In last week’s column, I’d walked into a local comics shop with some “Silver Age” Marvel and D.C. comic books from the early 1960s, comics with 10-cent cover prices theoretically cataloguing at hundreds of dollars each, but actually in typical “fair to very good” worn condition and thus not likely to retail at more than 10 percent of that.
Asked what percentage of his shelf price he intended to pay me, the proprietor told me “Twenty percent.”
A substantial parenthetical may be justified: Once upon a time, reputable booksellers might offer you one-third of the price at which they planned to place a book on the shelf. Since those days, taxes have gone up, regulatory extractions have gone up, electric bills have gone up, government-imposed employee costs have gone up, insurance costs are about to go way, way up, and the pace of book sales has slowed enormously, with young people apparently convinced they can learn all they need to know by manipulating the small electronic device they hold in their lap instead of making eye contact with anyone during dinner.
That means the book in which the book-seller is offering to invest his hard cash — despite the fact he will often price it lower than a new paperback reprint of the same title — may sit on his shelf for two years before someone either steals it, drops it on the floor to break its spine, or buys it during his annual summer discount sale.
This helps explain why — unless you can convince them you have a first printing of “The Canterbury Tales” — fewer and fewer booksellers will travel across town to look at some books you can’t accurately describe, once you utter that Bubonic Plague of garage-seller phrases: “I have no idea what they’re worth. Why don’t you come make me an offer?”
I still cannot explain why, more times than not, a good-faith cash offer made under those circumstances draws an instant explosion of shrieking, as the possessor of the split-spined, water-stained, no-dust-jacket treasure shouts “You’re a thief! I looked that book up online and it’s worth a hunnert dollars!”
Not, “Gee, I thought it was worth a little more. Can you explain to me how you came up with that number?”
Shouts of outrage.
Once the air has been poisoned with wails and cries about cheats and thieves, what is the honest bookseller’s incentive to remain and patiently instruct you that the “fine” first printing in a “fine” dust jacket that you spotted online may or may not be worth $100 plus shipping from Stoke-on-Trent — the fact that it’s still listed, after all, means no one has yet bought it at that price — but your bargain reprint with the number line ending in “5,” the rubbed corners and the tattered jacket is nonetheless a $20 book at best, meaning his offer of $4 or $6 is not only honest but actually handsome, given that without too much exertion he can probably find a matching copy for a buck in the neighborhood thrift shop — while your book club edition with no dust jacket is suitable only for leveling the short leg of that table on your back porch.
Why do people say “I have no idea what the book is worth …” if their asking price is actually $100? Why didn’t they say that on the phone yesterday, allowing the bookseller to respond, “Good luck with that,” and stay in his warm bed this morning with his kitty-cats?
Increasingly, experienced booksellers will respond: “You don’t know what your belongings are worth? Would you take 10 dollars for your car? Since I sell at 80 percent of market value, call me back after you’ve gotten a written professional appraisal and I’ll see if there’s anything I need badly enough to pay you 20 percent. I don’t drive around doing free appraisals any more.”
Anyway, the comic store man informs me that comics I’d valued at $50 to $60 might bring me only $10 to $12 apiece, at wholesale. OK. On with the experiment.
Two books were rejected completely, including the somewhat dirty Spider-Man No. 3 with pieces missing both from the cover and from an inside page. No offer. Not so much as a dollar. A comic that catalogs in the thousands.
The five books that sold — which I had valued at $40 to $60 each — netted me $12 total, $2.40 apiece. Maybe twice what I spent on gas, driving around.
And you’re planning to make a living haunting yard sales and “selling the old stuff for a fortune online”?
A few of the comics I saved — which Malloy’s “Comics Values” and the Overstreet “Comic Book Price Guide” again led me to believe might be worth $60 or so, and including an early 1960s Batman — went back into the brunette’s store at the antique mall in plastic bags in the open racks, priced at $12 to $19. A few have sold, in only a few weeks.
Unless it’s the love of your life, making a major “investment” in fragile old comics whose value is so heavily dependent on condition, I suspect, would be not only unwise but not much fun, since even taking the books out and reading them could cut their value in half.
Stick with utilitarian gold, silver, and guns. Don’t pay a lot extra for “perfect condition” engraved pieces that’ll lose half their value if you or your kid drop them on the garage floor.
How come Marilyn Monroe is still hot, while those endless piles of books moaning about Jack Kennedy and the lost glories of Camelot are not?
Mink stoles, once tokens of shameless wealth but now largely out of style, can go for $40 in the thrift shops — two or three bucks, corrected to the value of the 1960 dollar.
Values are highly variable. Unless you’re selling .44 Magnums or twenty-dollar gold pieces, don’t expect to get “catalog” price at your garage sale.
Vin Suprynowicz is assistant editorial page editor of the Las Vegas Review-Journal and the author of “Send in the Waco Killers” and the novel “The Black Arrow.” He also “helps out with the books and records” at Cat’s Curiosities, in the Charleston Antique Mall.