So, I’m a bookseller at an independently owned bookstore. We don’t have the luxury of scanning barcodes in any form, we hand price everything with a good old fashioned price gun, and manually type in the prices of each book as they are rung up. It allows a lot of freedom when it comes to dealing with second-hand stuff, so that we can price things as fairly as possible, but it also requires a little paying attention.
I spend a lot of time trying to figure out the value of the vintage books, using the internet and the little bit of knowledge I’ve accumulated on the subject as a humble book clerk without formal training. I’ve probably learned a thing or two incorrectly, but what I do know and apply is relevant to where I work and the customers who frequent our store.
The vintage books are only a small portion of what we carry, they probably make up 5% of what we carry in-store, but they draw a lot of people in. Less often do we get the serious collectors, so pricing has to make sense for what will help them sell.
Sometimes these priceless antiques are deliberately under-priced for the sake of getting it off the shelf, which is a little tragic, but practical when you’re hurting for shelve space for the new stock. That’s retail for ya.
This brings me to ISBN numbers. I use it as one indicator to know at a glance whether or not a book could or should be classified as “vintage.” The definitions vary, so I had to find my own true north, so to speak, so that the classification (in our store at least) isn’t completely arbitrary. Here it is:
Any book (with reasonable exceptions) that does not have an ISBN and is obviously older than 50 years is “vintage”.
This is because of the history of the ISBN number itself. In a nutshell, ISBNs were implemented in the late 1960s with the early days of computer technology so that everything could be cataloged and recorded.
Title Page to “Hornblower and the Hotspur” by C.S. Forester.
Publishing information for “Hornblower and the Hotspur.’ 1st edition, from 1962. Instead of ISBN it has a Library of Congress Catalog Number, which is not the same thing. So, this is vintage to me, if barely. (Also being a 1st edition Hornblower is a big deal.)
“The Rise of Ruderick Clowd”, but Josiah Flynt. 1903. I never heard of it either, but it’s still cool.
Copyright page for “Ruderick Clowd.” No numbers are assigned to it at all, just the year and publisher. 1st Edition.
That isn’t to say there aren’t books of immense value during or after that period, but we’re talking antiques and vintage tomes here, things that could possibly be haunted and super rare. (Okay, maybe not haunted, but it would be cool.)
Honestly, I don’t know if anyone who is certified or carries a degree in book history would agree with my chosen distinctions, but it’s served me well thus far. I’m still learning and striving to learn. It’s also worth mentioning that I work in the heart of retail while trying to maintain a respect for the books themselves, and I tell you, painful compromises have to be made on a daily basis.
But that’s a post for another day.