Can you point to your first book? I can.
No, it wasn’t the first book I ever read, but it was the first collectible book I ever obtained. It started me on a journey that took me from nascent book collector, when I really had no idea what that meant, to sophisticated book collector, to professional book seller, to member of the Antiquarian Bookseller’s Association of America (ABAA).
The year was 1967. I was a 19-year-old sophomore at San Jose State University. My girlfriend at that time knew I was a big John Steinbeck freak, having written just about every term paper in high school about him and his works. He was my hero. He died a year later.
For Christmas that year she gave me a book — a first edition of Steinbeck’s masterpiece, The Grapes of Wrath. I was thrilled. It was a very thoughtful gift, one that I would never have anticipated.
At that time I knew nothing about collectible books, but let’s take a peek at this specific book, which I still own, to see what I may have missed 48 years ago.
My first thought is that it’s missing the dust jacket which Elmer Hader so ably illustrated. Even a beginning book collector knows this is a major problem, a major flaw, but this missing dust jacket meant nothing to me back in 1967.
The cloth of the front and back cover has stray ink marks. Kind of ugly, eh? The spine panel is both faded and darkened. It’s far from being a sharp copy. Upon opening to either the front or rear pastedown and free endpapers, it’s easy to see that both are well-darkened. There is also a name stamp. These might be forgivable sins, but the book is missing the leaf that has the half title on the recto and a list of other books by the author on the verso. Uh-oh. This isn’t just a major flaw. It’s a serious defect.
None of these thoughts would have dawned on me way back then. In fact, it would be nine years later before I had even an inkling of this book’s faults when I first discovered the Bible of all Steinbeck’s bibliographies, Goldstone & Payne. That bibliography was based on the collection of Adrian H. Goldstone aided by John R. Payne, then a bibliographic librarian at the University of Texas which published the book.
By this time, I had grown as a collector and knew this book had faults, but I didn’t think it had this many, or that they were so egregious. I also had more experience as a buyer of my own collectible books so that I also knew that the $35 she paid in 1967 was way too much for this turkey. In fact, in 1967 she should have been able to find a total bitchin’ copy, with dust jacket, and minus all these flaws, for that same 35 bucks. In short, she was taken.
Still, I loved the thought behind the gift, and I have kept that book with me ever since, both as a reminder of her thoughtfulness, but also as a lesson to know your bookseller, how they describe a book, how they price a book, whether they stand behind their wares or whether they sneak away like a thief in the night once they have your money.
It wasn’t my girlfriend’s fault. She knew nothing about collectible books either. She simply found a local bookseller and relied on him. She didn’t realize that her bookseller of choice was a pirate. If either of us had a touch more sophistication, we would have known to find an ABAA dealer who specializes in modern literature. That would have resulted in my receiving that totally bitchin’ copy.
But owning such a copy way back then would have been lost on me. I might have kept such a book, or I might have sold it. I would not have remembered it. I might have kept it all these years, or I might have upgraded it. But never would I have learned the lessons I learned because of my first book.
It’s a very humble copy, but it has meaning far beyond its physical quality. It first taught me what kind of book collector I wanted to be back in those early years and then what kind of bookseller when I first went into business in 1980. I found those kind of booksellers when I joined the ABAA in the mid-90s.
Do you have such a book?