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2015 Bookseller Resource Guide

‘Plain But Good’

In fact, the selection of titles for the Lakeside Classics series has remained the same for years. “A retired employee who was responsible for the Classics series during her time with the company continually keeps an eye out for possibilities for the series,” said Fitzgerald. The retired employee is Susan Levy, who served as curator of the series and now serves as its executive editor. “[Levy] might think of an interesting subject, or review bibliographies of books,” Fitzgerald continued. But once she finds a possibility, the title is still not yet a certainty. She must first consider whether or not the text will be of interest to a modern audience, then she needs to determine if it can be supplemented by appropriate maps and illustrations. Finally, Levy must consider if there is a person available who is sufficiently expert to edit the text and write the historical introduction—which puts the text into modern context, added Fitzgerald. Once Levy selects a title, the text is read by Fitzgerald, who then passes it along—with a recommendation—to Donnelley’s chief executive officer for final review and approval.

Subject matter isn’t the only consistency that identifies the Classics series, however. The physical appearance of the books hasn’t changed much over time either—with one exception. Every twenty-five years or so, the cover of the binding changes color.

“The earliest books had green covers and are sometimes referred to as ‘the greenies,’” explained John Townsend, an Americana specialist and owner of Town’s End Books in Deep River, Connecticut (townsendbooks.com). The greenies refer to volumes published from 1903 to 1927. From 1928 to 1952, the covers changed to red, then to dark blue from 1953 to 1977. The next twenty-four years, from 1978 to 2002, the Classics had a dark brown cover, then in 2003 the cover changed to turquoise to mark the 101st year of the series. All the books have gilt text stamping on the spine and the front boards feature that year’s current seal for Lakeside Press. Fitzgerald said the color-coding helps to create a subset category of collectors. “One might, for example, work on collecting the browns and then the blues and so on,” he said.

The dealers agreed that collectors of Lakeside Classics are a varied bunch because the books appeal on so many different levels. “Anyone who is interested in American history, folklore, or the development of the U.S. would be interested in these books,” said Townsend. But there are other motives for collecting the Classics series. “People who had a relative working for Donnelley and who passed on the books may want to continue collecting the series.” That leads to the classic collector’s dilemma. “Once someone starts collecting the series, they don’t want to stop.” Old West collectors, and collectors of Lincoln, the presidents, explorers, and the Civil War will also find something of interest in the series, be it Kit Carson’s Autobiography (1935) or Two Views of Gettysburg by Sir. A. J. L. Fremantle and Frank Haskell (1964).

The Lakeside Classics are relatively easy to find, particularly the later ones. Although the distribution is limited, the books find their way to shops, dealers, and auction sites. They also make the occasional appearance at garage sales and flea markets. Another way to acquire them is by buying current copies direct from Donnelley employees. “Before Donnelley closed the nearby plant, I had regular customers who sold me their copies every year,” said Townsend.

While Donnelley is mum on the number of Classics printed each year, book dealers have their own rough estimates. Townsend said he asked Levy several years ago how many books would be printed that year, and the response was 40,000. “The number surprised me,” he said. “I thought it would be smaller.”

It explains why the later books in the series are more available (and less valuable), though Townsend said he doesn’t sell any Lakeside Classic for less than $20. “Lately, Donnelley has closed plants so the press run may be going down,” he said. “That means the books published now may climb in value since there will be fewer of them.”

The most valuable Lakeside Classics are the early greenies. “They sell for about $300 each,” said Gargani. There are, however, a couple of notable exceptions. “The 1904 book is pretty rare,” he added, perhaps because Inaugural Addresses of the Presidents of the United States from Washington to Lincoln has become popular with Lincoln collectors.

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