A Classic Back in Print
Allen and Patricia Ahearn of Quill & Brush recently published the fourth edition of their comprehensive and indispensible guide, Collected Books
By Nicholas A. Basbanes Nicholas A. Basbanes recently received a National Endowment for the Humanities fellowship to work on his book on paper, which is forthcoming from Knopf. His most recent book is Editions & Impressions, a collection of essays. His other works include the acclaimed A Gentle Madness, Every Book Its Reader, Patience & Fortitude, Among the Gently Mad, and A Splendor of Letters.
Back in the day when there was no Internet immediately at hand—it seems eons ago—the easiest and most efficient way to get a handle on the relative value of a collectible book was to consult a printed price guide, or if you were really on the ball, look also at auction records listed annually in American Book Prices Current.
Given the vast universe of sought-after material, no single book could possibly aspire to be all things to all people, though in the field of literary first editions, there was Van Allen Bradley’s greatly admired Book Collector’s Handbook of Values series of compendia. When I first began prowling the New England countryside for hidden treasures back in the 1970s, essential equipment for me was a copy of “Bradley,” as it was known to one and all, usually left tucked away in my car for ready reference; the compilation appeared four times between 1972 and 1982 at three-year intervals.
What always elevated Bradley above all the other efforts was the inclusion of bibliographical details and issue points. It wasn’t just a price guide, in other words, it was a handbook in the truest sense, a tool that had the “value added” feature of educating collectors in the nuances of techniques to be mastered in the field.
A long-time literary editor for the Chicago Sun-Times, Bradley was a prolific writer—he made his name nationally in 1958 with his splendidly titled debut effort, Gold in Your Attic—and was working on a fifth edition of Handbook of Values when he died not long after release of the fourth edition. At that point Allen and Patricia Ahearn, the well-known owners of Quill & Brush, Inc. Booksellers now located in Dickerson, Maryland, but for many years based outside of Washington, D.C., in Bethesda, accepted an invitation from Faith Sale, a senior editor at G. P. Putnam’s, to keep what had become a standard reference in print with a new edition.
Building on Bradley’s model, the Ahearns brought their own skills as professional booksellers to the task, drawing on their contacts throughout the antiquarian world to construct a database of values that was truly representative, and above all, painstakingly accurate. Their first effort, titled Collected Books: The Guide to Identification and Values, was published in 1991, and very quickly became as close to indispensable as any one-volume guidebook for collectors and dealers can possibly get.
After the appearance of a third edition in 2002, the series could have easily ended then and there and faded into the sunset, a victim of the electronic alternatives that have become increasingly popular with a new generation of bibliophiles. But with continued demand for the kind of detail not typically available online—particularly in the area of “states” and “issues,” and with an ever present eye for “condition, condition, condition”—the Ahearns saw merit in carrying on, with the result that a twentieth-anniversary edition, fully updated and augmented, has just been released under their own Quill & Brush imprint, which has allowed them to hold the line on the $75 jacket price.
Some twenty-two thousand entries are packed into 814 pages of finely printed text, and while that is certainly an impressive number, it “just scratches the surface” of what is collectible, Allen Ahearn stressed in a recent interview. “If forced to give a number, I would estimate there is somewhere around two million titles in circulation out there that are collectible,” he added, making it especially important that he and his wife list “a broad range of collectible books” in numerous genres.