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Original Essays | September 18, 2014

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The Rare Book Room FAQ and Trivia

FAQs Trivia


Frequently Asked Questions

What makes a book "rare?"

The books in our Rare Book Room are not necessarily old or expensive, but they are all, to one degree or another, considered rare. Taken literally, the term rare is misleading. To be considered rare a book must be more than just scarce; it must be scarce relative to the demand for it. Often, beginning collectors assume that because a book is very old it must be worth a great deal of money. But there are many, many books printed in the 1700s that have no real value; they are scarce, but not rare in the book collector's sense of the word. Though just what does make a book desirable to collectors is much more difficult to answer, there are some common variables that often factor into the equation.

Sometimes only a particular edition of a book is rare, such as the first printing of a work, known as a first edition, a true first, a first issue or, sometimes, just a first. In some cases it is the signature of the author, the artwork contained in the book, or the typesetting, layout, or binding of an edition that makes it desirable to the collector. The signature of the author might be the key to a book's value, or, in the case of an association copy, the previous owner might be someone interesting or famous. Or, the information contained in the book may simply not be available anywhere else.

How do you price a rare book?

Just as a real estate broker considers "location" above all else, a rare book dealer's mantra is "condition, condition, condition." Though there are many exceptions, the most valuable copy of a particular title is generally the one closest to its original state: clean, crisp, possibly even unopened and unread. With older books, though, marginalia, and such things as manuscript pages used for endpapers, can add to the charm of the volume. At Powell's, we utilize a number of resources to determine a fair price for a book: We regularly consult our extensive research library; we use the Internet and bookseller catalogs to compare prices with other dealers; we factor in our own sales and auction records for similar copies; and, most importantly, we use the industry's strict guidelines for accurately defining the condition of a book.

How do I know if my book is valuable?

Though you can get a rough idea of a book's value by using various online search engines to compare prices for the same title and edition (often throwing out the highest and lowest prices and averaging the rest will give you a ballpark figure), it's necessary to have a specialist actually look at the book to determine the value of that copy. Accurately determining a book's value can be a complex process. Though Powell's does not conduct formal appraisals, our buyers can give you an idea of what we believe the value of a book to be. If you would like one of our buyers to give you an estimate of the value of your book(s), please see the next question.

Will Powell's buy my book(s)?

If you think you might have a rare book, one of our Used Book Buyers would be happy to take a look at it for you. Our buyers are knowledgeable and quick, and will give you their assessment of the book's retail value to Powell's. You can determine value from there. You are under no obligation to accept the bid offered, of course. To have a Powell's buyer look at your book(s), please visit the buyers' table in the Orange Room at The City of Books, or at our Hawthorne or Beaverton stores. Other arrangements can be made for purchasing particularly large or valuable collections: please contact our buyers at 1-800-878-7323 ext. 559.

  1. Please note:
  2. We cannot assess the value of a book over the phone or online. Just as no one reputable would give you the value of an automobile without driving it, a book must be physically inspected to be properly evaluated.
How do you properly care for a rare book?

Rare books must be treated with respect as their condition greatly influences their value. Never pull a rare book from the shelf by the top of the spine. Instead, push the two neighboring books back and grasp the one you want in the middle of the spine. Do not open a rare book any farther than it wants to go and always hold it in both hands. If the volume is heavy, take it to a table before opening it.

Most books do not need museum quality care or extreme temperature control. When caring for books in your own home, keep in mind the following rule of thumb: books like to live where people live. The attic is too hot and dry, and the basement too cold and damp. Keep rare volumes upright or lying flat so that the spines remain straight. Leather books actually benefit from being gently handled since the oils from your skin keep them supple.



Rare Book Room Trivia

What is your oldest book?

The oldest book we have at the moment is a De Bello Judaica. [And] De Antiquitate Judaeorum Contra Apionem published in Verona in 1480.

What is your most expensive book?

Presently our most expensive book is the two volume History of the Expedition Under the Command of Captains Lewis and Clark to the Sources of the Missouri, Thence Across the Rocky Mountains and Down the River Columbia to the Pacific Ocean, published in Philadelphia in 1814. This set is the first public description of the journey of Lewis and Clark and has a fascinating history. The price is $350,000.

How many books are in the Rare Book Room?

We have approximately 9,000 volumes in our rare book collection.

How much are the books in the Rare Book Room worth?

The 9,000 or so volumes in our collection are worth about $1,800,000. On average that's about $200 per book.

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