Tuesday, July 2, 2019

Used Books In the Marketplace

 Used Books In the Marketplace

In the past few months I have visited several collections from people who wanted to give away books.  Some of the people are downsizing and wanted to get rid of books they no longer needed, and others are from the estates where the family do not want the books. Other people have just dropped off their unwanted books in the library and didn’t even want a formal letter of thanks.  They all thanked me for taking the books off their hands as if it was special mitzvah to take the books.  When gifts come to the library the condition is always the librarian can keep, sell or discard the books at their own discretion.[1]  Over the years I have acquired some valuable books but also one person’s junk has become my disposal problem.  Usually this condition is not a problem.  Once a widow gave books that her late husband, who was a rabbi, collected to the library.  That was before I knew enough to make the donor sign a paper.  I orally asked if all the relatives took what they wanted. The widow said, “yes.”  A few months later, a daughter came to the library and want ed to look at her father’s books and take what she thought was hers.  Many of the books had already been added to the collection or disposed of. It was a family dispute that I didn’t want to be part of.

Let me offer some thoughts on the used book market.

In my earlier years I wanted to gather lots of books in my areas of interest. I wanted scholarly and important books.  My current collections have more than 6600 items[2].  I can’t afford the space for very many new acquisitions.  While in college I was a student worker in the JTS Library.  I acquired many important books from library discards. The discards are from donations that the library didn’t want or duplicates that the library no longer needed.  Over the years I acquired some books with author autographs.  Some of the books have stories.  In November 1973 I acquired a book by Abraham L. Lassen The Commentary of Levi Ben Gersom on the Book of Job.  It has an autograph dedication, “To Dr. Solomon Goldman, Highly esteemed colleague and friend, A. L. Lassen.”  Dr. Goldman (1893-1953) was the rabbi of Anshe Emet of Chicago from 1929 until the end of his rabbinic career.  His family donated many of his books to Jewish Theological Seminary Library. I know the date was November 1973 because the library stamped the date and the name of the donor. Abraham Lassen,1883-1957, was the rabbi of B’nai Zion in Chicago.  This book has value for its intellectual content as the forward by Louis Finkelstein states and as an historical artifact because of the autograph.  No copies of this book are listed for sale on Amazon. The monetary value is uncertain.[3]

Rabbi Goldman was very well known locally as the rabbi of a major congregation and nationally known for his work with the Zionist Organization of America and United Jewish Appeal.  He wrote several books and two titles are in my collection.

Rabbi Lassen was less well known.  I found two volumes in my collection that were from his library.  I have no recollection or information as to how I acquired them. However, I do remember getting books from B’nai Zion when they were closing the building.  The congregation merged with Shaare Tikvah in 2002.  The Rogers Park Neighborhood had changed.[4]  Here is a picture of a title page with his ownership stamp.

In June 1977 I went to the Brandeis Book Sale and bought a book for 5 cents, Der Baalschem  kulturgeschichliche Erzalung / von Judaeus. I bought it because I had very few Jewish books written in German.  I found in a Jewish book store the English translation, The Baal Shem of Michelstadt / by Judaeus.  Translated by Manfred F. Kuttner.  Kuttner, the translator, says that he remembered the book from his childhood. He said it was a favorite of the boys of his home town, Frankfurt-am-Main, Germany.  In 1969 Kuttner started searching for a copy. He finally found a copy in the Landes und Hochschlule Bibliothek in Darmstadt.  Their copy survived the Holocaust.  The library was willing to send him a photocopy for $7.00. 1969 was before WorldCat and the Internet.   He sent the money and received the 190 pages of this historical novel. I had a copy and it cost me only 5 cents. Today I did a search for the original German and found copies in many libraries.    There is an electronic version of the 1907 edition available for free on Google Books. The one in my collection is the second edition dated from 1912.

The used book business is harder than retail businesses that sell new merchandise.  There is no way to predict inventory.  In a regular store, the time to list an item can be spread over many sales.  If the store is part of a chain, the listing costs may be spread over many stores. When the inventory is low, the store reorders.  All they do to the record is change the number in stock.  The listing time becomes a minute part of the sales process. 

Selling used books is very time consuming. Each item is essentially unique.  I have to inventory each book.  I never know if I will ever get another copy.  When I list an item, the time investment is for one item. The item is listed online with Amazon or eBay and I have to keep a personal database of all items. I have about 900 items for sale.  I don't make a living selling books.  I am lucky to sell 2-3 books per month.  Selling is part of my mission to get books into the hands of those who can use them.  The used book market is the only way to get out-of-print books. Books that have little monetary value I try to give away.   

Very, very few used books have value beyond the retail cost when new.  Even if you see a very high price on an old or famous book it is not likely that that the resale price is higher than what the person would have earned depositing the price of the book in a bank at time of purchase and accruing interest.  Books do not increase in value like the stock market.  However, some books have a value far beyond money.  Many books have influenced life and civilization far beyond monetary value.

Young people who want books would rather purchase a new book because it looks nicer.  I once had a whole Talmud to give away that was hard to give away.  Not even 9th graders starting yeshiva would take the set for free.  They wanted the latest printing because of the commentaries in the back or had no room on their shelves.  While I once sold a book for $600, there are few people who collect books like that.  If one wants the intellectual content, it is available on-line for free or low cost.  Few people can afford the time and space to build valuable collections.

