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Should I Become a Book Collector?

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James Wallace Harris

Staff Writer

James Wallace Harris is a retired computer guy. Jim dreamed of writing science fiction in his social security years, but discovered he loved writing essays more. Life is short and novels are long. He’s written over a thousand essays for his blog Auxiliary Memory. Jim wrote about science fiction for SF Signal before it folded, and now for Worlds Without End. BookRiot gives him the opportunity to write about all the other kinds of books he loves. Finally, he has all the time in the world to read and write, but he never forgets poor Henry Bemis. (Who also found time enough at last, until an evil Twilight Zone fate took it all away.) Twitter: @JimHarris28

There’s a difference between compulsively buying books and book collecting. There’s a difference between a personal library and a book collection. I’ve bought thousands of books but have never really collected them. And, at age 66, it might be a little late to start. Just as I’ve shifted most of my reading to audiobooks and ebooks, I’ve developed an attraction for physical books. In retirement, I’ve wanted to read more out-of-print books, ones I remember from over fifty years ago. The attraction for specific editions with beautiful dust jackets is turning me into a book collector.

I’ve learned I can order about any book I desire through, but sometimes when I open a package I’m disappointed with the used quality of my purchase. I sense that the desire to buy books in fine condition with dust jackets in equal condition is the beginning of an addiction. I’m trying to decide if I can control it, or should I quit now before it gets out of hand.

Many people think book collecting is about buying rare first editions as an investment. However, book collecting is about buying books to satisfy a collecting goal. You may seek to buy every book by your favorite author, or collect all the books from a specific publisher, or collect all the books with dust jackets from a favorite artist. Collecting goals are infinite.

Me, I’m a cheap-ass collector. I chase after 20th-century science fiction anthologies and try never to spend more than $25 for a single book, and no more than $100 a month. Having limitations makes the game more fun. (I keep telling myself that gateway drugs lead to harder stuff.)

Reasons to collect are endless. Reasons not to collect are just as varied. The most important reason not to collect books is to save money. Why spend $20, $50, or $200 on a specific edition when you can read an ebook edition for $1.99 from Early Bird Books?

Book collecting leads to geeking out on a whole realm of esoteric knowledge about book publishing. Read the online 8th edition of ABC for Book Collectors by John Carter and Nicolas Barker for your first free hit of heroin, and then pay for the revised 9th edition of John Carter’s ABC for Book Collectors by Nicholas Barker & Simran Thadani. And if you’re worried you’ll become a hardcore book collecting addict read “10 Books Every Book Collector Should Read.”

You will also become obsessive-compulsive about old books in pristine shape. You will become a hater of people who mistreat books. You will start spending more and more money to horde books and protect them. You will become a Gollum and books will be your precious. And more than likely, when you die, your spouse will haul your collection down to Goodwill or Friends of the Library and give them away.

Now that the trigger warning is given, we can get down to the details of shooting up.

The fun way to collect books is by haunting used bookstores, garage sales, estate sales, friends of the library sales, charity shops, book fairs, conventions, and so on. The trouble with shopping in person is it’s all random. Serendipity is your only friend. The faster way is to use Thousands of used book dealers input their catalog into their database. If you are looking for a specific edition, will list all they have for sale from all over the world.

The key to online book-buying happiness is learning how the books are described and which book dealers are more reputable than others. You can often get a book for under $5 including shipping, but many of these big dealers use barcodes and aren’t dependable for describing their book’s condition.

There are many book dealers that have no respect for books. They stick barcodes directly to the book, often on the spine, or even worse, the dust jacket. These barcodes are difficult to remove and removing them often damages the book or jacket. Just look how annoying they are too:

Should I Become a Book Collector?

I recently bought The Pocket Book of Science-Fiction edited by Donald A. Wollheim. It was the first anthology of science fiction published in 1943. The little paperback was in remarkably good shape. But some dumbass slapped a barcode right on the front. I tried removing it, but it damaged the book.

Should I Become a Book Collector?

[I’d love to say a whole lot of nasty things using a lot of very bad words right now, but my Book Riot editors won’t let me.]

What I love is when the book dealer sends me a paperback in a plastic bag or a hardback in a Brodart protector. I’ve even started buying Brodart covers for my books. It’s a tricky learning process because they come in numerous formats and sizes, but if you start collecting books you’ll want them too.

I’ve learned from using to get to know the individual book dealers and how they treat books. Some dealers ship their books like they were wrapping a Ming dynasty vase. Others use vacuum-packed plastic shipping bags.

The other thing to learn the hard way is how book dealers describe their books. I try to always buy VERY GOOD or better. Here are the guidelines dealers are supposed to us. But booksellers selling paperbacks and hardbacks for $3.48 (including shipping) don’t take the time to carefully evaluate their merchandise. Some of them will say their book is VERY GOOD for what I’d call GOOD and other dealers will say VERY GOOD and I would call it FINE. I love when the second happens, but it bums me out when the first occurs.

This is where you begin to hate previous book owners. You get in a fifty-year-old hardback that looks new, and the dustjacket has gorgeous artwork and there’s a brown coffee ring right in the middle of the art. With every tear, bent-over page, smudge of chocolate, crusty old booger, yellow highlighting, or scrawled note, you feel pain in your gut. I bought a brand-new book from Amazon the other day just for the cover, and it came in with a tiny gunk of glue that left the tiniest smudge when I rubbed it off. That left me with a disappointed sinking feeling all day. I didn’t send it back because I thought Amazon would think I’m nuts for being so fanatical.

So just remember, you can mistreat your books all you want. You bought them. But someday in the future, a book collector will be cursing you. Do you really want to be either person?