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A Buyer’s Market
Although current prices of good second-hand and antiquarian books seem relatively inexpensive or have declined in some cases, using the early 1960s as a baseline the prices of most other things we buy have generally increased about eight to ten fold since, with some rather odd deviations on both the low and high side.
The cost of a first class postage stamp, recently raised to 41 cents, held at 4 cents from 1958 to1963—prior to that the first class rate of 3 cents lasted from 1932 until 1958. During most of the 60s, the “book rate” (now called “media mail”) was nine cents for the first pound and five cents for every pound additional—the “library rate” was even less. In later years increases have been larger and more frequent, nearly following a hyperbolic curve.
A good mid-priced car will set you back around $30,000 to $35,000 these days—about a tenth of that would have done the job in the early 60s. New cloth-bound trade fiction (and non-fiction) was priced between four and five dollars ($3.95 or $4.95 seemed to be fairly common at the time)—about a seventh of the undiscounted prices of most current trade books. Inflation in food prices (bread, chicken, beef, fresh vegetables & fruits, canned goods and the like) seems to be within or close to the same ten-fold range.
Gasoline is currently about ten times what it was in the early 60s—either side of 30 cents a gallon then, a little over $3.00 now. Generally within the overall inflationary range but to hear complaints from owners of large SUVs, motor homes, power boats, ATVs, snowmobiles, jet skis, and garden tractors as well as the people from MoveOn.org, one might think we’re being “gouged” (the current tabloid term) by the oil companies and that the right to cheap fuel is engraved somewhere on our birth certificates. It really isn’t all that bad, and probably a good thing if it forces us to get serious about alternative, non-polluting energy sources while reducing demand for the world’s dwindling oil reserves. (In the 60s, the cars we drove were getting only twelve to fifteen miles per gallon—the two we have now give us at least three times that. On a road trip to Ohio last summer our four-cylinder, five-speed Ford did better than 50 mpg one way, a bit less the other. Looking on the bright side, that’s like paying ten cents a gallon during the 60s or $1.00 a gallon today).
College tuition is another matter. At nearby Syracuse University, annual tuition (excluding room, board, books, beer, etc.) was $1,200 in 1961. For the 2007-2008 academic year tuition alone is $30,260, more than 25 times what it was in ’61. Figures like that break all the curves and almost make the Post Office look like a charitable institution.
Medical costs are hard to figure. An office call to a family physician was around six or seven dollars in the early 60s and hospital stays, surgical procedures and drug prescription costs were a fraction of what they are now. But with individual medical malpractice insurance rates running well into six figures, and with class action lawsuits being something of a growth industry, one can only guess what pharmaceutical companies are paying for product liability insurance these days. I do suspect that a substantial share of our medical expense goes indirectly to pay lawyers and their clients.
The latest downward cycle in the housing market reminds us of tulip mania, the dot-com meltdown, the South Sea bubble, the hyper-modern craze, and so on. With sub-prime lenders and mortgage brokers encouraging people to use their homes as ATM machines by borrowing up to 125% of appraised value while financing the whole deal with an adjustable rate mortgage, is there anyone who didn’t see it coming? Fortunately, these aberrations correct themselves from time to time and over the long haul housing prices may not stray too far from general inflationary trends. But then I’m not pretending to be an economist.
Long distance rates are a small fraction of what they were in the 1960s, but when adjusted for inflation they’re a nano-fraction of what they were. No figures needed here for most of us—but for the benefit of people under 35, there was a time when it cost several dollars a minute to call almost anywhere overseas. Nowadays it’s well under ten cents a minute. Telephone companies seem to be doing well enough though—enhanced services such as broadband access and partnerships with digital content providers help make up for the loss in long distance revenue.
The anti-inflationary trend in relatively common, middle-of-the-road antiquarian books has been discussed in many forums, including this one. Since I maintain a complete file of all of my lists and catalogues going back to the late 1960s, I pulled out a random batch and checked several titles against what is currently available on the Internet. It’s a difficult comparison because not all of the books listed in my old catalogues were sold immediately—some may have been sold later on or may be lingering somewhere on my shelves. On the other hand, everything listed on a cooperative bookselling site is an unsold book and charity book sale volunteers sometimes confuse Internet prices with American Book Prices Current.
