Rare book collecting can often be an intimidating, bewildering, and seemingly “exclusive” experience, seen by many as a pastime of the wealthy. We've been there. At Grinning Cat Books, we strive to make collecting an engaging, fun, and accessible experience for everyone. We believe that anyone can be a rare book collector, so we’re creating a business and community that is as welcoming to budding collectors as to experienced buyers alike! At the end of the day, the one quality we bibliophiles share regardless of budget and background is a deep love of storytelling and learning.
So, if you’re ready to begin collecting or want to level up your current efforts read on as we share our perspectives and lessons learned to help you unlock the awesome collector inside you.
1. START WHERE YOU ARE.
Few people considering rare book collecting start empty handed. As an avid reader, you’re undoubtedly surrounded with books that bring you joy. Indeed, some books you bought a decade or two ago and kept in good condition may be scarce and valuable already.
As a first step then, take an inventory of the books you have. Ask yourself a lot of questions: Do you love American Literature, Southern Authors, and / or Modern Firsts? Can’t get enough of Jane Austen (my wedding vows began with a quote from my wife’s favorite Austen novel, Pride and Prejudice)? Are children’s books your passion; if so, which type(s)? History buff? Do you enjoy the Classics? A Science Fiction or Fantasy nerd (that would be me)? Do you collect bibles or Judaica? Are there genres or subjects totally new to that you want to explore? Take stock and consider your many options.
2. TO FOCUS OR NOT TO FOCUS . . . THAT'S THE QUESTION!
One initial point to consider—and a point on which thoughtful collectors can disagree—is the level of focus and overall approach to adopt when building a collection.
We have wide-ranging eclectic tastes at Grinning Cat Books. I studied science and engineering in college but seriously considered becoming a history major. After working on Wall Street for a time, I went to law school and practiced technology law. Afterwards, I enjoyed a long, successful career as a global media, tech, entertainment, education, and social enterprise executive. Yet I still enjoy reading about ancient and modern civilizations, their history, cultures, philosophies, and scientific developments. I enjoy modern literature and historical fiction as well. And, oh yeah, I’m also a YUGE science fiction and fantasy fan (in fact, these are the first books I began to seriously collect).
My wife and partner, Alison, has an abiding passion for children’s literature and education. She enjoys not only the classics, but 18th, 19th, and early 20th century readers and educational books as well. Having grown up in Alabama and Western North Carolina she has great respect for American Southern Authors. She also lived overseas in Germany (and speaks the language fluently), and has traveled extensively across Europe, Asia, and elsewhere. An academic, researcher, and statistician by training she’s a math whiz. Finally, she’s a fantastic cook and sustainable gardener, hailing from a long line of southern and Appalachia cooks and homesteaders going back generations. Not surprisingly, after 25 years she boasts a wide ranging, scintillating collection across all these genres that she loves sharing with others. (Yes, I'm a very lucky man indeed).
As such, our collection is quite broad, as driven by our wide-ranging personal and professional interests and passions. For example, we're incredibly proud of Literature our Children's Literature Collections, but those are only two of more than eight primary subject areas we enjoy and sell across. We wouldn’t have it any other way. It suits us.
Many highly regarded collectors, however, recommend against taking a broad approach (at least initially) and urge those building out a collection to focus on one or two areas only for some time and grow from there. A narrow collecting focus is certainly a sound path to follow, and bibliophiles and curious learners may indeed have a passion with singular focus.
But what suits you? That’s the question! If you answer this candidly, then no matter the size your library, it will be truly personal and reflect who you are as you grow and evolve over time. Collecting with a partner? That's wonderful, as you can both weave your shared and independent interests into the mix--and have great fun together curating your collection.
Ultimately, we believe there's no right or wrong approach. So, whether you’re building a library for personal enjoyment, value creation, or both, remember that it’s a marathon not a sprint and there is nothing wrong whatsoever collecting across a broad swath of genres and interests. Or not! Just do you.
