Sunday, April 02, 2006

Separating the Wheat from the Chaff

I'm still writing a monthly column for BookThink - it's great fun and it's helpling me be both a better writer and a bookseller. Craig is still publishing it on his free newsletter so I can repost it here:

Thanks to Freecycle.org I’ve made a new friend who is a budding bookseller. Lou has an eye for jewelry and china (did you know folks collect Starbucks mugs???) so we are swapping knowledge fields.

By the way, if you have not explored Freecycle.org I heartily recommend it- there are local chapters in many cities. Their goal is to keep items out of the landfills by giving them away. I have acquired many a free box of packing peanuts. I’ve also given away books I didn’t want to haul to the thrifts or to Half Price so it is also a potential source for books. That is how I meet Lou – she came by to pick up a stack of yearbooks I inherited and did not want to sell.

Lou introduced me to some of her favorite garage sale routes and in return, I introduced her to my favorite thrifts. I then knew how much of my book scouting occurs before I even lay my hands on the book.

Lou kept asking “How’d you know to pick that one up” ?

“It had a mylar jacket – I knew it was ex-library”.

“But I though ex library books were worthless”

“Sometimes, but not always. Especially when it comes to children’s books.” And besides, no matter what “commandant” you follow when it comes to bookselling there are always the one or two books that are the exception.”

Therefore, here are some “commandants” to help you while scouting thrift stores, garage and estate sales for children’s books. Remember, unlike those given to Moses these are not written in stone and they are exceptions to every one of them.

Always, always, always pick up any children’s book with a Mylar jacket. That means it is an ex-library book. Remember, as I stated in my first column when it comes to children’s books ex-library is often all there is. It is not the kiss of death as it is with so many adult books. Check the copyright date. If it is prior to 1964, you might have a winner, or at least a quick sale on your hands. Do flip through looking for crayon marks and ripped and torn pages – we are talking kids books after all.

What is the subject? Fairies, mice, cats, dragons, witches, horses and fantasy of any sort have a ready market. Think outside the box here – people who breed Collie Dogs often collect books about collie dogs. People who quilt collect picture books about quilting. Beverly Cleary, best know for her Ramona series (still in print and not worth reselling) also wrote Lucky Chuck, about a boy and his wish for Harley Davidson. I’ve sold copies to Harley- Davidson riders. Who did the illustrations? Are they especially charming?
Do you recognize the name? Do they have shabby chic appeal?

Grab any book rebound in buckram (often referred to in book descriptions as “stout library binding” and take a second look at it. The buckram binding means the book was popular enough to be read to death and yet important enough to the library that they were willing to spend the money to have it rebound. Do not be put off by the ugly binding – the 1960 & 1970s resulted in some truly lurid color combinations – often the inside pages are clean. This binding is practically indestructible so the pages will not be falling out. A grubby buckram binding cleans up fast and easy with any household spray cleaner.

Open it up, flip through it and ask yourself the same questions you would ask about a mylar jacketed book. At one store, I spotted a thin, little picture book bound in the most unattractive brown binding you could imagine. It turned out to be a copy of Alexander the Gander by Tasha Tudor. The book, with all the flaws clearly described still sold for $45 on E-bay.

Every year The American Librarian Association awards the Newbery and the Caldecott Medal to the best novel and picture book of the year. They are frequently given as gifts –they must be good books – they have won an award – right? Wrong! Wrong! Wrong!

The award winners are books adults think a child should read, not one a child might want to read and often not one an adult would remember fondly. The print runs on these are enormous, all libraries own them and they remain in print forever. The thrifts are littered with like new copies of these titles. There are a small niche of collectors who gather up the award winners – but only in the first edition / first printing, which were released before the books won their award. If the book has the gold or silver award seal on it is not a first edition. If you can get them cheaply, they can be sold in lots on E-bay to homeschoolers or teachers building classroom libraries.

One exception is Chris Van Allsburg. The Polar Express won the Caldecott Award in 1985. It’s very popular, especially right around Christmas time. In fact, all his books are good for a quick sale – he won’t allow paperback editions of his books, so they are only available in hardback. The books are always strong sellers, even the ex-library copies. Van Allsburg’s first/ first are considerable collectible – a first edition of the Polar Express just sold for $142 on E-bay. .

Along with Van Allsburg several other children’s authors have attracted the interest of the hyper-modern collectors. Two are of course Philip Pullman and J.K. Rowling (Harry Potter) , the third is Lemony Snicket, author of The Series of Unfortunate Events. That’s another set that sells well in lots – there are currently 12 in the series. Pullman and Rowling’s books are consistently in Craig’s Top Ten E-bay sellers lists.

