A shelf collection of vintage and antique books.

Anyone who has been to an estate sale, garage sale or thrift store has seen the pile of old, tattered books tucked away in a corner, mostly ignored. Books are one of those items that tend to accumulate in our lives because it feels like sacrilege to throw one away. This is great news for the antique and rare book collector.

A vintage Stoeger Sportsman’s library set.

Most bibliophiles and rare book enthusiasts associate books with a positive memory from their childhood. This is true for Sean Grybos, owner of the VintageBooksToRead Etsy shop. “I have fond memories of going with my grandmother to the local library in Mt. Carmel, Pennsylvania, on daily reading trips in the summer,” he says. “The librarians kept a historical section under glass near the counter and gazing through to the antiquarian maps and history books intrigued me.”

The same is true for Jennifer Sutton, owner of the VintageBookworms Etsy shop. “My favorite memories all involve books,” she says. “From quiet picnics with Laura Ingalls Wilder to late college nights with Edgar Allan Poe, my recollections are all based on my favorite author of the time.”

Many bibliophiles find that books spur happy memories. For example, Edgar Allen Poe reminds Sutton of late college nights.

Both accomplished antique book collectors, Grybos and Sutton identify estate sales as one of their most successful spots for hunting down rare books. ““Estate sales are a fantastic place to find some amazing books if the homeowners were old enough,” says Grybos. “I often stop in on the last day of an estate sale as books are rather bulky and often the owners are happy to sell off the book inventory at more reasonable prices.”

In her tireless search for antique books, Sutton has become an avid user of EstateSales.org. “Estate sales are a wonderful place to source highly collectible books and estatesales.org is an excellent resource that I utilize daily,” she says.

Antique vs. Vintage Books

Most rare book collectors agree that antique books are far older than vintage books, an important distinction for the purpose of collection and resale. “I classify an antiquarian or antique book as one that is at least 100 years old and collectible—in good enough condition to be read or resold,” says Grybos. At VintageBooksToRead, Grybos focuses mainly on selling vintage books, which he classifies as published before 1980.  

This 1880 first edition of “The Works of Charles Dickens” is decidedly antique at more than 130 years old.

Sutton agrees that a book must be at least 100 years old to be classified as antique, but her definition of vintage has more to do with age than the 1980-mark. “Vintage books require at least 20 years to have passed since publication,” she says. This means, as of 2018, a book published in or before the year 1998 could be considered vintage.

A 1989 edition of “My Turn: The Memoirs of Nancy Reagan.” Because this book is more than 20 years old, but less than 100, it is considered vintage-not antique.

Avid book collector Adrienne Lorton admits there is some discrepancy among collectors about what qualifies as vintage. “The term vintage can have different qualifying ages depending on the source and the item,” she says. “I have heard specific collectors require books to be anywhere from 15 to 50 years old to qualify as vintage. However, the most universal number I have found is 20 years. This means those books that were published in or before 1998 are vintage.”

First Editions

The inside cover of a first edition Mark Twain book.

The Antiquarian Bookseller’s Association of America defines as first edition as all “of the copies printed from the first setting of type; can include multiple printings if all are from the same setting of type. Every printed book has a first edition, many never have later editions.”

A first edition of Dr. Seuss’s “One Fish, Two Fish,” with the required dust jacket.

Sutton warns that identifying a first edition book can be a major challenge. “First edition identification varied widely among publishers until the early 1990s,” she says. “For example, prior to 1990, Dr. Seuss first edition books require their original dust jacket for authenticity. Missing the dust jacket? You are out of luck.  Similarly, identifying first editions within the Nancy Drew series requires a dust jacket so that you can view the list of titles on the jacket. These titles indicate the year that the book was printed.”

A first edition copy of Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte, published circa 1981.
Copyright date: 1981.

Additionally, it is important to distinguish between first edition and first print. There can be multiple printings of a first edition. A first print is the first order of books from the printer. Once all those are sold, more are ordered-this is the second printing, and so on and so forth. J.K. Rowling’s “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” had only 500 copies published in the first printing, one of which recently sold for more than $80,000. First edition first prints are usually worth far more than later prints of first editions.