Many libraries including those I have worked in have received as gifts books that they could not have afforded to buy when they first came out and can't afford the time and money to purchase on the new market.  I accept books on the condition the library can keep, sell, or give them away.

In recent months members of the community have asked me to take their books.  One was from the estate of a prominent rabbi.  The children and grandchildren took a few books.  I even insisted that one grandson who is starting his first job as a rabbi take some of the important books because they are basic Jewish books and because they belonged to his grandfather, even though the books could have been purchased new.

Another collection from someone who is downsizing and moving had no books that I found of interest.  The important books were old and tired looking and had no monetary value.  The others just had no resale value.  While I love looking at collections that I could take for free, I have no room for more inventory.  Last summer I took 21 boxes of books from a deceased professor.  He had many books that I added to my collection and I was lucky to find buyers for other items.  The buyers got good deals when the price was compared to retail, and I made money for my time.  Some items cost more than $200 when new and I can't even get $10 for them today.

Since the 1990’s Orthodox, Conservative and Reform congregations have replaced their siddurim (prayer books) and Humashim (Five Books of Moses).  Many of the old books are in good condition. The concept of burying of holy books that are not  worn out beyond use does not seem appropriate for volumes.  In previous times when books were more dear only worn out books would be buried or disposed of.  However, old Siddurim and Humashim even in good physical condition have limited value. Few people want them.  I have been able to give away a few Humashim  edited by Joseph H Hertz[5] to individuals and some to small or new congregations. This was a standard book to follow the Torah readings in synagogues from the 1940’s to the 1990’s. There is one interesting story -- the synagogue where my Aunt Rose was a member (she died in 1979) gave away their Hertz Humashim to a synagogue in another city.  One day I got a call from a distant cousin in that shul.  She found the Hertz Humash with a book plate indicating that my Aunt Rose had donated that volume. 

For a synagogue library I would recommend for historical purposes having a collection of all the siddurim that the congregation has used.  The extra copies will probably go into shamot (books with the name of God in Hebrew letters) for burial unless you are very lucky to find new homes.  I proposed giving old prayer books to congregants but had no takers.  

Some of the most interesting items in my personal collections are non-traditional prayer books from the 19th century.  They are part of my historical collection. This is a picture of a reform prayer book for Temple Beth El in New York.  Even though this was published in New York the translation is in German. German was the language of the early Reform Jews.

Old books are a mixed blessing.  Sometimes new books have a very short in-print life making the only way to get a copy is the used book market place. Accepting used books in the library is a mixed blessing.  Each item has to be checked to see if the library wants to keep it or get rid of it.  There are a few places online for used books.  I choose to use Amazon because a Google search for a title will give the Amazon page. Scholars and collectors can get good deals buying used books.  The buying and selling process is very time consuming.  Buyers need to get lucky and find someone selling the books at a price they want to spend.  Sellers must be lucky to get a buyer willing to pay their price. Buyers and sellers must be dedicated to learning and getting books into the proper hands.

[1] If the donor wants a book plate that says, “Donated by” or “From the library of,” I have no problem filling that request.  I will also make a note in the bibliographic record of the donor.

[2]  Non-book items include audio and visual recordings, postcards, article, ephemera, broadsides, and theater programs.

[3] No one buys new books or even diamonds for their monetary value. The return on realia is the ability to use and admire them.  If you invested $1.00 in the stock market in 1946, the date of publication of this book, it would yield you about $1709.72 today.

I found in other libraries copies of this book with the author’s autograph dedication.  I have no idea how many copies were sold, but it has the indications that it was subsidy published. 

Edit July 18, 2019 Someone found tow copies listed on Amazon for $35. They did not show up on my initial search because the listings are deficient.

[4] For a fuller story of B’nai Zion go to: B'nai Zion, First Synagogue in Rogers Park
Posted on August 4, 2014 by Hope Shannon.  https://rpwrhs.org/2014/08/04/bnai-zion-first-synagogue-in-rogers-park/

[5] The Pentateuch and Haftorah / edited by J.H. Hertz was first published in 1936 (second edition 1960) by Soncino.  I received my copy when I graduated Hebrew High School and I still use it.

Comment received --
 July 15, 2019

Dr. Stuhlman,

Thank you for the blog reference. Your article resonates all too clearly with me. I have 450,000 items in my specialty collection and even though it is worth a great deal of money, has very many important items (many unique) of value for academic research, no university wants it without the funds to catalog and store it. As for Judaica, I have 40,000, some worth in the $1000. range, and almost all bought for $10.00 or less in used book stores in Jewish sections of Brooklyn. You know the story. An old Jew dies. The family who can't be bothered with books calls the "shamos man" who charges to take the books away. He pulls out the saleable volumes, often not even caring if he is breaking up a set, and puts them out on the $1.00 or $10.00 table because he doesn't have time to closely examine each book. Smart guys come by twice a day (on their way to shul in the AM and PM) and scan the tables, pulling out what they know to be the valueable items (often as you pointed out with inscriptions of importance) and then send them to auction or take them to the local "rare book" Judaica dealer, who doesn't have time to search the $1.00 tables.
It is a crazy world.

C.J. Scheiner, M.D., Ph.D.