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11/16/2003

Everything’s not a bargain

By Pam Mellskog
The Daily Times-Call

DENVER — A first edition, fifth printing of the renowned Alcoholics Anonymous tome — “The Big Book” — is one of just an armload of titles locked in a glass case at West Side Books for its $3,000 price tag.

Given the pristine condition of the dust jacket, it is a rare book indeed. But the cream of this bookstore’s collection, owned by Lois Harvey at 3434 W. 32nd St., has to be her recently acquired first editions of both “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer” and “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” by Mark Twain, together worth $10,000 or more, she said.

Like used booksellers everywhere, Harvey stocks her shelves and survives the skinny profit margins by trading books, not buying them.

“Cashless societies don’t really exist. But used books are part of an underground society,” she explained.

That works for the 60 percent of her collection that falls into the usual categories and often even for the 40 percent of titles that might be considered somewhat collectible.

However, for her “one or two shelves” of antiquarian books — books highly appreciated for their magical mix of historical and literary value — she negotiates with cold cash only and keeps them out-of-sight.

“You’re like an art dealer or someone who deals in gems,” she said. “There’s an investment factor. And because of the scarcity involved, these books can do better than the stock market.”

One wide gray zone of this exclusive, sliver-sized niche of the used book business is determining buying and selling values, she said. After all, books often become rare because of their storied pasts, which are confirmed and appreciated case by case.

So, besides reviewing auction records, fact checking for authenticity and confirming every page is bound, savvy antiquarian book dealers fall back on subjective standards.

For instance, “marginalia” — handwritten annotations in book margins — can, she said, either add value or devalue the title, depending on who scribbled them.

“A physics book that has notes in Albert Einstein’s own hand in the margins would make that book very rare,” Harvey explained.

During her 30 years in the used book business, reviewing antiquarian books with that human touch has caused her “chills.” While browsing an antiquarian book fair in San Francisco, she felt those tingles while peering at a first edition of “The Tale of Peter Rabbit” inscribed and dedicated by author Beatrix Potter to her father.

In her own collection, a handwritten cookbook, circa 1920, captured Harvey’s imagination. She still regrets selling it.

Other quirky evaluations happen when books arrive as survivors of time, though a little worse for the wear due to the social forces of their day, she said.

Early editions of James Joyce’s “Ulysses” or “Lady Chatterley’s Lover,” by D.H. Lawrence can have entire chapters missing due to post-press censorship, according to Harvey. Missing pages could either balloon or pop the value of the copy.

Yet, measuring these non-standard factors against a copy’s relative scarcity makes antiquarian book sales high stakes.

“When I get home from book fairs, I’m exhausted. It’s intense,” said Harvey, who also coordinates the Rocky Mountain Antiquarian Book Fair every summer in Denver.

She usually errs on the side of the conservative, she said. But not always.

“It was the Twains that I scared myself a little,” Harvey admitted. “I was thrilled to find them. I haven’t had an offer like that in 30 years. They are certainly a cornerstone in this collection and any collection of American literature. But it’s always something that you do carefully.”

Pam Mellskog can be reached at 303-776-2244 Ext. 224 or by e-mail at pmellskog@times-call.com.