lives or lived somewhere near Pere Lachaise cemetery isn’t much use to me.

I suspect that any address in Paris divulged by Mitton is likely to be hopelessly out of date. Anyway, perhaps that’s the whole point about living legends—they take on the character of mythical beasts—you wonder if they actually exist. Surely, in my forty years of book collecting and dealing I should have met Stone by now.

But runners, however elusive, are always fascinating figures. There must have been a few at George Jeffrey’s stalls in Farringdon Road, which I used to visit regularly throughout the eighties, having first discovered them as a teenager in 1968. There was one bloke—rather tall and dishevelled—who I saw on each visit. He’d arrive on a battered-looking bike wearing a flat cap which was painted with white gloss—and he stood out from the other recognisable dealers who patronised the stalls . Having seen a photo of Solomon Pottesman recently I was reminded of him, though ‘Potty ‘, or ‘Inky’ as he was nicknamed, seemed to be shorter, and anyway died in 1978. There is a brilliant cameo of this very eccentric figure in Rare Books and Rarer People by F. O. Snelling, a former cataloguer at Hodgson’s, who regularly dealt with Pottesman and whose recollections of him are a mixture of exasperation at his eccentricities and real respect for his scholarship.

Was Potty a true runner ? To fix this label on someone whose obsession with incunabula meant that he would only sell enough non-incunabula books to pay rent and buy food, leaving him to spend the remaining profits on still more pre 1500 books for his own private collection ---would be stretching the definition quite a bit. But as he had no shop himself and sold directly to other dealers, I suppose he could be called a runner. [Photos show London's Farringdon road stalls in the 1930s and the 1980s.]

I assume that book runners have always existed. The annals of book dealing and collecting are full of characters whose hand-to mouth existence depends on their memory and instinct for a bargain. The Farringdon Road stalls attracted them from at least the 1870s, and many of the characters observed by Mary Benedetta in her wonderful Street Markets of London( 1936), with its photos by Moholy Nagy* , must have been runners. Bookshops and other shops too have also happy hunting grounds for those with the ‘ knowledge ‘. I like that story of the runner who discovered a tobacconist wrapping ounces of shag in what looked like pages from an ancient book and which indeed turned out to be ( if my memory serves me right ) an exceedingly rare early American book. More recently, I doubt if Bewick expert Nigel Tattersfield would care to be labelled a runner, but when he bought for £20 a scribal copy of Thomas More’s A Dialoge of Comfort agaynst Trybulacion from one of Jeffrey’s boxes in 1981 and sold it five years later for £42,000, he made the national news. Such luck is what every runner dreams of, but rarely ever enjoys. [ R.M.Healey.]

*(John Miles, London 1936)--photos by Moholy-Nagy and worth about £300 nice in jacket, half that for lesser copies sans jacket. Not scarce.

Wise words indeed Robin. The 'stoned one' (Martin) sometimes shows up in our shop and has even found books here which he has 'run' to more illustrious dealers, or just down the road to Cecil Court. These days he is a dapper figure in a stylish hat (the beret is long gone) ties from Charvet and an op-art suitcase with wheels. The case contains rarities 'scouted' in almost forgotten parts of Europe and at dawn markets in its great capitals.

The American equivalent of a runner is a 'scout' but they are subtly different. A 'scout' often searches for books for his own stock, whereas the runner almost exclusively sells to other dealers. Ideally he will have very little stock, often just the books that he could not sell (i.e. his mistakes.) There are one or two women, more in America, but it is mostly a male lifestyle. In general their lives go unrecorded; a few pop up in bookselling memoirs. There are several mentioned in 'The Bookshop at 10 Curzon Street: Letters between Nancy Mitford and Heywood Hill' edited by the great bookman John Saumarez Smith. Runners, as I recall, once even had a style of dress (seedy overcoat with string round the middle, also string used to tie the books) and cultivated themselves as 'characters' possibly for the benefit and amusement of the buyers (and customers) in grand shops. Some even ended up relatively rich, certainly Potty's library made a solid six figure sum...

14 November 2009

Stieg Larsson. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2008)

Stieg Larsson.THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO. MacLehose Press, London [also] Knopf, New York 2008

Current Selling Prices
$80-$800 /£50-£500


The story of Stieg Larsson is well known by now. In 2008 he sold more books than Dan Brown. He died in 2004 age 50 without seeing the global success of his novels; as the Sunday Times put it:- 'Crime fiction has seldom needed to salute and mourn such a stellar talent as Larsson's in the same breath...'

He started off editing Swedish SF fanzines and became a serious political activist and writer--an indomitable fighter against racism, sexism, misogyny and the idiocies of the far right and modern day Nazis. As Nick Cohen says, the irony that his longterm partner Eva Gabrielsson should miss out on the Millennium millions 'is almost too sharp to bear.' She may well win her case yet and she is in possession of Stieg's laptop with a fourth volume of the series partly written (and his plans for it to be a series of ten.) Probably the world's most valuable laptop. Eva Gabrielsson has dismissed the likelihood of Larsson’s fourth book being published, comparing it to an uncompleted Picasso. It is not unthinkable a sympathetic writer could finish the fourth book. Dickens's mystery 'Edwin Drood' (1870) was unfinished at his death, with the killer not revealed, and it has been completed by scores of writers, the first being issued in 1873 by a Vermont printer who had channeled the latter half of the book directly from the great man--a version that was praised by Conan Doyle (not scarce, decent firsts can be had for about $100).