3. MAKE A PLAN.
Once you’ve taken stock of whatever library you may have and decided upon an initial approach and focus, you should develop a plan to build out your collection. Set a budget, a short list of high-level goals, a framework for more complex acquisition efforts, and then begin one book at a time.
For those just starting out we recommend that you build out a base first, as a solid foundation of any structure will provide a ready platform for scaling your efforts over time. If you already have a favorite novel, try finding an edition that holds some more value.
If you’ve decided to take a somewhat narrow approach you should consider what a more robust base for that subject might entail that fits your interests yet allows for learning exciting new things. For example, say you're a history buff and want to collect around the US Civil War, a popular topic. You may then consider collecting historical fiction that’s puts your existing stories in another perspective, such as Michael Shaara's classic, The Killer Angels. Or perhaps Carl Sandburg's Pulitzer winning series on the life of Lincoln, or a the leading 1876 biography of Stonewall Jackson? We recently acquired a very rare (as inscribed) and cool book on the Merrimack—the storied warship employed during the Civil War in history's first battle between ironclad warships, (at the Battle of Hampton Roads), and the beginning of a new era of naval warfare. As you can see, there are many avenues to explore around a given subject!
If you’re already an active collector, we recommend going deeper and one or two steps broader in your acquisition efforts. For example, Alice in Wonderland—which inspired us to adopt Grinning Cat Books as our name—is a huge favorite of ours, and we collect Alice editions at all scarcity and price levels, languages, and editions that showcase collaborations with wonderful artists. A decade ago, a well-known dealer and friend turned me onto Barry Moser, the famous wood engraving artist and publisher of Pennyroyal fame. Moser is simply brilliant. We initially bought a set of his Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass editions. Since then, however, I began collecting Moser titles across a very broad array of genres, from Classic Literature to the Bible. Consequently, I jumped at the chance to acquire the absolutely stunning, deluxe Pennyroyal Edition of A Modern Day Prometheus (i.e., Frankenstein)—which Moser has said he regards as his best work. But we also have many of his other books that sell for a few hundred dollars. Rarity and price aren't our major focus points for Moser per se, but rather enjoying a broad range of his wonderful work.
4. STICK TO THE PLAN . . . EXCEPT WHEN YOU DON'T WANT TO, OR SHOULDN'T!
Plans are all fine and good but never forget to be flexible and opportunistic as well. If there’s anything we’ve learned over the years it’s that you never know what you'll find when you walk into a bookshop, an antique store, estate sale, or a fast-and-furious auction. Be open to chance and opportunities. We’ve found absolute gems in each of these places.
In fact, my greatest “SMH” moments and regrets around collecting all stem from times when I passed on buying books that I really wanted that my research—and gut—told me I should jump on. Although I was open to chance and opportunity, I didn’t pull the trigger despite my inner voice screaming at me: “Get it, what are you waiting for!” Godot I guess, (and we all know how that turned out). Indeed, a colleague recently shared his opinion that avid collectors are aggressive and take measured risks when they come across special items at a fair price. I agree.
Consider that rare books are . . . well . . . rare! A great many are one-of-a-kind or very close to it. When truly scarce, highly sought-after items are purchased by private collectors or institutions they often disappear years, if not decades or longer. This of course makes them even more scarce and valuable. And when the books do resurface their price has typically gone up significantly.
Many of the books we carry at Grinning Cat fit this mold. So, if you see something you really want, snag it. Or give us a call; we’ll talk through it and work something out. Our greatest wish is for our books to find a home with readers and collectors like you!
5. IT'S NOT ALWAYS ABOUT "THE BEST MONEY CAN BUY."
We take a slightly yet another contrarian view towards collecting in this regard. Many well-established collectors believe that a buyer should always buy the best copy of a title that they are able to afford within their budget. Although this is sound advice, overall, our position is more nuanced.
