We noticed this donation right away. For one thing, the boxes were honkin’ heavy. They were laden with coffee-table sized books, all thoroughly illustrated and most on clay-based paper (the shiny kind.) But when we looked at the books we found it was a focused collection, a library on its own.
They were price guides: price guides to all manner of collectibles. You started with the general references—your Kovels and Millers—and moved on into the more specific guides: Depression glass, this brand of ceramics,that brand of crystal. And then the collection moved into the excitingly specific: price guides to kitchen ware, gas station collectibles, grocery store displays. Here were some general guides to doll collecting, but over here were the price guides to Barbie accessories, and dolls in Scout uniforms. Here’s a price guide to children’s phonograph records, and there’s a price guide to antique Christmas tree lights. There were none on telephone pole insulators, doggone it, but here was one for cookie jars, and one for butter dishes, and one just for saucers. Here’s a price guide someone compiled to list every known magazine that ever featured a picture of Marilyn Monroe on the cover.
Just about all of these will be found in the Antiques section at the Book Fair, along with the dozens of post card price guides we fell heir to last fall. It makes you wonder if there was ever a price guide to price guides.
Of course, price guides are books, and there have been price guides to books. We put these in the Books and Authors category (over the objections of some who would like to see price guides sit with price guides. But, hey, we put price guides to used cars in Transportation.) Gone now are the days when a book dealer really wanted to be successful enough to own a complete run of CBP and BAR (Cumulative Book Prices and Book Auction Records.) Gone, too, are the days when book dealers used to belong to the Newberry just so they could come and look at these two sets in our reference department.
When I started in this business, the one price guide every serious book pricer needed to own was the one we called “Van Allen”. Van Allen Bradley, Chicago book dealer, published his iconic bestselling Gold In Your Attic in 1958. This was meant mainly as a How To guide, at least partially so some people would stop calling him to ask him if their book was worth a million dollars. It gave instructions on how to tell a collectible from a plain old readable, but also listed some books to watch for specially. The book did so well that it was revised as More Gold In Your Attic and The New Gold In Your Attic.
The Book Collectors Handbook of Values grew out of this in 1972. This was not merely a list with titles and values, but a heavily-researched hardcover volume with data needed for identifying the first printing of, say, The Wizard of Oz, from the third printing. New editions followed, as people complained about books he’d left out, or came up with new points to mention. The final edition, that of 1982-83, was a required reference for a serious seller of books.
The death of Van Allen Bradley left a gap in the world of price guides, eventually filled by Allen and Patricia Ahearn, who, like Bradley, started with a how to, Book Collecting in 1989, but followed this with what was basically a complete revision of that 1982-83 guide. Collected Books appeared in 1991, and was bought up by everyone who had worn their Van Allen to shreds. This was updated at regular intervals, the most recent appearing in 2011. (The Ahearns also published separate guides to specific authors, for those who wanted first edition data on every book by, say, Pearl Buck.)
Of course, in a world where you can go to the Interwebs to look up what dealers are asking for that first edition of The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood or that Girl Scout doll from 1942, price guides are on the wane. But when you find six copies of a book selling for a thousand dollars and six identical copies for a buck, it can be nice to have one expert’s opinion as back-up.