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Goodbye, Columbus: A look into the dwindling world of rare books

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Roth and Wolfe were generous book signers, and copies are plentiful. However, supply of signed copies just halted and increased demand has only begun.

In a mere eight days, we lost two titans of American letters: first, the dapper Tom Wolfe on May 14 and then the acerbic Philip Roth on May 22. As is customary with the passing of any great artist, within the void they leave behind is born a renewed interest in their work—and an ever-decreasing supply of signed first editions.

For the next three days, highlights of the Western canon will be displayed, appraised, and haggled over at the Antiquarian Booksellers Association Rare Book Fair London. Held in the city’s sparkling new Battersea Evolution, it’s one of the largest and most prestigious bibliophilic happenings in the world. The price is already set for J.R.R. Tolkien (a first edition of The Hobbit is expected to fetch over $13,000), but who can say how the market will respond to the recently departed Wolfe and Roth.

“I saw dozens of signed Tom Wolfe books get purchased in the forty-eight hours after his death,” says Richard Davies, public relations and publicity manager at AbeBooks, an online dealer in used, rare, and collectible books, and sponsor of Rare Book Fair’s Vintage Corner. “I expect a similar reaction to Philip Roth.” Prices will rise; it’s simple economics. “Both Roth and Wolfe were generous book signers, and copies are plentiful,” he adds. But supply of signed copies just halted, and increased demand has only begun.

Bonfire of the Vanities may have been about junk bonds, though the book itself will probably never behave like one. Individual authors and genres trend up and down, yet, according to Rare Books Digest: “We have no expectation of drastic shifts in the rare book market; a market characterized as being ‘slow but steady.’”

Do you have a signed first edition of Goodbye, Columbus, Roth’s literary debut, which won the 1960 National Book Award? Good for you, because the rest of us will have to pony up $6,500 for a copy in good condition. On the bargain rack, a signed, leather-bound The Human Stain will set you back only $649.95.

But maybe you‘ve still got a dusty, 1997 copy of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone on your now-grown daughter‘s shelf in her ne’er used room at home. “A lot of people don’t know that they’re sitting on rare books,” says Leigh Altshuler, communications director for Strand Book Store in New York. “That Harry Potter may actually be a valuable first edition.”

No one can predict which genres or authors will trend in the near future, but keep in mind that for a book to be collectible and or rare it does not necessarily have to be old. Lately, art books are gaining traction among collectors. “We see less demands for simply old books, and more for visually captivating books,” says Altshuler. Think Tender is the Night with a beautiful dust jacket, or neo-coloring books from graphic artists. “You’re getting a twofer,” she says. “It’s an author and the signature of an artist.”

Still, first editions and signed copies are the two cornerstones of the rare book business. And as with wines or cars or watches, there are unicorns: “A first edition of The Great Gatsby,“ says Davies, “is a very rare book, and the presence of a jacket in fine condition would add about $100,000 to its value.” Don’t expect to find one on EBay. According to market analysis from Rare Books Digest: “Scarce first editions; first issue of important, original, limited availability, collectible authors’, one-of-a-kind treasures … this elite category of books is in-fact moving slowly towards extinction.”

Condition is vital, but so is the inscription. Next time you’re standing in line at a book signing, ask the author to draw a picture or inscribe something witty that stands out. It adds value. “Jeff VanderMeer inscribed copies of Borne with illustrations,” says Altshuler. “Poet Patricia Lockwood drew characters from Priestdaddy.” Again, added value. “Last week, a signed first edition of The Right Stuff sold for $3,500,” says Davies. It had been signed by Wolfe, Chuck Yeager, and John Glenn, skyrocketing its price past that of a generic signed copy with some hasty John Hancock from Wolfe.

The top of this signed book pyramid is called a dedication copy, meaning it’s signed on the dedication page and inscribed to the person for whom the author dedicated the book. There are, understandably, not many of these on the market. Want one? Winnie the Pooh fans can own A.A. Milne’s wife’s own copy of Birthday Party and Other Stories for $2,250. Or, for an easy $125, you can add to your nightstand Helen Reynolds’s 1958 Music for Melanie, inscribed by the author to her sister-in-law, Jean.

Ultimately, sellers advise, buy what you love. Although investing in books can make you money, profits shouldn’t be the motivation. “It’s like the stock market,” says Davies. “A book value’s can decrease as well as increase.” As for how to get started, “If you really want that particular book, you can get instant gratification via websites like ours,” she says, but don’t neglect the old fashioned shoe-leather search for treasures buried in thrift shops and yard sales. Who knows? Maybe you’ll find something worthy of the Strand’s third-floor Rare Book Room, where a signed copy of James Joyce’s Ulysses is also illustrated and signed by Henri Matisse. It can be yours for a mere $45,000. -Bloomberg

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