While there’s certainly money to be spent when you’re investing in any collection, your dream book doesn’t need to be “the best money can buy.” For example, we’re Harper Lee fans at Grinning Cat and, as such, we have a fine copy of the 35th anniversary issue of To Kill a Mockingbird—signed by Lee. It’s simply lovely. As I’m write this, however, a signed first edition, “first printing” of Mockingbird published in 1960 will easily run you $25,000 or more. Indeed, a first edition, first printing unsigned copy can be had for between $10,000 - $22,000, (with many of the lower priced copies in only good condition; usually with chipping, small tears, and edge wear to the dust jacket, and with faded and/or soiled boards). In contrast, our fine copy of the 35th Anniversary Edition sells for only $4,800. For us—both personally and as avid collectors—having a signed copy in fine condition was preferable in this instance to acquiring a rarer unsigned “first printing” in good condition. It's not "the best" our money could buy, but it's nevertheless a fantastic copy to be sure, and one we love.
Lastly, you may find a copy of a title that is in quite good condition but for a few aspects. In many instances, however, damage to or other conditional defects of a rare book can be repaired by a talented bindery professional. Indeed, it’s simply amazing what a talented binder can do when repairing or otherwise restoring a rare but damaged book. A true example of art + science.
6. STUDY UP!
Rare book collecting is a knowledge-based business. The book collecting world is vast and wonderfully complex. There’s an enormous amount to learn and it can be daunting—but don’t be daunted!
For this very reason, we offer great tips, FAQs, and other resources on our site to jumpstart and deepen your learning process. Begin by learning the basics about rarity and scarcity, in general, and for the genres and subjects you’re focused upon. Understand “first edition points” and what makes a copy a “first edition,” differentiate between “first printings,” “first impressions,” first, second and later “states,” where limited and/or numbered signed editions might fit in the mix.
Where they exist, dust jackets are important in terms of rarity and value. Indeed, many “first edition points” involve very specific details about the dust jacket. Some jackets are works of art in and of themselves so bright, well-preserved jackets are highly sought after. A title lacking a dust jacket, while still valuable and collectible, decreases a book’s value.
Understand what the “condition” of book entails, and the many nuances there. Although there are generally accepted delineations around a book’s condition, you’ll find a fair degree of subjectivity between sellers. Read a book’s description carefully. Pictures do indeed tell a thousand words so take the time to peruse them. And never hesitate to ask questions.
In general, however, a seller who errs on the side of providing detailed description and more photos are indicative of quality and integrity. That’s our approach at Grinning Cat Books. In contrast, sellers who show only one (often crappy) photo and offer little in the way of a description should be avoided. Trust yourself—you can tell when a seller is being forthcoming, wants to help you make an informed purchase decision, and isn’t looking for a quick sale.
7. HAVE FUN . . . AND DO MAKE FRIENDS ALONG THE WAY.
Even when collecting for primarily for value and investment purposes, book collecting should be fun—a lot of fun, in fact. Please don’t lose sight of that.
For us, the search and exploration for great books has taken us on exciting journeys the world over though an ever-changing community of amazing bookshops and sellers, book fairs large and small, top-tier auctions, regional and local auction houses, estate sales, antique dealers, personal libraries, and enlightening encounters with individuals from all walks of life. Exploring these venues and getting to know the wonderful people and organizations involved is one of the thrills and joys of the work we do.
Practice the Tao of Pooh. Make friends. Find a mentor and other trusted sources of advice. (Please consider us as one!) This is the easily one of the most rewarding aspects of collecting at any level. The community of bibliophiles, collectors, dealers, artists, and the like is diverse, global, and chock full of wonderfully interesting people. You’re one of them so don’t be shy.
About 10 years ago, I was extremely lucky to befriend a rare book dealer who spent his entire life in the business. His advice, guidance, and friendship continue to be a blessing. And now, I enjoy paying it forward and passing on what I’ve learned to others.
We hope you enjoyed our 7 Steps take on collecting!
As always, if you have any questions, want our perspective, or simply want to talk and bounce ideas around, don’t hesitate to give us a call!
Warm regards from a fellow Mad Hatter,