'Digital disruption notwithstanding, book collecting appears to be alive and well, sustained in part by the very same people who are driving adoption of smartphones, tablets, e-readers and the like.
Take JT Bachman, a 28-year-old architect with Rockwell Group in New York. He gets his news from digital sources but prefers printed material when reading for pleasure and says he has become a recent convert to book collecting. Mr. Bachman says he has about 100 new, used and out-of-print titles on his shelves, including the architectural tome “Herzog & de Meuron: Natural History” by Pierre de Meuron and Jacques Herzog, and plans on buying more.
“I started collecting books because it is a way to catalog time,” Mr. Bachman says. “I want to keep them for the longer term.”
Dealers such as Strand Bookstore near New York’s Union Square and Freebird Books on the Brooklyn waterfront are counting on that kind of passion, as the rise of digital media and higher commercial real-estate prices decimate other corners of the bookselling business.
Strand, an 88-year-old purveyor of new and used books, says business has been good lately, helped in part by the popularity of its rare-book room, where a signed first edition of “A Wrinkle in Time” by Madeleine L’Engle can be had for $5,000 and where a book edited and signed by Jackie Kennedy recently sold for $900.
Last year “was one of the strongest years in Strand history,” says Strand marketing manager Brianne Sperber, 25, who insists it’s “wrong” to think people in their 20s and 30s don’t want to switch back and forth between digital and print. “I know a lot of people my age who read the way I do,” she says.
Ms. Sperber says demand for rare and collectible books has been more or less stable over the past few years, an assessment echoed by Freebird owner Peter Miller, whose specialty is books about New York, and Thomas A. Goldwasser, a veteran rare-book dealer in San Francisco.
“I don’t think demand for rare books has diminished as a result of digital platforms,” says Mr. Goldwasser, 62, whose office houses more than 4,000 rare volumes. At the same time, Mr. Goldwasser says he hasn’t noticed prices appreciating greatly over the past 10 years or so, either.
With that in mind, he and a few other insiders have this advice for would-be collectors:
Do it for loveAnnette Campbell-White, the founder of venture-capital firm MedVenture Associates, in Emmeryville, Calif., says collectors should be driven by their interest in books, not by the prospect of financial gain. “I wouldn't encourage anyone looking for a quick profit to turn to book collecting,” she says. “If you make money, it is incidental.”
Ms. Campbell-White says she got hooked on book collecting in 1973 when she was 25 and over the years amassed collections of poetry from the World War I era, as well as copies of books that were included in literary critic Cyril Connelly’s “The Modern Movement, 100 Key Books from England, France and America, 1880-1950.” She sold two-thirds of her Modern Movement collection in a private auction at Sotheby’s in 2007. “Yes, I made money, about a 40% profit over 30 years,” she says. “Not a good investment.”
Darren Sutherland, manager of the rare-book room at Strand, advises collectors to “always buy the best combination of condition and edition that you can afford, and buy what you love, not because you have a suspicion it might go up in value.” First editions can command higher prices, as can books with unusual inscriptions by the author. Original manuscripts are often valuable, too.
Like everything else, he says, book values are “driven by supply, which is largely stationary, and demand. So on a smaller scale, some prices can be affected in the short term by cultural events, the death of an author, a new biography or film. But in the longer term, the demand will be set by larger forces, a long-standing cultural reassessment of an author’s work and their effect on our history, or a cultural shift in terms of what we consider to be important.”
Watch out for bubblesDealers note that a book doesn’t have to be old to be collectible. Honey & Wax Booksellers, an online dealer founded by Strand veteran Heather O’Donnell, offers a 1990 edition of Maira Kalman’s “Max Makes A Million” for $125. The popularity of the author and the book, as well as the quality of the art and production, can drive the value of newer works. Says Mr. Goldwasser: “Many younger collectors are drawn to books for their decorative or atmospheric quality.” Illustrated books and graphic novels are popular today, he says, while demand for photography books has leveled off.
Prices for collectible books can fall, too—sometimes significantly. The first editions of books by some late 20th century authors went through a bubble in the late 1990s, only to fall some 50% from their peak a few years later, Mr. Goldwasser says.
Collectible books are bought and sold in stores, at book fairs and auctions and, like everything else, online. When buying on the Internet, however, collectors should focus on the online dealer’s reputation and track record because they won’t be able to physically inspect the merchandise before sale, says Ms. Campbell-White.'