What accounts for the almost rabid loyalty of Princetonians to the yearly Bryn Mawr-Wellesley Book Fair? Scholars love to pounce on books in their areas of expertise. Dedicated readers get a chance to spend time elbow deep in books they might add to their life lists. Parents try to feed the appetites of their kids for great books. And for seniors the fair is a great place to donate beloved volumes before downsizing from a sprawling suburban colonial.
Back when I had encyclopedic knowledge of Princeton Public Library’s children’s holdings, I would dart in when the doors opened to the public at 3 p.m. and start filling bags with books I thought my kids would enjoy. And not just literature, mind you. It was foragings that have left my son’s bookshelves with a near-complete collection of "Peanuts" paperbacks.
But the book fair, which benefits the fund that provides scholarships to Bryn Mawr and Wellesley to area college-bound students, has another set of customers – those interested in either buying or donating valuable books. The book dealers, of course, always come early, paying the extra premium that allows them to be the first to scour the shelves for good buys. Rumor has it that when no one was looking dealers used to hide sacks of books behind the bleachers at the Princeton Day School gym, where the annual sale is held, so that on "box day," at the end of the sale, they could pick them up for a song. But, says Fran Reichl, a Bryn Mawr volunteer, now many more volunteers are given the task of keeping the dealers on the straight and narrow.
The Bryn Mawr-Wellesley Book Sale opens with a preview sale on Wednesday, March 26, at Princeton Day School, from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. ($20 admission). It then opens to the public from 2 to 9 p.m that day. The sale continues through Sunday, March 30.
Reichl, who retired in 1999 as a professor of medicine and biochemistry at the University of Pittsburgh Medical School, did not graduate from either Bryn Mawr or Wellesley. After she married her second husband and moved to Princeton, her friend Lillian Gross asked her to help price medical books because the regular pricer, Claire Jacobus, had too many commitments.
A prodigious number of books arrive at 32 Vandeventer every Wednesday and Saturday morning from 10 a.m. to noon. "We are getting in about 65,000 to 80,000 books a year," says Reich, "and they are dumped in the middle of that inglorious little building, once a metallurgy shop."
The women sort the books into about 65 categories, one of the categories being the Collector’s Corner. Sarah Ferguson, a long-time volunteer who Reichl says has a nose for books that are valuable, lays aside books for Reichl to price. The volunteers do their best to uncover any book of value, including a second once-over once the tables are set up at the fair. "We probably still miss some," says Reichl, "and that’s what the dealers depend on."
When people donate books for tax purposes, they need to be able to estimate what a potentially valuable book is worth. This year Reichl is offering a workshop titled "Is This Book Valuable?" on March 27, 7 to 9 p.m.
Reichl offers these tips for estimating a book’s value, which she has learned through her own research and from her predecessor as queen of the Collector’s Corner, Virginia Kerr:
Decide on the book’s condition. Look at both the book and dust jacket very carefully and use the American Book Exchange rules to classify the book’s condition. The levels are New (an unread book with absolutely no defects), Fine (book is like new but without a new book’s crispness; jacket may have tiny defect); Very Good (book shows small signs of wear); Fair (worn book with complete text pages but may lack endpapers, like half title); and Poor (book’s only merit is that the text is readable).
Figure out whether the book is a first edition. "This is the hardest thing of all to do," says Reichl. "Book dealers can spend two or three days at it." But because this contributes hugely to a book’s value, it must be done. A quick way to know that a book is not a first edition is to look on the jacket to see if subsequent books by the same author are mentioned.
The difficulty in ascertaining a first edition is that different publishers have had slightly different systems for indicating a first edition. For relatively modern books, many publishers have indicated a first edition by including a "1" in the list of numbers at the bottom of the copyright page, for example, 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9. If you don’t see a "1," then the lowest remaining number indicates the edition. Books from before the 20th century will include the words "First Edition" up front.
Reichl warns, though, that not every first edition is a real first edition. For example, Book-of-the-Month-Club editions (these may look and feel like real first editions, but they will have a small circle or other pattern in the lower right corner of the back cover). Reprint publishers include Blakiston, A.L. Burt, Modern Library, Grosset & Dunlap, Hurst, Sun Dial, and Tower Books.