In Catalogue 7 (1968), a fine copy of Sir Edwin Arnold’s Japonica (NY, Scribner’s, 1891 was listed for $12.50. Bookfinder.com (the multiple listing service for antiquarian book sites) currently lists 134 copies for sale, mostly the 2004 Kessinger [sic] reprint. A copy similar to ours is available for $40.00 (plus $3.50 shipping). A modest increase, but lagging well behind the inflationary curve.
Catalogue 10 of the same year (Essays, Literary Criticism, Belles Lettres) shows a similar trend. A London 1906 Letters of George Birkbeck-Hill (editor of the 4-volume Oxford edition of Boswell’s Life of Johnson remained unsold at $12.50. A similar copy on Bookfinder is currently listed for $27.83 (of which $7.95 is shipping and handling—at the time (1968), assuming the book weighed three pounds, the postage would have been 19 cents). A New York 1898 Life and Letters of Lewis Carroll, edited by Collingwood, was sold to a college in Alberta for $8.00. Last week, of the 280 copies listed on Bookfinder, one similar to ours was offered for $25.00 plus $3.95 for shipping.
From the same catalogue, a fine two-volumes copy of Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s Family-letters, with a memoir by William Michael Rossetti (Boston, Roberts, 1895) was sold for $30.00. Bookfinder currently lists a similar one for $124.00 plus $3.99 shipping, a modest increase despite the deflationary pressures of Internet bookselling. A three-volume set of the Letters of Philip Dormer Stanhope, Earl of Chesterfield…(New York, Scribner’s, 1892) went to another academic library for only $22.50. One of similar description listed on Bookfinder last week was offered for $75.00 plus $3.50 shipping.
Fortunately, a fine, boxed, two-volume set in dust wrappers of Bram Stoker’s Personal Reminiscences of Henry Irving (New York, 1906), priced at $20.00, didn’t sell at the time. It was sold several years later for considerably more. As Irving’s long-time business manager, Stoker knew his subject—of course it didn’t hurt that Dracula had been published about nine years earlier. I spotted a set in lesser condition on Bookfinder last week for $500.00 plus the $6.50 shipping charge. In another example, a fairly common book, Gertrude Atherton’s Adventures of a Novelist (1932) went unsold at $7.50—the other day Bookfinder turned up many listings for the same title and one at $7.25 (which includes $3.50 for shipping) presumably remains unsold.
A book that was not listed in the 1968 catalogue, but made several round trips to antiquarian book fairs in the northeast during the 1980s, is Les Hommes Illustres de La Marine Françoise, Leurs Actions Mémorables et Leurs Portraits. Par M. Graincourt… Paris, Jorry (et) Bastien, 1780… (half leather, marbled paper-covered boards, raised bands, gilt tooling, etc.). It had been priced at $250.00 and has been slumbering on my shelves ever since. For nearly two months Bookfinder has been locating only two copies from the various on-line antiquarian book sites—the less expensive one for $1593.74 (after conversion from Euros), the other, in a fine binding, for $3163.44. I have since adjusted the price, but will not be offering it on the Internet.
Unlike food, fuel, housing, transportation, and so forth, books are not among the basic necessities of life required by most people (bibliophiles and avid readers excepted). A more thorough examination of antiquarian book catalogues from the 60s and 70s will probably show that the “rat race to the bottom” is only partly true. Although many good used books have declined in price, even more so when matched against overall inflation, the rare book segment of the market seems to be holding up rather well.
In my opinion, not since the 1930s has there been such a buying opportunity for readers and potential bibliophiles who might want to build a good working library. I’ve checked out various reading devices and so far I’ve seen nothing to match the Gutenberg 6.0. It has the best operating system I’ve ever used and unless you drop one on your toe, has never been known to crash.
A Practical Tip
If you’re bothered by unwanted streams of credit card offers (there’s always the worry that intercepted mail might assist identity thieves), there is something you can do, though it may not make the problem go away, will at least help send a message.
Credit card offers nearly always include postage-paid return envelopes that cost the sender only a few pennies to print. Rather than tossing them out, if instead you circle your name and address on the cover letter, write “please remove my name from your mailing list” and send it back in the return envelope, it will cost the offending credit card company an additional 41 cents plus a $1.11 service charge ($1.52 total).
This may seem like an empty gesture, but if millions of people did the same every week, the extra expense might encourage credit card companies to reduce the size of their mailing lists. After all, a few million here, a few million there and pretty soon we’re talking serious money. And if this suggestion should finds its way to the Internet, the credit card companies may eventually get the message.