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2015 Bookseller Resource Guide
Beyond the Basics

Collecting Old Books on a Budget

Priced out of the seventeenth or eighteenth centuries? Alternatives exist for frugal collectors. By Joel Silver Joel Silver is Director and Curator of Books at the Lilly Library, Indiana University, Bloomington, Indiana.

If you’re looking to collect the seventeenth or eighteenth centuries inexpensively, printed sermons like those featured above can be a good option. Courtesy of the Lilly Library, Indiana University, Bloomington, Indiana.

Books, at least the books that collectors usually want, cost money, and sometimes they cost a great deal of money. This becomes apparent to collectors very early in their collecting careers, and coming to grips with the truth of this statement can occupy much of the rest of a collector’s life. While some collectors can afford to buy practically any book that they might want, most are in a very different financial situation. Collecting manuals contain advice about how to deal with this difficulty, but the suggestions almost always involve collecting prospectively rather than retrospectively, that is, collecting relatively low-priced contemporary books, which can be acquired at their issue price or less, and which are likely to increase in interest and value in the future.

Collecting newly issued fiction or non-fiction can certainly be relatively inexpensive, as is selecting another collecting area among the books of the last century or two that isn’t in demand at the moment. But what do you do if your interests really lie in books of the eighteenth century or earlier, and you have a relatively small collecting budget? Modern book collecting guides are of little help, but there are still ways, even in today’s book market, to build a collection. Not all older books are expensive, but many of them are, so the overall idea, as Hall of Famer William H. (“Wee Willie”) Keeler said, is to “Keep your eye on the ball and hit ’em where they ain’t.” Here are a few suggestions to help you get started.

Don’t Worry About Resale

If a collection is being built for personal enjoyment and education rather than for investment or profit, a lot more possibilities open up regarding what can be considered appropriate for purchase. In order to stay in business, a bookseller needs to resell a book for more than its original cost, but collectors aren’t in the book business, and if the collection is for satisfaction and enjoyment rather than financial profit, it’s not necessary to worry about what it might be worth in the future. If you don’t need to think about a book’s potential future sale, or how it can be marketed to someone else someday, then you’re free to follow your own rules, rather than what the manuals might say about what and how to collect.

Collecting in a language other than English can be economical. This Hebrew Book of Psalms, printed in Cambridge, England, in 1685 is an example. Courtesy of the Lilly Library, Indiana University, Bloomington, Indiana.

Learn A New Language

Most books produced before 1801 weren’t written in the English language, and there’s a much better chance of finding lower-priced older books and pamphlets in Latin, German, French, or Italian, rather than in English. Learning enough Latin to enjoy reading or browsing can open up large areas of possible acquisition, since so much, including the works of ancient authors, theological writings, and educational and historical texts, were often printed in Latin. European vernacular languages can sometimes also yield lower-priced books, especially if the books fall into one of the categories described below.

Be Open to New Subjects

If an older book relates to a heavily collected subject area such as science, Americana, or women’s studies, it’s going to be difficult to build a collection in the field on a small budget. Looking through online listings of lower-priced older books can quickly reveal what is available that’s relatively inexpensive, and you might be persuaded to develop an interest in sermons, legal statutes or cases, or classical texts intended for students.

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