The rare book trade is so hot right now
Collecting rare books isn’t for everyone. But for certain individuals, holding a rare book brings a special kind of enjoyment. “There are copies of texts that have influenced world history in really significant ways,” Curt Roberts, a collector and partner of Kickstart says. “They’re out there in the real world—wouldn’t it be cool to have one of those?”
Roberts isn’t alone in Utah for having this fascination for rare books. “We have a surprisingly active rare book collecting community,” says Brandon Fugal, another avid collector and the chair at Colliers International. “I saw collecting as a means to preserve history and to also have a tangible connection to that history. I think rare books and historical artifacts provide a touchstone to our past and bring it to life in a unique way.”
Collectors like Fugal and Roberts make Utah’s rare collectible book market a vibrant one, with approximately a dozen booksellers across the state. The state’s interest is strong enough, in fact, that some collectors and booksellers founded the Utah Bibliographical Society, where around 65 people attended the inaugural meeting earlier this year. “It’s a book group of people who are by and large collectors, and it’s an opportunity for people to sit down, have a decent meal, and have a keynote about something bookish,” explains the group’s co-founder Kent Tschanz, a bookseller who manages Tschanz Rare Books.
The plan for the Utah Bibliographical Society is to have the group meet twice a year. Some collectors, however, have smaller groups who get together more often. “I also have a group of about 10 collectors,” says Mark Edlund, a collector who also co-founded the Utah Bibliographical Society. “We meet monthly and talk about book collecting and have an informal show and tell. I’ll bring a book or two and pass it around the table and others will as well. The emphasis is not on whether it is a really expensive book but on trying to bring something that no one has seen before.”
The types of rare collectible books Utah’s booksellers offer range from hundreds-of-years-old bibles to first editions of J.R.R. Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings. And, of course, books related to the “Mormon” faith. The demand for books related to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is so strong, in fact, that some booksellers specialize only in those works. “You’d be out of your mind to be a rare book dealer in Utah and not deal in Mormon books,” says Ken Sanders from Salt Lake City’s Ken Sanders Rare Books. “This is just the heart of it, and there’s an awful lot of traffic and trade in LDS books.”
And these books have high price tags. According to Sanders, an 1830 first edition of the Book of Mormon now goes for around $100,000 even though he estimates there are likely 2,000 to 3,000 in circulation, a relatively high number in rare book terms. The rarest and most valuable Mormon book, however, is the first publication of the Book of Commandments.
“The Book of Commandments is the earliest collection of revelations that was produced in 1833,” Chris Bench from Salt Lake City’s Benchmark Books explains. “At the time of publication, there was a mob incident in Missouri where they actually destroyed the press, threw it out on the street, and destroyed most of the pages that were being printed. There are only 29 known copies of that particular Book of Revelations, making it the most valuable and certainly most rare book in our trade.”
Sanders, who says he sold a copy of one of these printings in the 70s for $200,000, estimates that a copy of The Book of Commandments would be worth $1 million today. The vast majority of bookseller’s sales, however, are significantly lower than that. “Usually the bread and butter of any bookseller is going to be the $100 to $300 book, that’s the thing that keeps everybody afloat,” Tschanz explains.
The reason for that has to do with the relatively lower number of people who are both interested and able to pay for higher-priced items. “When you get into the really rare things of say, $20,000 and above, that really sets apart the people who are interested in that kind of thing that can afford that kind of thing,” Bench says.
The rare book business in Utah, however, is going strong at all price ranges. “My sales here are substantially more than they ever were in Dallas or Los Angeles,” says Reid Moon of Provo’s Moon’s Rare Books. “It doesn’t take a lot of people to keep me quite busy traveling around the world bringing back these rare books and documents.”
Moon travels to Europe to find works for his inventory, but several other Utah booksellers find books by keeping track of auctions, attending estate sales, and from individuals reaching out looking to sell their collections. “I am backed up right now for two weeks with appointments,” shares Tony Weller of Salt Lake City’s Weller Book Works. “I have 75 people waiting for house calls because they have over 500 books in their homes—I and the other dealers in our city cannot keep up with it.”
Even stores that sell a variety of wares see rare book sales as a non-trivial part of their business. “I would say more than 20 percent of my regulars are people that buy collectible books,” says Brandon Anderson of Salt Lake City’s 9th and 9th Books and Music, which also sells used non-collectible books as well as guitars, records, and local art.
With all this rare book buying and selling, one can’t help but wonder: how do you store these sometimes centuries-old works? “What I was advised when I first started in this process is why do this if you can’t have them around and actually show it to people?” Roberts says. “Their advice to me was to make sure the books are in a place where there aren’t significant changes in temperature or humidity, and if you can keep the conditions drier, the better. Dry in Utah is not hard, so I just have these things in locked cabinets, basically. And so if people visit us, I can take them out and I can show it to them.”
And even if someone isn’t a regular collector, there’s likely a rare book out there for everyone. “When it comes to gift-giving, especially those of us who don’t need a lot of stuff, a rare book gift can be one of the most amazing and memorable gifts,” shares Weller. An option to consider for all of us as we approach the holiday season.