BOOKS Finding the Firsts

A book report on the area’s most collectible first editions.

MY LUNCH HOUR WAS NEARLY over as I rummaged through the catacombs and boxes of books at the Dallas Public Library’s annual sale a couple of years ago. I was making a final pass down a table in the fiction section, moving into the G’s, and in the back of my mind 1 was looking, as I always do, for one of my favorite novels from a long career as an English major- the wonderful but obscure Omensetter’s Luck by William Gass.

I had little hope of finding it. Years ago, 1 asked a book dealer what a first edition of Gass’ book sold for and was told “about $300.” So, when I suddenly found myself gazing at a copy of this very prize, I grabbed it as if it were some polished gem resting on a pile of dirt clods. I flipped to the back of the title page-no, it couldn’t be-and spied the cherished words, “first printing.” The condition of the book suggested it had never been reao. I bought it for a dollar.

THERE’S MONEY TO BE MADE IN BUYING AND COLLECTING FIRST EDITIONS, but don’t give up your day job: Only a few can make large bucks in the book business. Luckily, the fun of first edition collecting goes beyond the dollar signs in your insurance man’s eyes when you start ticking off your list of vintage Faulkners. No matter what you like to read- history, politics, Texana, fiction of any type-there are collectible books on the subject that will range in price from a few dollars to a few thousand. These books can be found in a variety of places-estate sales, your aunt’s attic, the stacks at Half Price Books (still a rich vein, but getting harder to mine)- or through a reputable dealer, of which Dallas has several. And when you find that ruby among the colored rocks, it’s as though you have somehow found a perch just inside the study of your favorite author.

Before undertaking such a quest, buyers must first learn how to determine what is a first edition. Most (but not all!) first editions can be detected in one of two ways. Some books carry the vital data on the copyright page- the back of the title page-where the edition will simply be listed (first, second, third, etc.). If it says “first printing,” this, too, means first edition. Other publishers run a set of numbers across the bottom of the copyright page: 1234…up to 10. If the “1” is intact, you’ve got a find. When a second edition is printed {great for the author, but not for you) the 1 is dropped off. If a third printing is necessary, off comes the 2, and so on.

Some books, however, give little or no clue. Usually, if a copyright date is listed and no other date is on the page, you have a first edition. However, it is always necessary to check the inside front of the dust jacket for those three dreaded words. “Book Club Edition.” If they are there, you are holding no more than a lump of fool’s gold.

A word about dust jackets: If a book is missing one, don’t bother. It’s like buying a car without paint. A conservative estimate is that the absence of a jacket drops the value of a book by 50 to 75 percent.

And as with any collectible, the condition of the book is highly impor-tant. Look for water stains, smudges and tears. Flip through, checking each page to see that the book is complete. Don’t be shy about removing the jacket and looking at the cover.

The most valuable of an author’s books will almost always be the first. Because a new writer is unknown, the print run of a first book will be smaller. If the writer later becomes famous, that first printing will be the rarest. E. L. Doctorow’s most famous novel. Ragtime, can be purchased in first edition for less than $25. However, his first book, the virtually unknown Welcome to Hard Times, is considered a steal if you can get it for $150. A painful lesson: When you run across a rare one, don’t pass. I collect Doctorow and have most of his books in first edition. A few years ago, I had a first of Welcome to Hard Times in my sweaty hands at a now-defunct store near Fair Park, Overcome by an ill-timed burst of fiscal prudence, I didn’t buy it, figuring I’d get it next time. Of course it was gone when I went back, and now I look for it every time I get near a bookshelf. I’m not just waiting for Godot, I want to buy him.

