Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Welcome to Chancery Hill Books

It seems to me that every rare book has a story, and here in this space I hope to tell some of the stories of some of the books that I come across. Since I also deal in other antiques (specifically antique glassware), I may occasionally post on that topic as well, but since books and literature are my real loves, books will be my focus.

I am, I am willing admit, a collector of books as well as a dealer: most of the books shown in the "shelfie" at the top of the blog, for example, are not likely to be offered for sale any time soon. But in other cases, one of the most difficult decisions I face as a collector and dealer is deciding just where a particular book belongs: does this one go into the collection, or is it for sale? The lore in my family is that everything is for sale, sooner or later, and while I won't use this space simply to try to sell individual books, if you see something here that you just have to have, go ahead and contact me, and I may be able to quote you a price. While I love to own wonderful books, sometimes it's enough to own them for only a short time, especially if they go to someone who will love and appreciate them even more than I do.

The story I want to tell in this post concerns a book I just recently bought: a signed first edition of John Steinbeck's The Moon is Down. The book was published during World War II, and the setting (as the back panel of the dust jacket suggests) is "any conquered country in any time." Like all Steinbeck first editions, it is fairly scarce and very collectible in a signed copy; this copy is signed on a slip affixed to the front free end-paper--a kind of signed book that is just a little less collectible than if the author had signed on the title page.

Worse, this copy is somewhat heavily worn: so much so that I almost decided not to buy it at all. But condition, while important, is not everything, and in this case I was so intrigued or amused by a previous bookseller's note on the signature page that I overcame my hesitation: the pencilled note describes the book, quite accurately, as "1st Ed./ With Slip Signed/by Author" and then, on the outer corner of the page, we find that bookseller's price "3.00".
I can confirm that this is an old bookseller's note: I am afraid I paid a good deal more than three dollars for this one. But this price gives us a snapshot of a long gone moment in the history of this book, and in the history of the salability or collectibility of this book. 

Because Steinbeck first editions began to be actively collected sometime in the middle 1930s, when he first became really famous as an author, it's actually quite probable that this $3.00 price dates from the very year the book was published, 1942: the cover price on the book is $2.00. But whether this was a new bookseller's price for a signed copy or whether it was shortly thereafter placed on the secondary market may no longer be determinable. Regardless, it's been a very long time indeed since 3.00 was the proper price for a book like this one.

I've seen it suggested that no one should write in a book except the author, but I can't help thinking that this old pencilled note and price tells a story about this book--about this particular copy--that couldn't be told any other way. It's a part of this book's unique history that ultimately adds to its charm, if not to its monetary value. And for me--like anyone who truly loves old books, I think--the charm of a book counts, too, and not just its price. Books, rare books in particular, may be among our investments, but they are investments where we place so much more than just our money, I think.