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Some tips for buying a used book from Amazon– and this applies only to ordinary used books, not collectibles. Choose the seller carefully. Non-specific phrases like “may show signs of wear” indicate a mass seller who does everything with barcode scanners and does not actually describe the book they are selling. You might get lucky, but you are likely to get a library discard or a copy in poor condition, and it will probably be inadequately packaged and damaged in transit. It costs a few dollars more to get a better copy, because a reputable dealer pays for quality stock, shipping supplies, and perhaps even an open shop– there are still some of us. If you want to support brick-and-mortar bookstores, Google the seller and see who they are.
Amazon, not the individual seller, determines what you see about the book’s details of publication date, binding, edition, etc. Amazon translates dealer descriptions into mass commerce lingo. “Acceptable” condition, for instance. Amazon attaches that description to my listings that I send to them with traditional terms like “good,” which have established meanings in bookselling. Acceptable to whom? Amazon also allows the term “new” with no oversight. Chances are, if the book was indeed published numerous years ago, the copy is not actually new– in original shrinkwrap being a usual exception, but most books were not shrinkwrapped when new.
“Fulfillment by Amazon” is eligible for free shipping, a good deal, but don’t assume it guarantees an accurate description. It doesn’t.
Last week, we had the pleasure of visiting with John Coleman, retired bookseller extraordinaire, and the privilege of acquiring some books from his personal collection. John was the last proprietor of Acres of Books, a huge bookstore in downtown Cincinnati which was in business from the 1920s for about 60 years. John told us the building had been a paint store; the tall wheeled ladders were already there for reaching the high shelves. As a child, John would skip school to spend his days at the library instead; as a young man, he was in the army, and studied opera, but ultimately the book world reclaimed him. After Acres of Books closed, John worked at Barnes & Noble for 19 years. He had fifty years experience as a bookseller when he retired. For those of us in the next generation, John was the very model of a used bookseller, white beard and all. Countless thousands of good books have been through his hands and in his care. All of us book lovers owe an incalculable debt of gratitude to people like John who have devoted themselves to sheltering books and fostering them between homes. It is our good fortune that his generation, including the late lamented Russ Speidel, edified and inspired the next generation of booksellers.
1. Calm down.
2. Ascertain simple facts, like dates, about the author and the title. (One thing Wikipedia is good for.) For instance, before saying your 1912 Christmas Carol is signed by Charles Dickens, find out that he died in 1870.
3. For a reality check, look at the lowest prices, not the highest prices, on the internet, and check “completed listings” on Ebay.
4. Try to sell yours on Ebay. If you can get half or more of “retail,” congratulations. If not, you’ll understand better why a dealer can offer you less than you might expect.
5. Realize that the importance of an experienced bookseller’s opinion of the book’s condition can not be overstated. If the book is valuable, every detail matters, including especially dust jackets.
Thanks to CCM electronic media student Zach Gerberick for his thoughtful interview questions. (You can see the 5 minute video here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qyPcUXNcI10&feature=youtu.be.) The short answer to many questions I get is: it’s all about the books. What gives a used bookstore its unique ambience? The astonishing diversity of books that come from many different times and places. In addition to the variety of bindings and covers, not to mention the textual contents, each book also carries traces of its history with different owners. Sometimes there are intriguing or touching inscriptions. Sometimes a photo or ticket left between the pages. There’s always a bit of mystery. Recently I opened a 1924 calculus book and found a boy’s name and address penciled in the front– and it was the house my grandparents had owned for fifty years, about 1950-2000. He must have lived there before them. This week, inside a 1903 book on the art of the Italian Renaissance, a prior owner had written in attractive fountain pen handwriting a quotation I was unfamliar with, but it was so apropos that I looked it up to find out it was by John Ruskin: “No book is worth anything which is not worth much; nor is it serviceable until it has been read and re-read, and loved and loved again.”
I’ve bought enough old books online at this point to understand the process from both buyer’s and seller’s perspective. (That’s in addition to having sold several tens of thousands online over the past decade, to customers all over the world.) The chaotic variety of search results you get, including nutty high and low prices, are thanks to the amateurs & automators who flood the market. Many of these listings are automated by the use of upc scanners. When you see phrases like “may have markings,” it’s because no one examined and described that book for you. It might be a library discard; it might have a broken binding or lots of highlighting; it might be mailed to you in a thin envelope with no padding or protection. Some of these sellers purport to be non-profit. Unfortunately, they have not made the book world better.
If you’re buying a collectible, an expensive book, or a gift, or if you’re just picky, you should expect the seller to provide photos and answer any questions you have. I’ve found, and I’ve heard the same from other dealers, that the majority of online sellers do not answer inquiries. It’s hard to take seriously a seller who has priced a book at $100 but doesn’t provide a photo. If you would like to support bookstores like Duttenhofer’s (a vanishing species), take a moment to Google the seller you are considering. Bookstores like ours depend on online sales to connect books with buyers.
Last week, I purchased a book which turned out to be a book club edition with a broken hinge and no dust jacket– all contrary to the description that had been provided. The refund for the return was prompt and apologetic. The amateur seller really didn’t understand the terms she was using. Some say this sort of thing is a deliberate gamble that the buyer won’t bother with a return. Today, I received a book that was badly broken, sent in a paper envelope.
I’m a customer, too, and I understand the appeal of a large searchable marketplace from which you can buy with one click. Not to name names, but the A-word, with the happy arrow on the box….. Its vast customer base makes it a necessary evil for real booksellers trying to survive. It operates without professional standards of bookselling, treating books like any other object with a upc code. Unlike other major old-book selling sites (Abebooks etc), it re-states and misrepresents professional bibliographic specifics real booksellers use in their databases. (“Acceptable” condition? Acceptable to whom?)
The internet helps make all the books out there into one vast treasure trove for bibliophiles. That’s a great good thing, on the whole, especially if we use it thoughtfully.
So very rarely does it happen that someone thinks they have an exceptionally valuable book and it turns out to be true. A gentleman called about a book signed by Matisse. When he brought it in, I discovered he hadn’t mentioned it was also signed by James Joyce. It was a beautiful 1935 folio-sized edition of Ulysses with illustrations by Henri Matisse, the crown jewel of the Limited Editions Club catalogue. They printed many other nice books signed by their illustrators, but none with quite this much cachet. The man who had it was settling an estate, and inclined to accept a NY dealer’s offer of $10k. That dealer probably has a buyer willing to pay $15k or more. The only thing as rare as books that valuable are buyers for them. Well, it was fun to see, anyway.
An interesting contrast passed through our store the following week. It was an elephant folio, supersized 1975 Moby Dick illustrated and signed by Leroy Neiman, with a preface signed by Jacques Cousteau…which, for me, was all too much of not quite good enough things. It takes a lot to live up to Melville. And, with all due respect, the Cousteau signature was just a bit silly perhaps. It was a book that could be said to be worth a few hundred dollars, but I’d rather not be the one saying it.