By Kenneth Gloss
An old adage says, “You can’t judge a book by its cover,” but actually, there are those who specifically seek books with certain covers and sometimes pay top price because of what’s on the outside of the book, not the inside or who wrote it.
There are two different groups of people who buy books solely for their covers, either for specific collecting or design reasons:
Decorators: I once had a lady come by the shop and buy a whole shelf of books in mauve and taupe because those were the colors she had used to decorate her house. Many interior decorators scour bookstores looking for books in particular colors to complement a home or business’ decor. They often look for the elegant, richer appearance of leather-bound volumes.
The set designer for the movie Amistad called me one day looking for books to complement an early 1800’s law office. We had a whole series of law books from that period stored at the shop which we shipped to the designer.
The only drawback to buying books as decor is that the prices tends to rise when the customer puts more and more restrictions on the type and color of the book. Every “but” you add (it can be leather but it has to be dark brown leather), decreases the selection pool.
Cover Collectors: Before dust jackets became popular (around the time of WW I), many outside covers were intricately designed and were works of art in and of themselves. There are people who collect certain cover designs or bindings done by specific designers.
One of the more unique bindings is on copies of The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam. It was literally gem-encrusted with rubies and pearls tooled right into the binding. It is an exquisite looking design for which collectors are always on the lookout.
Some books from years ago had wood or glass bindings. These tend to be more expensive because they are virtually works of art that have been created by talented craftsmen.
When dust jackets came along, the books beneath no longer needed attractive covers and they became rather dull. As dust jackets became more popular and more elaborate, the value of those increased as well. A mint-condition first edition of The Great Gatsby, with the dust jacket sells for $100,000 and up. Without the dust jacket the book is worth $1000 and up. Dust jackets are more fragile than leather covers and often don’t survive as well. When a collector is lucky enough to find a mint dust jacket, it can be worth a great deal of money.
You don’t have to spend a lot to find books that have interesting covers. Since it’s the outside of the book, not the inside, that you are interested in, many of these types of books can be found at library and yard sales. Individually, these books might not look like much, but as you begin to collect and group them, they can really accent your shelves.
I started collecting cloth bindings a few years ago as a joke when I received the book Flushed with Pride, the Story of Thomas Crapper.” A few days later, I came across a book with a big eye on the cover called, We Never Sleep, the History of the Pinkerton Agency. My wife and I thought they would make an interesting addition to our downstairs half-bath. Eventually, I built some bookshelves in there and now have 300 to 400 of these Victorian-style books. They make for attention-grabbing conversation pieces and very unique decoration.
It can be fun to collect books for their covers. The excitement of finding something unique is half the reward. If you decide to start collecting books for their covers, choose a type that is relatively plentiful so that you spend more of your searching time rewarded with great finds. As you amass your collection, you can refine it and upgrade the condition.
Collecting books for their covers or cover art is something that needs to be done in person. Although the Internet and catalogs are great for searching for books, you really should see the cover before you decide if it’s the right one for you.
In recent years there’s been a resurgence in cover art. Some popular fiction books today are being released with leather bindings or unique dust jackets. There are even sets of books where the entire set makes a picture when the books are set in order. The only difficulty with collecting a set like that is that you need to buy the entire original set at the same time because when the books have been on different shelves in different light conditions, the level of fading varies among them.
No matter what type of cover you set out to collect, for decorative or artistic appreciation reasons, the hunt for those books is what makes it fun. You can drive down a back road and stop in an antique shop or swing by a yard sale at a neighbor’s house and find just the book you were looking for. You never know where the next great find might be.
Ken Gloss is the owner of the Brattle Book Shop America’s oldest and one of its largest antiquarian book stores in Boston’s Downtown Crossing. 2012 is the 63rd year of ownership by the Gloss family. Ken has appraised books on PBS’ Antiques Roadshow. Further information about old books and his public talks is available at www.brattlebookshop.com, by visiting the shop at 9 West Street or calling 1-800-447-9595.