If rare and antique book collecting has always intrigued you, Jonathan Smalter, owner of Yesterday’s Muse Books in Webster, New York, offers some sound advice on the topic. In addition to operating an independent used and rare bookstore for 10 years, he belongs to the Antiquarian Booksellers’ Association of America, and has served as vice president of the Independent Online Booksellers Association. He has dealt in book sales for 15 years.

A common question any collector raises is “How do I know what it’s worth?”

No one wants to pay too much for an item, yet value can be a relative factor. For books, the edition and any unique features such as an autograph or former ownership by a famous person can raise the value, according to Smalter.

To avoid purchasing too high, Smalter advises sticking with booksellers to build mutual trust.

“It’s difficult to give criteria that you’re always getting a good price,” he said. “If they have a reputation of offering reasonable material at good prices, you can feel confident that the price is based on knowledge of the trade and research, and what other comparable copies of the book are out there.”

Membership in trade organizations such as ABAA can also help since these organizations don’t just accept anyone with a membership fee.

“Members of that organization are very thoroughly vetted,” Smalter said. “They need primary and secondary sponsors, letter of recommendation and walk-through of their premises. They don’t let members who have earned membership retain it, if they don’t stay in.”

The IOBA operates similarly, but focuses on online operators.

“They have a code of ethics and access to resources that someone just selling out of their garage wouldn’t have access to,” Smalter said. “They are not focused on collectibles the way the ABAA is.”

He also advises researching books you’re interested in before a sale or shopping expedition.

When selling, it can be tricky pricing your books. If you go too high, it drives off customers. Yet, going too low erodes your profits.

For pricing, Smalter turns to websites such as www.bookfinder.com, since it aggregates information from numerous other sites. Too many inexperienced people sell on sites like eBay and Amazon, and therefore search results on those sites may not be a reliable barometer of accurate pricing, according to Smalter. He said general-public sites like these also do nothing to screen sellers for accuracy or even basic ethics.

Sometimes, subtle differences affect the price dramatically. Smalter noted that hardcover editions of the book “Catcher in the Rye” released shortly after the first edition, which closely resemble the first edition, sell for only $50 to $200, if in good condition. But a hardcover first edition in the same condition can fetch $10,000.

“If you only do that first step of research, you can make huge mistakes, especially if you look just on eBay for pricing,” Smalter said.

He also likes www.rarebookhub.com, a subscription service that tells the pricing of books that have been sold at auction during the past 50 years.

Smalter helps organize the Antiquarian Book Fair in Rochester, New York. The annual event attracts 600 people for the one-day event. Some are serious collectors, others are students researching and still others, curious passersby.

“In general, booksellers at events like these are traditional booksellers that will have quite a bit of experience, good reference librar(ies) and experience in doing research,” Smalter said. “You can feel a lot more confident about shopping at an event like this.”

The event began in 1972 and today features 50 sellers, mostly book dealers, from across the nation. They spread out their wares in a 35,000-square-foot showroom.

Storing Books

Once you purchase and take home your treasures, caring for them and storing them isn’t complicated. Smalter said that collectors store books in an area that doesn’t experience big swings in temperature, so attics and basements are not used. Humidity is okay, as long as the temperature is less than 72 degrees, and preferably under 70.

Exposure to high humidity and high temperatures causes mold.

Instead of sealing up valuable books, Smalter said that airflow is important so books can breathe.

“Most books, if you have them spine outward on a bookshelf, (will) be in good shape for a long time,” he said, “longer than a lot of people.”

Avoid shelving books so that their spines twist.

“If you have really heavy, thick books, you’ll want them flat on one of their sides or the weight of the pages will pull them away from the binding,” Smalter added. “With leather-bound books, if you don’t oil the leather periodically, it will dry out.”

He advises using archival paper to protect dust jackets from stains, tears and chips.

Deborah Jeanne Sergeant is a freelance writer in central New York.

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