Among first editions, the most valuable ones are the first printings – the first couple thousand copies printed before the publisher knows how many books will sell. But this gets trickier. For example, the earliest edition may have had "points of issue" that had to be corrected early on. As a result, a copy of Somerset W. Maugham’s "My South Sea Island" of 1936 would be more valuable if the title page has the misspelling "Sommerset." Similarly for a version of Hemingway’s "For Whom the Bell Tolls," with a dust jacket back photo missing the photographer’s name underneath.
Because of the high potential for errors, Reichl says, "I’m careful not to list our books as first editions." If you want to learn how to make these distinctions, she recommends bookthinker.com, whose tagline is "gold standard resources for booksellers and collectors."
For limited-edition books, do the research to price them correctly. When pricing most books, Reichl goes online and checks addall.com, which searches over 40 bookselling sites, but that doesn’t always work. "Sometimes I’m completely stumped because a book is not for sale anyplace," says Reichl.
This year one donation was a boxed set (the people had made the box themselves) of photographic copies of the masters using a demanding photographic process called mezzotint; each picture was matted and could be separately framed. One of the hits she got by entering "mezzotint" and "gallery of masterpieces" on Google, was page 39 of the January 1905 book "Primary Educatio n." There Reichl found that the work was distributed by Doubleday, Page and Company. She also talked to a photoprint shop in Philadelphia that also had a couple of the masterpieces, selling for $950, but was not interested in acquiring any more.
Look for author signatures. Signatures are a big deal, says Reichl, and add significant value. Last year the sale offered a signed copy of a first edition of Tony Morrison’s "Beloved."
Hold on to the dust jacket. Dust jackets increase the value of books significantly. Last year the sale had a copy of "Tarzan," for example, that was one of only three online with a dust jacket, so they priced it at $300. Sometimes it is the art on a dust jacket that makes it interesting, says Reichl.
The book business at the Bryn Mawr/Wellesley sale has changed, even since Reichl started working on the sale. It used to be noisy on the first day, with dealers shouting at one another and tossing books into enormous plastic bags that they would leave on the floor to go through later. Now they are using ScoutPals (which read ISBN codes, check online, and return the current Amazon price) to go through books one by one. "That’s how they know how much they want to pay for book," says Reichl.
Dealers usually are looking at specific categories where they think they will get a good price. The volunteers price books at somewhere between one-fourth to one-fifth of what a dealer can ultimately get. On occasion, a book worth a lot of money might be priced at 50 percent what a dealer could get for it, figuring everyone will still make money on the deal, like a geological survey map of New Jersey from 1872 that is selling on the Internet for $1400. "We are not trying to put the price so high that people don’t buy," says Reichl. "Our aim is to sell books."
Reichl is a Pittsburgh native whose father was a carpenter. She attended the University of Pittsburgh on a scholarship, where she got a bachelor’s degree in chemistry. She earned a doctorate in biochemistry at Pitt and, after a year’s postdoctoral fellowship at Harvard University, returned and stayed there through the end of her professional career. Her research was on the structure and function of the insulin receptor.
When her husband died after a long illness, Reichl says she had a tough few years but eventually started seeing a man who had been her husband’s friend before they married. They linked up again after his wife died, because he had relatives in Pittsburgh.
Reichl now works on curricular materials for elementary-age students to help children appreciate the life around them in the backyard. Her volunteer work with the book sale has brought her several good friends. "The ladies are wonderful," she says. "It’s not that easy to find a class of people who are extremely well educated, interesting, and can hold a conversation in which I learn something all the time."
Bryn Mawr-Wellesley Book Sale, Wednesday through Sunday, March 26 to 30, Princeton Day School, the Great Road, Princeton. Lottery system for preview sale with $20 admission on Wednesday, March 26;.open to the public from 2 to 9 p.m.; Thursday and Friday, March 27 and 28, 10 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Saturday, March 29,10 a.m. to 7 p.m. (half-price day); and Sunday, March 30, 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Workshop, "Is This Book Valuable?" on March 27, 7 to 9 p.m. www.princetonol.com/groups/brynmawr or 609-921-7479.