This 1884 edition of Mark Twain’s “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer” is a second printing, meaning it was part of the second order of the first edition of this book.

Where to Find Antique Books

Estate Sales

Estate sales can be an excellent resource for finding antique, vintage and rare books.

As discussed in the introduction, estate sales can be a gold mine for bibliophiles. Sutton, who browses EstateSales.org daily to find deals in her area, advises reading the full description of the sale and also browsing through the pictures to get a sense of the person’s interests, which can provide insight into what kind of books you will find. “The photographs of the items for sale in the home often provide a much clearer idea of what I might be able to find, as the written descriptions often just list ‘books,’” she says. Just recently, Sutton found an sale on estatesales.org that listed books in the description, but upon browsing the photos she was thrilled to see dozens of shelves lined with atlases, magazines, reference textbooks and novels. “There was no question in my mind,” she says. “I stopped there later that day and I purchased boxes of books.”

Book Stores

Local book stores can be an excellent resource for both new and veteran rare book hunters.

While it often presents a more expensive option, independent book stores can be a great starting point for a beginner book collector. “Almost anywhere in the United States has a book shop or book dealer nearby,” says Grybos. “You’ll pay retail for anything that catches your fancy there but these gatekeepers are the greatest resource you have if you do decide to begin collecting.” Especially if you’re seeking a specific title or author, book stores are a great place to shop. Additionally, you can learn a lot from the store owners and employees who are deeply embedded in the world of books.

Auctions, Thrift Stores, Garage Sales

It’s not uncommon to find large stacks of books at garage sales and yard sales. Some of those stacks could be hiding a highly valuable book.

For Mary Elizabeth Cole, owner of the AntiqueBooksGalore Etsy shop, rare book hunting is a family affair. “My brother and I have always loved going to garage sales together,” she says. “We call ourselves the sibling pickers. I also find beautiful books at auctions, antique stores and thrift stores.” Where there is a selection of older and used items, one is likely to find books. And where one finds used books, one could potentially find a real gem.

Starting an Antique Book Collection

If you are a lover of books and a lover of antiques, antique book collection might be a thrilling pursuit for you. And, as Lorton explains, starting a collection isn’t a daunting task: “Starting an antique book collection is actually quite easy,” she says. “Most people find it overwhelming and assume they don’t have the knowledge or money. But you don’t need much of either to start a promising collection.”

You don’t need abundant money or knowledge to start a thriving antique book collection.

Most any accomplished book collector will suggest that new collectors let their passions and interests drive the development of their antique book collection. “Focus on your subject area,” says Sutton of VintageBookworms. “This will truly make the experience enjoyable. Finding a book about the Booth family written by Edwin Booth’s daughter in its original form is an experience like no other—but only for the person who relishes Civil War history.” Cole of AntiqueBooksGalore agrees that new collectors should “choose the subject you enjoy the most, whether that is romance, science fiction, history, biographies or adventures.”

This 1977 vintage copy of “The Literary Cat” might not have abundant market value, but it’s intrinsic value would be high for a cat lover.

Subject matter isn’t the only theme collectors use for their shelves. Lorton’s early collection had an entirely different criteria. “Start your collection with an idea or theme in mind to help you guide your choices,” she says. “For example, I only purchased vintage hardback collectables with dust jackets if I liked the title or the cover. Likewise, I only purchased antique books with highly decorated covers.”

Some people prefer to start collections based on the physical beauty of a book rather than it’s subject matter. This 1930’s copy of “The Encyclopedia of Health and Physical Culture” might pose a draw even for collectors with little interest in medicine.

Sutton explains that starting a collection based on intrinsic value, rather than market value, will ensure that you are always successful in your collecting endeavors. “Intrinsic value is your own personal interest in the book based on your passion for the subject or the author. A good way to judge this is to ask yourself, ‘Would I want to keep it on my shelf for decades to come?’”  If the answer is yes, then the intrinsic value is high—and the book will make an excellent addition to your collection. Determining the market value of an antique or rare book is a different, though still very straightforward, task.

Determining The Market Value of an Antique or Rare Book

An 1890 publication of Victor Hugo’s “Les Miserables.”