So where to look? If you’re just starting a collection, consider buying from shops that specialize in first editions. You’ll pay market prices, but you’ll also know what you’re getting. Here’s a brief introductory tour:

When the purists talk collecting, they talk literary fiction. That means Faulkner. McMurtry, Steinbeck et al. on the high end, and any number of lesser greats (John Gardner, Thomas Berger, Joyce Carol Oates, etc.) on the more reasonable end. Literary firsts abound at The Aldredge Book Store on Maple Avenue near the Crescent. Aldredge has an ever-changing selection of collectible first editions, some obscure and some mainstream, in addition to numerous signed first editions. And behind the counter near the front door is the good stuff: Saul Bellow’s The Adventures of Augie March ($150), Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Marble Faun ($350) and many others. Since 1957, Aldredge’s has been run by the affable Dick Bosse, who says his retail philosophy is to sell “anything that doesn’t embarrass me and that I can turn a profit on.”’

You’d think that among the millions of volumes at Half Price Books (several locations), first editions would be plentiful. Alas. The savvy employees at Ken Gjemre’s outposts are adept at culling out the collectibles. To make matters worse, local dealers often send “book spies” to ferret out the firsts they miss. The pickings are still there, but you’d better get up early.

Many dealers, such as Mary Anne and Phil Stout, who own both Mary Anne’s Books in Vikon Village on Jupiter Road and Collector’s Books in Hillside Village at Mockingbird and Abrams, will have collectible books in slock, but not on the shelf. While Mary Anne’s has a sizable “modern first editions” section and several nice pieces in glass cases near the door. Phil Stout emphasizes that customers should ask. even if they don’t see what they are looking for. Mary Anne’s shelves hold such offerings as John Cheever’s The Wapshot Chronicle ($47.50). Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls ($97.50) and Richard Wright’s Native Son ($75). But stashed away in storage might be the particular Tom Lea you’re looking for.

If your taste runs to older books (and your pockets are deeper), then venture to The Antiquarian of Dallas at the corner of Routh and McKinney. a place that looks and feels like a used bookstore should. The Antiquarian had 11 Mark Twain first editions at one point last summer, including two copies of Huckleberry Finn (an American first for around $1,000 and a British first edition for $600); a distressed copy of Roughing It ($75-$100, good for those who would simply like to own a Twain first edition); and Life on the Mississippi, which recently sold for $450. They also had a complete, original serialized set of Charles Dickens’ The Mystery of Edwin Drood ($900).

Just down the street at 2723 Routh Street is The History Merchant, a shop that looks like a professor’s library, complete with wooden beams and a loft. The emphasis here is on politics and British and American history, with special attention to an extensive, 500-volume collection of books by or about Winston Churchill.

The Churchill collection covers considerable range in price and type. Churchill and Lord Beaverbrook ($45-$50) is one of the lower-priced volumes on the puggish former prime minister, and this first edition goes quickly when in stock, according to owner Richard Hazlett. An American first edition of Martin Gilbert’s eight-volume The Official Biography of Winston Churchill, the longest biography in the English language, runs about $1,150. In his spare time, Gilbert has written 12 companion volumes, of which The History Merchant has 11. Hazlett also tries to carry every book Churchill wrote, including the six-volume The World’s Crisis, first editions of which cost around $3,000. For those who want more than blood and sweat and tears, there is Hazlett’s 1561 edition, in original leather, of Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales ($4,000).

Don’t think valuable first editions are for highbrows only. One of the fastest growing collectible genres is horror fiction, especially Stephen King. Even though King has sold in the neighborhood of 50 kazillion books, most of which can be purchased in paperback for under $5, a clean first edition of, say, Cujo will run about $45.

The literati may scoff at King, but in many ways he represents the sheer fun of first edition buying. While a complete set of the prodigious horror man would easily be worth a couple of thousand dollars, first editions of his books are not only reasonably easy to find, they are considerably cheaper than gold, Steuben crystal, van Goghs or whatever else people decide to surround themselves with. Even better, it is not out of the question that you might pick up that first edition of Salem’s Lot (worth about $500) for S2 at a neighborhood garage sale.

As with all obsessions, there are drawbacks to book collecting. 1 can’t drive past a garage or estate sale without craning my neck in search of hardbacks: I can’t open a book-any book!-without compulsively checking the edition; I hover around my wife when she is reading one of my “firsts” to make sure it’s being properly babied. Yes, I’m driven. But when, amid the rubble of unwanted titles, something sparkles, all of this is suddenly worthwhile.


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