Arts & Antiques

The Allure of Old Books

Baldwin’s Book Barn in West Chester is among the stores that still thrives on print editions.

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Even in an age of Kindle and the explosion of online content, real books continue to fascinate us. 

One reason: Books have stories that go far beyond the messages written on their printed pages. No matter the author or
topic, every book has a back story, a history, a personality. What’s more, a printed book has a texture when we feel its cover, when we touch the edge of a page as we turn it to read what’s next. An online book, no matter how convenient and portable, only has flattened words that look the same as the book before it, words that disappear as soon as you turn the device off.

The year was 1973 when David and Natalie Bauman started selling rare books at antique shows, opening their first store in Philadelphia a decade later. It’s interesting to note that over 40 years later, Bauman Rare Books, as well as West Chester’s Baldwin’s Book Barn and other local independent book dealers, are selling plenty of books first published in the year 1973—not only signed first editions of Kurt Vonnegut’s Breakfast of Champions, Richard Bach’s Jonathan Livingston Seagull, Graham Greene’s The Honorary Consul and Jacqueline Susann’s Once Is Not Enough, but also obscure training manuals, cookbooks and limited-print biographies.

What’s the allure of old books?

“It’s a mix of things, because customers have different interests,” says Chrissy Hunt, a bookseller in Bauman’s New York store, now the business’ primary bricks-and-mortar outlet. There’s also a store in Las Vegas, although offices remain in Philadelphia.

Indeed, sellers of rare and just plain-old books point to several customer motivations:

  • Many everyday collectors concentrate on a particular topic—local history, wine, railroads—and gradually add old and new volumes to their library collections. “Right now, there seems to be particular interest in all things military—campaigns, guns, generals—as well as space books from the ’60s and ’70s,” says Guy Bush, a Gwynedd Valley independent bookseller. “The death of a well-known author also peaks sales for a few weeks.” Tom Baldwin, second-generation owner of Baldwin’s Book Barn, says that the large number of equestrians in the region draws people into his store to buy books on that topic.
  • Some people are looking only for one particular book because they have a personal or family tie to the writer or topic.
  • Others want old coffeetable books, or ones with ornate bindings to serve as decorating accents and conversation pieces.
  • Old books are particularly popular during holidays and birthdays as gifts for the person who has almost everything.
  • And, of course, some people buy them as investments, particularly complete book
    collections.

“Because it’s the oldest part of the country, the Northeast is a great place to look for old books,” says Bush, who sells all of his discoveries online, mostly through eBay. Almost weekly, Bush goes to estate sales, where book collections are generally sold strictly by the box and not individually. “It’s a great place for both dealers and individuals to have treasure hunts,” says Bush, who often doesn’t know what treasures he’s purchased until he checks them out individually at home.

What makes a collectable book valuable? Bush ticks off a number of things: age, rarity, condition and, of course, demand for the subject manner. But most people starting modest collections look for signed first editions. In some instances, details of prior ownership give texture to a book’s history. The AbeBooks.com website is a starting point to assess value. “The great classics of 20th-century literature are always in demand,” says Bauman’s Hunt. 

Because the company deals in only the most valuable of books—see their ads in the New York Times Book Review—Hunt says, “we check the authenticity of every book, and we stand behind everything we sell.”

For most collectible books, the obvious difficulties in counterfeiting would not be worth the effort.

Because of the popularity of online sales, the number of rare-book stores has declined dramatically in recent years, although everyday “used” book stores are also good places to hunt. Often, people find books they didn’t really know they were looking for, which is an attraction of browsing through the many floors of Baldwin’s, which claims to have 300,000 catalogued into 300 subject categories.

The Hunt Summer 2016  Issue

This article was published in Arts & Antiques from the Summer 2016 issue.
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