Agatha Christie, John Dickson Carr and Sara Paretsky have been cited as influences by various reviewers. Larsson's journalist hero Mikael Blomkwist is no Poirot however, although the island mystery has echoes of Agatha's most politically incorrect title. Some readers have mentioned Enid Blyton as an influence, certainly she is mentioned in the text but his goth/punk superhero Lisbeth Salander would probably not be invited to join the Secret Seven or even the Famous Five. Larsson is on record as saying she is a kind of grown up incarnation of Astrid Lindgren's Pippi Longstocking - "strong and fearless." The Swedish first of the first Pippi adventure is a £1000+ book in fine condition ( Rabén & Sjögren, Stockholm, 1945.) Note that she is called Pippi Langstrump in Swedish.

VALUE? You can buy copies of the British first currently for about £400. The US first is quite common and can be had for less than $100. The UK firsts have been making good money on Ebay, one in near fine condition made £425 ($710) last week. Online mall sellers tend to want £500 and more with the more expensive copies being touted as investments, usually a bad sign. Most proclaim its 'incredible' scarcity and, for some reason, the sharpness of its corners. One Ebay Buy -it-now seller shouts 'INCREDIBLY SCARCE TITLE' and wants £725. Most of the highest prices (some as much a £1000) are with dot.com book outfits (modrarerip.com etc.,) - that tends to be another warning sign. Fortunes are wanted by vendors of copies signed by the translator, one Reg Keeland. This looks like a hype but may just work in today's free-for-all market. I don't recall people getting worked up about Archibald Colquhoun the translator of Di Lampedusa's 'The Leopard' - another posthumous masterpiece and the top-selling novel in Italian history.[Below Noomi Rapace as Salander in the new movie...]

OUTLOOK? Good, because it is a major work and has achieved cult status. The real question is how many Maclehose printed. I suspect it was several thousand in which case the current price may be toppish. If it was less than a thousand then the price is realistic. It seems unlikely that it would have been a small print run. There had been an intense buzz about the book coming from Swedish mystery fans, the launch of the book in London in January 2008 was attended by every mover and groover in publishing, review copies were sent out etc., Charing Cross's own Maxim Jakubowski was there (complaining about the translation...) By the way his shop 'Murder One', not 50 yards from us, remains empty after nearly two years (a wildly over ambitious rent can be the only explanation).

'Tattoo' may go up and it may go down. 'Da Vinci Code' has halved in value from its height (however 2 crucial differences, Larsson had real talent and Vinci was a six figure print run.) As a bookdealer I hope to find a limpid copy overlooked in a box, hopefully a review copy (NOT a proof copy) larded with handouts and fliers...

11 November 2009

A Christmas Carol. Charles Dickens, 1843.

Charles Dickens. A CHRISTMAS CAROL. Chapman and Hall, London 1843.

Current Selling Prices
$8000 - $28000 / £5000 - £18000

A Dickens classic, possibly his most famous book. Correct firsts must have the words 'Stave 1' at the heading of the first chapter (NOT 'Stave one' - people often confuse this and it's an expensive mistake to make.) There are other points but if you have the number 1 stave you're almost there. Endlessly filmed, cartooned and trotted out every Christmas.

Sometimes seen in pompous bindings, including Cosway bindings, and often in full red calf with the other 4 Christmas books. Not scarce, but limpid copies are very difficult to find and command serious dosh.

VALUE? 2 copies made $15000 at auction in 2005, both nice but neither in breathtaking condition. There are 3 copies on net at just over £20K and reasonable copies of the 1843 later issue at $4000 or so and some decent rebound early issue sets of all five Christmas books in the low thousands o' dollars. A copy inscribed to Thomas Hood sold for $50K in 1997, a year earlier a copy inscribed to Walter Savage Landor made $160,000.

Highly expensive 'fresh' copies often get sold to 'carriage trade' customers and don't get dumped on the internet. Great copies tend to turn up in odd places; watch out for repaired, tarted up, sophisticated and ringed copies. Reasonable but slightly worn copies and rebound ones can be bought for less painful sums than the above.

Our photo left is of a copy stolen in a heist at the Dickens Museum London August 2002. Note the slight black mark on the front cover at about 3 o'clock. The museum estimated it's cost at beteen £20,000 and £30,000. The museum is at 48 Doughty Street, Bloomsbury, where Dickens lived from 1837 to 1839. If offered it please call the police or the A.B.A. It was reported by the BBC 'Audacious raid on Dickens museum' and there are other pics of the book at their site. Andrew Xavier the curator said:'It is really sad and rather ironic that it is Dickens' book of goodwill to all men. '

This is a revisit of a posting from late 2007. 'Christmas Carol' prices have remained reasonably firm although some of the books mentioned are still for sale. "An exceptionally fine copy" (minor crimping at spine ends) sold for £16000 (+20%)- at Sotheby's, London on Dec 17, 2008. It may have benefited from yuletide sentiment. A 'Cosway style' bound true first has been around for 5 years or more at a heady $30K. It is hard to love these meretricious objects. They are the kind of book that Swiss Toni (Charlie Higson's comic used car salesman) would buy if he had the money ('...buying a Cosway binding is very much like making love to a beautiful woman...') Cosway bindings (named after the great miniaturist) are presumably still being done. They are said to have been invented by a Miss Currie who worked at Sotherans between 1912 and 1940. They always feature a miniature, usually of the author, set into the cover. They are often in full crushed morocco, with doublures, dentelles, silk endpapers and occasionally opalescent stones or pearls set into the leather. I am happy to buy them and even happier to sell them. An understated example is below featuring the bard.

There was a trend a while back for buying small antique pistols and placing them in leather bound cache livres (i.e. with the pages cut out and in a shape to accommodate the gun.) Best if the book was called 'Man with a Golden Gun' or 'The Shootist' or 'Gun for Sale ' or 'Johnny Got his Gun.' I once asked a dealer what kind of people bought these objects and it turned out, not unsurprisngly, that the customers were 'macho men.' Cosway bindings are a cut above the macho gun book, but not by much.