Antique books tell quite the story – and the next chapter could be the most exciting yet
As someone who loves the written word, when I discover an interest for a new subject I have to read every piece of literature on the topic that I can get my hands on. I have always enjoyed visiting tiny rare and antique bookshops; the kind with lots of little rooms, dark wooden shelves, pokey winding stairs and floorboards that creak. The whole place is always heavy with that unmistakable ‘old book scent’, evoking memories of my university library and researching my dissertation.
It’s funny to think that only a few years ago, many were predicting the death of the book due to the sudden increase in popularity of the Amazon Kindle, and similar electronic reading devices. Second hand book shops, both online and on the high street, have recently seen a resurgence in popularity.
It could be said that, as we are all so much more clued up about ecofriendly practices and how to shop and consume more sustainably to help save our planet, the secondhand book is becoming more popular. It is not only a way to find books that may be rare or out of print, but it’s also a chance to enjoy reading in a way that is kinder to the environment.
When it comes to starting an antique book collection, the consensus is to start with – and always look for – subjects that are of interest. Matthew Haley, director of books and manuscripts at Bonhams, explains: “If you are buying to speculate on value, you need to be quite knowledgeable and you may face disappointment. A general rule could be only buy books you would actually read.”
Clive Moss, head of printed books and manuscripts at Chiswick Auctions, also advocates to look for subjects that you have a passion for and asserts that many people begin collecting items that hold nostalgia or remind them of fond memories of childhood. “Finding antiquarian books can be a life long search, and the search is part of the enjoyment,” he says.
A great place to source antique books is at one of the many antiquarian book fairs run by the Provincial Booksellers Fairs Association (pbfa.org) around the country. Matthew Haley says that booksellers exhibiting at such fairs are required to sign up to a code of practice and can provide sound guidance about the condition and rarity of pieces.
The details for many trusted antique bookshops can also be found on the website, as well as at the Antiquarian Booksellers’ Association (aba.org.uk). Other places to scour for hidden gems can range from charity shops to online auctions, second hand bookshops and local auction houses.
As a general rule, the condition of the book is what matters the most. “Unless the item being bought is so scarce that no other copy is known, then buying the best copy you can find and can afford is the only way to go; condition, condition, condition,” Clive says.
Matthew adds that the rarer the book is, the less that the condition matters. “For a Dickens first edition, there will be numerous copies available online, many of them in good condition, so the market for a poor-condition copy is minimal. If there is only one copy extant, but it is in poor condition, then the market is more forgiving.”
When it comes to rarer and most sought after pieces, Clive tells me that the first editions of books are often the most desirable to source. And according to Matthew: “The rarest and most sought-after book would be one of Shakespeare’s plays published during his lifetime, between approximately 1590 and 1616; this could easily be valued at one million pounds.” Clive says that as all books are different and can be found in a variety of conditions, some may require careful repair work, for which he advocates asking for specific advice from the dealer. “Books can be delicate, so some may need to be preserved in specially-made boxes, other leather pieces may benefit from a gentle clean with leather cleaner or polish, whilst others may simply need a light dusting.”
Whatever you are looking for, a trip to a magical bookshop stocking rare and antique tomes could be well worth your time.