The Block Island Times

Judging a book by its cover

Rare book dealer Ray Rickman talks scarcity and demand
May 23, 2013
Photo by: Stephanie Turaj Bill Ohley holds a copy of Hemingway’s “The Old Man and the Sea”, which didn’t quite turn out to a first edition.

With an appraising eye and a gentle hand, rare book appraiser Ray Rickman leafed through pages of a hardcover edition of Hemingway’s “The Old Man and The Sea.” The copy was a curiosity. Every indication was that it was a first edition published by Charles Scribners & Sons in 1952 and it had the original dust jacket. Yet, something was amiss.

“Not a first edition,” Rickman finally announced pointing to a mysterious seal on the credits page. “But the dust jacket is authentic and rare.”

This was a detail that an untrained aficionado of rare books would surely miss. As such, it had little value. But the dust jacket, which Rickman said Scribners printed in the thousands, was indeed rare. With a chuckle he handed it back to owner Bill Ohley with a suggestion. Find a true first edition of the Hemingway book and add the dust jacket. “Then you’ve really got something,” he said.

Rickman has been spelunking for books for more than 25 years in secondhand bookstores, at people’s yard sales and at libraries. He was a guest speaker at the Island Free Library on May 11. Over the course of a few hours, he shared his insights with about 30 Block Islanders, gathered to learn from him and to have works from their private libraries appraised.

Audience members handed Rickman book after book to appraise. Rickman didn’t hurry his pace. Carefully, he opened each old artifact, not the whole way, for that might damage the binding. He peered at the illustrations and the copyright dates looking for what he called that one in a hundred — the rarity.

In his quiet voice, he told the audience, “There is only one thing you need to know. It’s all about scarcity and demand.”

And with that, Rickman offered the island’s fledgling collectors snippets of advice. Forget about books on religion, especially old Bibles. Don’t buy a bad copy of a book unless it is written by the truly famous, such as Hemingway, Fitzgerald or Faulkner. Textbooks are second only to religious books in having no value. And quit writing your name in your copy of a book, unless you happen to be Eleanor Roosevelt.

As for book club editions, compendiums published by newspapers or print media, and books published by certain publishers (he cited Grosset & Dunlap), rule all of them out. Interesting as compendiums are, they are not valuable except to the owner. Book club editions have no value and Grosset and Dunlap is known for printing mass productions of books that are not true first editions.

Rickman used the dust jacket from the edition of “The Old Man and the Sea” to give his audience another bit of advice. Do not cut the price out of the corner of a dust jacket. Do not throw it away. A true first edition of “The Old Man and the Sea,” with an intact dust jacket jumps in value to $500.

“Everything you do to a book, lowers its price,” he continued, “Except the author’s autograph. And the rarer the autograph, the more in demand a signed book is. Some authors were prolific in signing their books, others not so. J.D. Salinger, case in point.”

Rules are meant to be broken

When it comes to the antiquarian book business, there are always surprises. On that afternoon, Rickman found a few among the books offered up to him for appraisal.

The first surprise was a Bible. He was shown a two volume illustrated Bible from the 1740s that has been handed down through generations of a family. Rickman smiles. This, he tells his audience, is the exception. The books are in beautiful condition, with exceptional illustrations. It is older than many he had seen. In this case he suggested taking the bible to a dealer in New Haven, Conn., who specializes in rare religious publications.

Rickman was shown a very early copy of “Acts of Laws of the Legislature of Rhode Island”; it was only the third copy he has ever seen. He suggested the owner consider displaying it at the library, for it is indeed unique.

There are copies of books that are not so rare but in high demand, such as a four volume set of the life of Abraham Lincoln written by Carl Sandberg and signed by the author, and another lovely turn of the century book about butterflies. The latter, he warns the audience, is an exception to the textbook rule, because of the four-color illustrations. And as for the four volume set? If you have only a few volumes, collectors won’t buy. If interested in a set, buy only volume one or an entire set, not volumes three and four, for example.

For the Love of a Book

For Rickman and those to whom he spoke, the collecting business is really all about the love of a good book. Though their antiquarian publications may not be valuable, he told the audience members not to throw a book into the trash. Instead, each member of the audience carefully bagged their appraised items to protect them from the rain outside.

The former host of a Rhode Island Public Television show called “Bestsellers,” Rickman blamed his father for his interest in the old book business. His father, he said, worked for the United Autoworkers. If young Rickman was visiting a city with his father, the latter would give his son 10 dollars to search secondhand bookstores for publications about unions and union issues. Young Rickman learned from the book dealers how to settle on a fair price and how to recognize a valuable book.

He ventured out on his own a little and began buying books about Rhode Island for a low price and reselling them in the Ocean State for more money. He started attending book fairs and learned first-hand the importance of the cardinal rule of scarcity and demand. Eventually he opened his own store, Cornerstone Books, in Providence. Though he has been a state representative, served as Rhode Island Deputy Secretary of State and is the founder of The Rickman Group, a management consulting business for nonprofit and government organizations, he has never lost his special love for books.

And sometimes, as in the case of the 1700s Bible, he smiles and says, “Well, we may have something here.”

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