Antique Book Collecting – A Few Tips

About a year ago now I stumbled upon a PBFA (Provincial Booksellers Fair Association) antique book fair, on a day out in York. Eager to have a look, me and my Mum decided to go in and I was immediately overwhelmed with the volume of stalls and books that were crammed in over two floors. Since then, I have been to several other PBFA book fairs, and here are a few tips I have come up with, which might be useful to anyone who wants to start collecting antique books.

  • The first (and in my case most important) point is to go with a set budget in mind. Usually I would take about £100 which would be the absolute maximum I would spend, but often I will have a £60 budget in mind, which ensures that I don’t go absolutely crazy and spend a fortune! However, the budget depends on your own finances; many books can go for thousands of pounds at the fairs, so it depends on how much you want to spend.
  • Secondly, I find it useful to have a specific item in mind when I go. I am currently collecting first edition Agatha Christie books, which means that at the larger fairs, it makes it easier to know what to look out for, rather than routing aimlessly through thousands of books!
  • Next, shop around. As you wander round the stalls you will be surprised how many of the same books crop up! Because of this, I find it useful to have pen and paper to hand, so I can write down the stall number and the price of the book I want, so when I see other copies later, I know that I will be getting the best price of the day!
  • Don’t be afraid to haggle. This isn’t one of my strong points, but you’d be surprised how easy it is to get sellers to reduce the price. I often find that the best way to to look interested, and when you are approached by the seller, tell them you will think about it and walk away. When you come back, look at it again and suggest that it is out of your budget or slightly more than you wanted to pay. After lots of  ‘umming’ and ‘arring’, you can often walk away with a book at a reduced price without having to be forceful about it.
  • Check the dates. I have seen numerous ‘first editions’ at book fairs, that are not the actual first editions. The best example of this was when I encountered a ‘first edition’ copy of ‘A Christmas Carol,’ that was published decades after Dickens’ death. Sellers will often label the first edition of later/illustrated versions as first editions when they aren’t. For this, it is useful to have a phone with good internet access to allow you to check quickly that the dates are correct.
  • Don’t be afraid to pick up the books and study them. As I mentioned, some of the books can be incredibly valuable at fairs, but if you are interested in them it is important to study them to check that they are the right edition and that they are in good quality. As long as you are careful when handling the books, the sellers probably won’t bat an eye that you are flicking through a book they have priced at £5,000.
  • Don’t underestimate the value of modern books. ‘Antique’ books don’t have to be hundreds of years old to be valuable. The first ‘Harry Potter’ book, first edition is already worth £300, and the value is ever increasing. The same goes for signed books, they are often more valuable than you would think and will increase in value quickly. Keep an eye out for these at fairs because they are often more affordable than the really old books.
  • Buy what you want. It may sound silly but if you are collecting rather than dealing books, buy ones that you want to own, rather than ones that are deemed valuable. What you enjoy may not cost thousands, but you will probably enjoy owning it more than a valuable book you have never heard of!

And finally, a tip not specifically aimed at book fairs but still a valuable one:

  • Search charity shops. My most valuable antique book cost me £1 from a charity shop. Charities sometimes don’t realise the value of what the possess, so these are really good places for getting a bargain. Oxfam is one of my favourites, as they specialise in books and have specific book researchers so you find more antique books filtering their way onto the shelves. This is a great place to start an antique book collection in my opinion, because although the books aren’t necessarily as valuable, you can be sure you are paying the right amount for the book, and you can gain practice at checking dates and publisher information in a place where the sellers aren’t dealers hoping to make a profit, making the atmosphere less intimidating.

I hope these tips prove useful to anyone who is interested in antique book collecting. As I am still only a novice in the world of antique books, I’d love to hear some tips from any more experienced dealers out there!


4 thoughts on “Antique Book Collecting – A Few Tips

  1. Hyraxia says:

    Great article, but just wanted to point out that you’re more likely to pay £10,000+ for the first Harry Potter book!

      • Hyraxia says:

        It’s a common problem that people refer to books as first editions when they’re really later printings, there are certain identification points to look for in all books…in this case there were only something like 500 first editions published with more than 50% going to libraries…

        Still, you’re right – there’s good money to be had investing in first editions – if you’re in York in September, I’ll be at the fair so do stop by!

      • Hannah Ackroyd says:

        Yeah I didn’t look at it closely because it was out of my budget so that may have been the problem!
        I’m hoping to be! I work weekends so sometimes it is difficult to make it but hopefully I’ll be there. I love the York fairs…they’re so HUGE! I spend hours wandering around there!

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