Book Collections

Posted by Wally O Neill on

Suddenly there shot along the path before me a wild light, and I turned to see whence a gleam so unusual could have issued—but it was only the flames, rising in supernatural splendour to consume the mansion, and the secrets, of the man who collected Poe.”

I find one of the most bittersweet parts of bookselling to be the purchase of book collections. Usually house clearances, usually after the person who has spent a lifetime cumulating a vast personally-honed collection has died.

Going through boxes and shelves of unseen books is one of the true thrills of this job, but that’s coupled with the existential dread that comes with seeing a readers lifetime obsession broken apart.

Of course there are worse conclusions. A collection could end up in a skip or a landfill, or be shredded down to make animal bedding . Better that it ends up being divided up onto the shelves of a bookshop where new readers can find its tomes.

I take the Cyclist with me to pick up a collection of nearly four thousand books. He’s is a sullen mood, his electric bicycle buckled and yet another ill-advised sexual advance on a much younger woman thwarted.

“You know life is not fair,” he mutters.

“I know,” I answer. “Here’s a man who spent his lifetime collecting books, probably struggling to fit in time to actually devour them between the pressures and strains of work and family life, and as soon as he hits retirement age, he drops dead.”

“I don’t give a damn about him,” The Cyclist screams. “What about me? What about my problems? My pain? I’m a sensitive man. You wouldn’t understand such deep thoughts and longings, would you? All you care about is selling books and making money!”

“I’m sorry that German model refused to go out with you, but you’ve got to stop sulking. Maybe, just maybe, you’re setting your standards a bit too high.”

“How dare you. I’m a great catch I’ll let you know. These women are conspiring against me. Its actually a form of sexism.”

The collection is sprawled across the box rooms of a two-up, two-down rural cottage. The widow and a dazed fat cat are occupying the living room, fortified with boxes of books. The Cyclist immediately hits on her unsuccessfully.

Collecting books has existed for as long as books have. It required great wealth to pursue until the mid nineteenth century, when books finally became affordable to more readers. Eras of book collecting run very much like economic cycles. Certain first editions of certain authors, and certain niche interests are very desired, inflate to great value and then burst. During the Celtic Tiger, many Irish builders began buying libraries of collectible histories as investment pieces, before flooding the market with them after the crash and destroying their own investment.

But books always rise again and book collecting just evolves into different creatures. It never dies.
In 1951, Robert Bloch (who would go on to write Psycho) published a short story in Famous Fantastic Mysteries that would encapsulate the obsessions of book collecting. “The Man who Collected Poe” features a fantasy fan who meets a collector of the works of Poe called Launcelot Canning. Canning invites the fan back to his house to see his rare collection, began by his grandfather and carried on through the generations with uncompromising compulsion.

Canning curates the shelves, excitingly telling the author of the rarity and value of each piece.

“He displayed the volumes with an air of commingled pride and cupidity which is ofttimes characteristic of the collector and is by no means to be confused with either literary snobbery or ordinary greed.”

As they drink more and more of Cannings eine, it becomes clear that he has everything that could be collected from Poe, including a little 1843 paper booklet entitled ‘The Prose Romances of Edgar A. Poe’ currently valued in the hundreds of thousands. And then he has more.

He shows the author unpublished and unknown Poe stories such as ‘The Crypt’ and ‘The Further Adventures of A. Gordon Pym’. These stories are unrecorded and the author suspects that there is a hoax at play, until the final revelation – Canning has managed to raise Edgar Allen Poe from the dead and now forces him to write new stories in his cellar for eternity. He is the man who has collected Poe.

“It must be lonely here now,” I catch the Cyclist telling the widow. “With your husband deceased. It’s a big house for one person. I have to be out of my flat by next month because of a misunderstanding with the landlord regarding who was collecting his wife’s underwear from the clothesline. Very unfair to me to be honest. If you were lonely, I could do the honourable thing and move in here. I can’t do any chores around the house now because of my back and don’t be expecting rent, but I’ll keep you in good jest and make you feel like a woman again.”

The widow stares shell-shocked into a crate of books as the fat cat raises its head to get a better look at the Cyclist, who’s already measuring up a potential new home for size. “Is the dinner on by the way?” he adds hopefully.

“I think we should start loading the van,” I whisper.
“You work away, my back is playing up.”

From past experience, I know that four thousand books will mean at least two trips. It will mean the filling, lugging, and unfilling I’d about 135 crates. It will mean the lifting and movement of 1400 kilograms of books. It will mean requiring storage, and time for sorting, categorising and shelving. Approximately thirty hours of work. And it will mean a pay-out of cash, invested in something where only five percent of the collection may be immediate sellable, a further twenty five percent is unsellable, and the rest may occupy space for months or even years.

And then there is the tricky issue of what to buy.  Every single day, I could spend a small fortune on books and put myself out of business if I bought everything that came through the door.  We don't buy bags of chiclit.  We don't but boxes of cookbooks or coloured in colouring books.  We don't buy unsellable sets of encyclopedias and we don't care how much you say they are being sold for online.  But we are honoured to be able to put a readers lifetime collection, assemble with love and dignity, back into circulation.  There's nothing easy about it and, ask any accountant, it's not really economical.

This is the reality of the situation, yet there is an exhilaration in handling fresh books. The temptation to read through them as you sort must be avoided but that too is not always possible.

The purists, those gentlemanly booksellers of exquisite taste and refined education, often narrow down book collecting to the pursuit of herculean antiquarian volumes, usually of an ancient Irish history variety, and in doing so manage to alienate a huge cross section of book collectors. I have regular collectors who visit the shop looking for everything from 1970s Panther Science Fiction novels to far right pamphlets from the 1950s, to Eagle and Beano annuals from the 70s, to Victorian erotica, to manga, and to so much more. Mistaking book collecting for intellectual snobbery or fad investment is failing to understand what truly lurks at its centre.

The back of the van scraps off every single ramp in the roads on the way back to the shop and I’m sure I can smell oil burning. The Cyclist is already planning his next move. “I’ll send her flowers,” he cries.

“Her husband is only in the ground.”

“All the more reason to strike quick my friend, before some other player turns up. Yes, flowers is the way. Will you buy them? I’m strapped for cash.”

“I’ve just bought a big collection of books!”

“So you won’t miss the cost of a bunch of flowers then.”

I concede and he promises me his undying loyalty.

“By the way, will you deliver them too? I’m a bit tired to go back out tonight after all that work.”

There is no single, comprehensive price guide for collectible books. The marketplace is volatile, particularly since the 2008 crash. Many people try to use AbeBooks as a yard stick but it is hopelessly fickle and open to all sorts of bookselling scams. Currently, online prices and auction sale prices are higher than bookshop retail prices, an anomaly that has never been seen before.

But there is always the chance you will find that one rare piece that will change everything. An Action Comics #1 sold for $3.2 million in 2014. Does this mean every old comic is valuable? No, the average prices are more like €2-€3. William Shakespeare's first folio sold for just under ten million in 2020. The Northumberland Bestiary sold for $20 million in 2007.

A traditional bookstore is now one of the last places where you might find these rare books at a bargain price. Who knows what lurks between the shelves.