The Mysterious Bookshop

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Without question, condition is the most important element to consider in book collecting, indeed, in the pursuit of any collectible, how it has held up over the years is of paramount import.  Herewith a look at what a collector of vintage books may look for in grading a title:

Most times a letter grade of sorts will be affixed to a book, within certain understood parameters. The dust jacket, if present, will be given a separate grade.  Thus if you have a pretty perfect copy of, say, Goldfinger, it might be listed as NF/NF (Near Fine/Near Fine), indicating that both the dust jacket and the book itself are virtually free of defects except for the lightest of wear.  And we can assume that if a book is in pieces and falling apart, it is in Poor condition.  But what about books that fall into the vast area in between?

First, let’s define a few terms.  The ‘binding’ refers to a number of pages tied together in small groupings, called ‘signatures.’  A nice tight binding is obviously desirable, so try this simple test--place the book on a table, spine down.  Open it to a random page, and let go.  If it snaps shut, the binding is nice and tight and no one can complain!  If it stays open to that page, then it’s been read, hopefully lovingly, but the binding is no longer tight.  Any description of the book with the collector/buyer in mind should include that fact.  ‘Extremities’ is another commonly used term and generally refers to the areas along the perimeter of a book or the dust jacket--the corners of the front and rear covers and especially the top and bottom of the spine.  The ‘hinges’ are where the front or back cover meets the rest of the book (the ‘book block’) and if the hinges are said to be ‘started’ that means that the cover(s) are starting to tear and separate from the book block, or at least from the paper pasted to the inside front or back covers. (The ‘pastedown.’) The ‘boards’ are simply the front and rear covers, so called because they are usually made of stiff cardboard or some such material and covered in cloth, hence a possible reference to a ‘clothbound’ book. Note also that these condition parameters apply equally regardless of the type of binding, hardcover or softcover.  For very old books, most sellers will take into account issues of extreme age when listing and pricing books for sale. If you’re an experienced collector or pondering starting a collection, the same rule of thumb applies; all else being equal, collect your books in the very best condition that you can afford: 


Poor/Fair--In bookseller’s parlance, a ‘reading copy’  is a book good for actually reading the story only.  May be in pieces, be torn, be written on or otherwise abused.  Expect very low to nonexistent prices here for all but the rarest and most noteworthy books.

Image result for vintage booksImage result for vintage books

Good--Good isn’t actually so good; a bit of a misnomer here.  Good is basically the lowest condition there is for a salable book.  It should be complete with nothing missing or detached. It may have some water damage, called ‘dampstaining.’  It may show significant wear, especially to the extremities.  Whether the extremities in question are of the book or the dust jacket should be specified.   

The Bat Wing by Sax Rohmer, pictured below, is in VG condition, with average wear to the extremities and a darkened spine.  The DJ is Good at best with an open tear and tape repair to the bottom of the spine.

Very Good--Very good or very good plus is the average condition of a vintage book, and it is in this kind of shape in which you will find most antiquarian books.  Some wear is acceptable, certainly the book will have been read, sometimes extensively, but there shouldn’t be any major defects.  There will be some wear at the corners and to the top and bottom of the spine (i.e. the ‘extremities,’ remember?).  The pages may be browned, particularly in very old books. The binding should be whole and not cracked, the DJ should be whole, although some wear and even a small tear or two is all right.  If a dust jacket is torn without a loss of paper, it is referred to as a ‘closed’ tear.  If there is material missing from the DJ in the area of the rip, it is referred to as an ‘open’ tear.

Ofttimes the dust jacket or the book itself will show signs of having been left in the light.  A good example of a sunned spine can be seen in the image of Re-Enter Sir John by Simpson and Dane below.

Hunt Collins’s (pen name for Ed McBain/Evan Hunter) Cut Me In, pictured below, shows a VG dust jacket over a VG+-NF book. Note the small open tears and chipping to the spine ends of the DJ.

A nice copy of Ross Macdonald’s The Instant Enemy, a strong VG+, below.

Near Fine/Fine--A book that has been gently read once, if that.  Tight bindings, crisp corners, maybe a hint of wear to the extremities or the dust jacket, but something you’d really have to look closely to see. There won’t be any underlinings or highlightings in books graded VG+ or higher.

The Mother Hunt by Rex Stout, pictured below, is an example of a vintage book in Near Fine or Fine condition, the dust jacket and the book both showing only the most minor signs of wear.

See the first edition of The Maltese Falcon below, excellent condition! (And available here, like most of the other books your blogger has mentioned, by the way.)

Dashiell Hammett - The Maltese Falcon

Keep in mind that booksellers and collectors alike are very, very picky, by necessity!

Fine/As New--Brand spanking new, right out of the box, without even a hint of wear or any defects at all.  Relatively common for new books which can be plucked right out of the box, but scarcer and harder to find the further back in time we go!

Mind you, this is simply a basic guide to grading vintage books; ask your local antiquariat for more information.  Happy reading and we’ll see you soon!

Written by Ian Kern — February 08, 2016

Specializing in Mystery Fiction and all its subgenres, including Detective, Crime, Hardboiled, Thrillers, Espionage, and Suspense.

Located at 58 Warren St. in New York City, we are open Monday-Saturday from 11am-7pm.

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