November 16, 2013

The Current State of Civil War Book Collecting

Three times in the past month I was notified by long-time Civil War booksellers as to how each one had recently acquired a large collection of superb quality and rarity; collections that had been carefully built by their owners for decades. In each case, the seller stated that there were rarities included that they had not been able to offer for sale for thirty to forty years or longer.

While this is good news for serious collectors looking for particularly scarce wants, it also highlights the ongoing fact that book collectors who acquired the collecting bug during or after the Civil War centennial (when they were in their twenties or thirties) are now elderly and looking to sell. A key question is are there enough young collectors today to replace them?

Sadly, after talking with numerous booksellers over the past few years, I've concluded the answer is no, not by a long shot. Until the recent advent of the internet and such sites like Google Books and archive.org, many older books, such as 19th-century regimentals, were valuable not merely because of their scarcity, but also because of the information they contained; information that could not be found anywhere else. Now with the rise of these internet sites, that factor has been eliminated. Of course, ebooks have further hurt traditional book readership, not to mention a possible general decline in reading across the board.

Then there has been the rise of book search engines like ABE that bring book sellers and buyers together. These sites, which rose to prominence in the 1990s, have made millions of books available to the book buying public with just a few keystrokes, books that in the past were somewhat hidden in that they were only available through used and rare book stores or dealer's catalogs. An end result was the revelation that the vast, vast majority of titles were quite common, which thereby pushed prices down, down and down. Conversely, truly rare and scarce titles were shown to be just that, and their prices ratcheted upward. This phenomenem played out somewhat with Civil War books but was especially the case for 20th-century literature.

These old school dealers all seem to agree that the high water mark for Civil War book collecting was the 1990s. Since then, demand for anything less than the rarest of the rare has tapered off and prices have therefore fallen. One dealer told me how back in the day he could acquire a truly rare ACW title and have to decide among six or so collectors as to who he was going to offer it to, knowing that all would buy without hesitation. Not any more.

What this means is that an old book collecting adage is more true than ever: Collect what you truly love and you'll probably never lose money or sleep. And remember the three most important factors in determining the value of an old book are condition, condition, and condition. On the other hand, if you buy a book because of its perceived investment value, you'll probably lose out big time.

8 comments:

Ron Baumgarten said...

Great observations and advice! I take the same approach to collecting. I am one of the few, the proud (I suppose) of my generation who will carry on collecting antique Civil War books. I am happy that ABE and other sites have made so many titles available. Of course, if I can, I like to do it the old-fashioned way, but try finding enough brick-and-mortar sellers these days. Ironically, the same technology that makes collecting easier has in some ways undermined hard copy books and the desire of people to collect them. I also have started to collect vintage 1960s/Centennial era books, which I imagine may become a niche unto itself.

Paul Taylor said...

Thanks Ron. I hear what you're saying about ABE, however when I think about the purchases of my best and rarest titles, the transactions were usually face to face either in a rare bookstore or book fair. For myself, I decided recently due to ever shrinking shelf space that I was going to buy fewer books, but those that I do will be premium titles (19th and early 20th century) in top condition.

Ron Baumgarten said...

Shrinking space--that sounds familiar, but hasn't stopped me just yet! I guess the addiction is hard to cure. That said, money prevents me from getting some of the titles I really want. I also collect antique, Civil War-era newspapers which tend to be somewhat cheaper, and take a lot less space.

TPS said...

Hello Paul,

A wonderful post. Indeed, I think the advent of the Internet changed one aspect of basic economics by making everyone a dealer. In turn, that increased the supply and ease of sale on any given title, and despite the fact that I have a public school education, I know enough about econ to know that when you increase the supply, and couple that with ease of purchase, the price of the widget falls.

This is precisely why every employee at Savas Beatie knows we are not in the book business. We are in the information business. And to that end, we try very hard to produce titles with information that is unique in some way and difficult to obtain elsewhere, in an attractive package at an attractive price.

I would quibble with the observation that the advent of digital books has diminished reading. We are finding the opposite.

Also consider that "digital" includes the Internet and not just "books." I was surprised the other day, for example, when my 17 year old son, who is not much of a book reader, started talking intelligently on a subject about telescopes and outer space. When I queried him as to the source, he said he has bookmarked certain sites and does a lot of reading online.

The young are still reading. Many are simply doing it in an entirely different fashion.

The world is indeed a-changing.

Thanks again for the post.

Ted Savas

Paul Taylor said...

Ted - Thank You for your comment. It has indeed become a digital world. Unlike the old days where print was the only game, readers today have a multitude of choices as to where and how to obtain information. Which is why, IMO, older first editions of any genre are now collected primarily as a historical artifact, rather than for whatever info or data they may contain.

David Coles said...

I'm curious as to which Civil War book dealers you are referring. I assume that one is Tom Broadfoot, who has recently purchased several large collections. I'd be interested in seeing the catalogs or websites of the other two.

Thanks,
David Coles

Paul Taylor said...

David -

Yes, Tom was one. Also check out the online inventory at George S. MacManus Books (http://www.macmanus-rarebooks.com/). They acquired a very large collection recently. I was in their Bryn Mawr, PA shop within the past couple of months and saw late-nineteenth and early twentieth-century Civil War first editions in absolutely stunning condition, with quite a few in rarely seen dust jackets. A wallet thinning experience.... Also the Abraham Lincoln Bookshop in downtown Chicago. (http://www.alincolnbookshop.com/)

By the way, are you the author of "Far from Fields of Glory"?

Paul

David Coles said...

Paul:

Thanks for your response to my post. Sorry, but I missed seeing your question at the bottom of your response when I first looked at it. Yes, my Ph.D. dissertation was "Far From Fields of Glory," on the war in Florida, 1864-1865. Still hope to get a revised version published at some point in the future. Thanks for remembering it.
David Coles