If you are interested in reselling an antique book, or if you’re just curious about it’s market value, the first place to start is (as usual) the internet. “Check the sold listings on Ebay or a similar site,” Sutton says. “This will give you a good idea of how often the book sells, in what condition and at what price.” Be sure that you check the sold listings and not the listing price, as the listing price is often not an accurate determinate of the value of the book. The sold price shows you what someone actually paid for the book in the end, while listing price is the seller’s early determination of the book’s value (which may or may not be accurate).

An early printing of Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe, circa 1879.

A variety of factors can determine the price or cost of a book. “The market value of the book is based on supply & demand, age, condition of the book, the rarity of the book as well as its edition and printing,” Sutton says. “Any one of these elements could significantly diminish a book’s value.”

This 1946 copy of “The Joy of Cooking” has increased value because it comes with the original, patterned cloth hardcover.

Grybos of VintageBooksToRead focuses on three criteria when determining the market value of a book: “rarity, condition and collectibility,” he says. “Basically, how many copies are left, how good of a condition is the book in, and is it important enough to be valued by others for that time when you might want to resell it.”

How A Book’s Age Affects Price

Age and rarity are in many ways connected characteristics of an old or antique book. Older books are naturally more rare, because they have had to survive many more years of use and abuse. “Books printed in the 1700s will be more rare than books printed in the 1800s or 1900s,” says Cole of AntiqueBooksToRead.

A 1794 volume of William Blake’s “The First Book of Urizen” sold for $2.5 million in 1999. A combination of age and rarity came together to increase the book’s value.

While age can increase value because it increases rarity, be careful of sellers who slap a high price on a book simply because it’s old. “Age is not the sole defining issue but rather one factor of many in determining price,” Sutton says. As Cheryl Rambo of AntiqueBookHunters explains, “Some books can be very old and still very cheap because there were many printed or the author was somebody that nobody knew.”

How a Book’s Condition Affects Price

Damage, such as a ripped spine like the one seen here, can diminish the value of an antique book.

Condition is a fact that will dramatically affect the market value of any book, but can also affect your ability to enjoy the book as well (thus altering the intrinsic value). “The ephemeral nature of books makes condition critical,” says Grybos. “Keeping books in as best possible condition for your enjoyment and for future transactions means everything.”

An inscription, name or any kind of writing inside a book can diminish its value.

Rambo says that condition is always her first assessment factor when considering an antique book purchase: “Are all the pages intact? Is there writing on the pages? Does it have any mold spots?”

Mold can be a major problem in older books. “Water, moisture and humidity are all enemies of the book, so if you are at a sale and see boxes in a basement that have not been moved for months, be careful and give a close look over the items before purchase,”  says Grybos. 

Water is the enemy of the book and can seriously endanger a book’s condition.

Sometimes you can get a book cleaned and restored even if there is mold damage, but be sure not to store a moldy book with other mold-free books, as the fungus can (and will) spread. Worm holes are another thing to look for, but this is less of an issue if the book is more than 200 years old as they are likely to have at least a few.

The tightness of a book’s spine and bindings are an important factor in determining condition.

Other questions Rambo asks are, “Is the spine tight? Is the cover sun bleached?” All of these factors can decrease the market value of a book:

  • Damaged, ripped or torn pages
  • Writing on pages or covers
  • Mold spots
  • Worm holes
  • Loose binding or spine
  • Sun bleached or water damaged cover

Condition can be one of the most important factors in determining a book’s market value, so it’s important to assess the condition of an antique book carefully. “A missing page can easily destroy a book’s value,” says Sutton. “Take your time in evaluating the book before making the purchase.”

Start Your Collection!

An early printing of the Hardy Boys Mystery collection by Franklin W. Dixon, circa 1929.

Now that you know what impacts a book’s market value, you can start your own antique book shop! But, more importantly, you can ensure you won’t get ripped off when shopping for your own personal collection. Books are a gift that keeps on giving and, with the abundance of used books available at estate sales, thrift stores and auctions, you can start your collection today.

Thank you to the following individuals and businesses who shared their images of antique and vintage books for this blog post: 

Jennifer Sutton of VintageBookworms.

Sean Grybos of VintageBooksToRead.

Cheryl Rambo of AntiqueBookHunters.