Another twist in the search for editions are the British Editions of J.R. Rowling and Philip Pullman books. I’ve yet to find the latter but I’ve had good luck with the former. I recently sold a British paperback set of the first 3 Harry Potter books for $38. Not bad for a $1.50 investment!


Every state has a state book award too – in Texas it’s the Bluebonnet Award. Normally 20 or so books are nominated for the annual award, children read a specified number and vote on their favorites. Once the award is over and done with the “losers” tend to show up in the thrifts. Again, with a few exceptions they are common as “The Bridges of Madison County and just about as valuable. It’s worth taking a look at your state award list – which can be found on line by accessing your State Library Association so you’ll know to leave those books where you find them.

Along with the award books you’ll also multiple editions of the “classics” – Little Women, Black Beauty, Treasure Island, The Secret Garden, Peter Rabbit etc. etc. These are now in the common domain which means anyone can print them. Just like the Newbery and Caldecott books, they are often given as gifts and just as often, they land unread in the thrift shops. Unless done by Easton Press they aren’t worth the paper they are printed on. Tasha Tudor did illustrate an edition of the Secret Garden and The Little Princess, but both are still in print, in fact these are two of the few Tasha Tudor books that aren’t good sellers.

When it comes to Book Club editions, there are plenty of children’s BCE too. The oldest and the biggest is The Weekly Reader Book Club (WRBC). It has been around since the 1950s – I was a member as a child. The books are easy to spot – the bindings are shoddy and the paper is cheap. It resembles newsprint and by now it is often cracked and brittle. The WRBC is still around so the books abound. There are several clubs – sorted out by age levels so you will encounter WRBC picture books and chapter books. There is also a Dr. Seuss Book Club - produces shiny covered copies, (no dust jackets) of “I Can Read Books”. Common as dirt and just about as valuable.

Another set of books with shoddy bindings and cheap paper are the Whitman books. Shiny picture covers, often with a TV tie- in and published in the 1950s and 1960s. Annette, Spin & Marty, The Lone Ranger and so on. Thrift stores often consider these “special” because they are old, price them accordingly and proudly display them in the glass case. I know Craig has discussed them in a previous issue of The Gold Edition and some are collectible. You need to know what you are doing before you pay the delusions of grandeur prices.

The paperbacks are everywhere – many are worth putting up in lots if the price is right. Magic Treehouse, Hank the Cowdog, Junie B. Jones, A-Z Mysteries, Goosebumps, Animorphs, Bailey School Kids – they all have E-bay potential if the store is having a 10 books for a dollar sale or you strike a hard bargain at a garage sale. Series books are ‘hot” right now so there are many, many of them and most children, once they settle on a series they like want to read every book ever written. They are the Nancy Drew and The Hardy Boys of the new millennium. The old Scholastic Paperbacks, which date to the 1960s have nostalgia appeal for the baby boomers. Once again, lot them by topic or author. There are some paperbacks that top out at over $50 – an issue of 50/50 touched on those.

Board books, if in good condition (no teeth marks!) are also worth listing in lots. Try to group books by author if possible or by subject.

You will find multitudes of like new Disney books and current TV & movie tie- ins. Leave them. Ditto Clifford the Big Red Dog and Arthur the Badger books. Pop Up books are another leave behind – usually the pop-ups are damaged, but if you find one by Robert Sabuda do give it a second glance. I did find a mint first edition of one of his Christmas pop up books at a thrift store.

I live in a large, sprawling city so when it comes to garage sales, I scour the ads carefully and try to read between the lines – I haven’t the time or the gas to waste driving to a sale that’s worthless. I don’t bother with any sale that claims to have cribs, strollers and baby items. The only books I’ll find there are Disney books and other worthless pulp. My idea of garage sale nirvana is one given by a retired teacher. Teachers spend hundreds and hundreds dollars of their own money on their classroom libraries and they never throw anything away. They are frequently the recipients of school library discards that date back decades so the potential to mine some gold is high indeed.

While I don’t think you make living only searching out children’s books at Thrift Stores and Garage Sales you can definitely add to your income by keeping an eye out for them while you are trolling for othere treasures.

2 comments:

landismom said...

Thanks for this really interesting post. We have a bunch of books that my husband had as a kid, and I'm interested in hanging on to some of my kids' books for their future children, but not all of them. It's good to know what might be worth re-selling later.

cluelesscarolinagirl said...

Oooooh!! I have over 100 Junior Scholastic books. Saved every one from my childhood.