Book collecting on a Budget

A while ago I was clearing out my loft when I came across some old Enid Blyton books I had enjoyed as a child. Needless to say, the clearing out went to pot and I spent the rest of the morning in happy pursuit of childhood pleasures. Since then I have begun to collect secondhand books, finding them in unexpected and fascinating places.

What makes book collecting exciting is that you don't have to be an expert seeking rare specimens. You can have just as much fun buying cheap paperbacks. And bookaholics like myself still love to do that, even in this age of the Kindle and ebooks.

The first thing to do is choose your area of interest. It might be a particular subject such as the countryside, biographies, old cookery books or you may be a local history buff and collect books on your own region. I seem to be currently obsessed with books about the theatre, eighteenth century actresses and courtesans. I’ve no idea why but I just love reading about them.

Is there a particular author that you love? Find one who has a number of books to their credit to make them more interesting to collect, but it doesn't matter whether it's Agatha Christie, Lee Child or Georgette Heyer, so long as you like them. Or perhaps you wish to collect a certain type of fiction such as thrillers or romantic novels.

Old magazines are also fascinating. Maybe you love nostalgia and would enjoy collecting nursery or children's books. You can do this not only by author, but also by illustrator, period or by age group. Don't neglect the more modern or mundane classifications of books such as those connected with TV series, films or a much-loved character. Remember that today's books and magazines are tomorrow's collectors items.

Market stalls are an obvious starting point, but try also charity shops such as Oxfam, Red Cross and Help the Aged, who often have shelves of cheaply priced books, and you have the added pleasure of helping them every time you buy anything. Rummage sales are another rich source where you can often pick up real treasures at remarkably low prices. Try secondhand bookshops by all means, and any local book fairs, but set your sights low, at least until you know your material; expensive antiquarian bookshops are for the affluent.

Once you start looking, you'll be surprised just how many places have cheap collectable books. Get into the habit of going regularly, and you'll be on hand when something exciting turns up.

Don't be shy about asking relatives or friends. They may have just what you want tucked away in their attic or garage. Often they're glad of a chance to have a clear out and are pleased to see the books go to someone who will appreciate them. House sales or auctions often sell whole boxes of books for a pittance and you can have a lovely browse through them at home before selling the ones you don't want back to a market stall holder.

Having got into the swing of your collection, you will soon want to know more about your chosen subject. Collect all the information you can find on it. Newspaper and magazine cuttings are a good source as well as the internet. Keep a record of what you’ve bought, and how much you paid.

What should you look for when buying a book? How do you know if it's worth the price? What sort of condition should it be in? All these questions may puzzle the beginner, but they needn't. The question of price is the easiest to answer: as little as possible. At rummage sales you can pick up copies for a few pence, but the condition will be variable. At charity shops you may pay a little more but the condition will be better. In the trade there are various descriptions known as standard book conditions for grading secondhand books. Mint means that a book is perfect, complete with dust jacket and indistinguishable from a new copy. Fine means that it has a dust jacket and is in excellent condition but has clearly been read. A very good book may have no dust jacket or a faded cover, and one that is classed only as good will show definite signs of use but will be complete, with no pages missing. Finally, the book in poor condition may be warped, show signs of damp or mildew damage to the spine. It should nevertheless be a complete copy even if the title page is missing. If it is foxed, it will have brown stains, often caused by age.

Don't be put off buying a book simply because it is in poor condition. It may be more valuable than it at first appears, particularly if it has some good illustrations. Ladybird books are a good example, since the early editions are very collectable. But even if it has no great value other than as a reading copy, there is a good deal of pleasure to be derived from this alone. Times can change the situation if finer copies become rare. Collectors on a tight budget shouldn't worry about looking for first editions or mint copies. Buy what you fancy. Try for a good copy, but if you find a title you want in poor condition, pay less.

Books are going to become even more rare in this digital age, so start collecting now.

There is always the possibility that you might find something really valuable. A friend of mine once discovered an old copy of Peter Rabbit, autographed by Beatrix Potter herself.

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