Jean Marie O'brien And Her Dusty Books
The lure of dusty old books proved overwhelming for Jean O'Brien.
Thursday, February 20, 2003
Photo by Randy Tunnell
Like the call of the sea in John Masefield''s "Sea Fever", the siren call that lures many people into a used book store is one that "may not be denied." Whether one is looking for a specific title or just wants to take a few minutes to browse, the open door of the shop is too powerful a temptation to ignore.
Jean Marie O''Brien was always entranced by the seductive call of shelves and shelves of books, so when she retired after 38 years teaching English in southern California she purchased The Old Monterey Book Company in downtown Monterey as a retirement present to herself.
She now devotes all her time to what was once just an avocation--the collecting (and now sale) of fine old books. O''Brien is one of a handful of local members of the Antiquarian Booksellers'' Association of America, and the only one whose shop maintains regular hours versus a "consultation by appointment only" format.
Public interest in antiques, artifacts, paintings and even old books has skyrocketed, as witnessed by--or perhaps sparked by--such wildly popular television programs as PBS''s Antiques Roadshow. But the layman is often confused about what determines the value of a book. For example, many people aren''t sure of the difference between a "used" and an "antiquarian" book. As O''Brien points out, a "used book" is any previously owned volume, whereas an "antiquarian book" is one that is at least one hundred years old.
Age is not the only determining factor of a book''s value. Unless they are looking for a specific title to complete a library collection on a given subject, book collectors usually gravitate toward signed first editions with original dust jackets in good condition.
Obviously some author''s titles are worth a great deal of money. O''Brien specializes in signed first editions by local writers John Steinbeck and Robinson Jeffers. Since there is a lot of interest in both these men, their books bring a premium. For example, a signed, limited-edition copy of Steinbeck''s In Dubious Battle recently sold for $12,000, while a signed first edition of the author''s Grapes of Wrath went for $6,000.
It''s sometimes difficult to know which authors hold their value. As with any art work, much like stocks, the market for some writers can swing back and forth. Jack London, George Sterling, Mary Austen and Henry Miller are all writers with a connection to the Central Coast whose books have held up well. On the other hand, some internationally-renowned authors, like Oscar Wilde, have experienced roller-coaster fluctuations in the value of their books as they fall in and out of style.
Another factor in determining the value of a signed first edition of a book is how available the author is or was for book signings. Some writers, such as science fiction great Ray Bradbury and the late cartoonist Charles Schultz, were very willing to sign "everything in sight" according to O''Brien; hence, one of their autographed books wouldn''t bring as high a price as a signed first edition of a novel by J.D. Salinger, who seldom granted an autograph request.
Supply and demand are also important; therefore, the number of books published of a given title will influence its value. The number of limited editions or first editions of a published book is usually kept low; thus, their value is higher. If the author won a major literary prize for a book, that can increase a first edition''s worth. Mystery writer Laurie King, a Watsonville resident, received both the John Creasey and Edgar Awards for Best First Mystery Novel in 1993, and now a signed first edition of her book is quite valuable.
Although the condition of a book is important, O''Brien cautions people to not be too quick to discard any very old books which might have loose pages or battered bindings. If the volume is 200 years old or more, no matter what its condition, O''Brien suggests the owner check with a reputable book appraiser to determine its value. She illustrated her point by pulling a fragile copy of Ovid''s The Metamorphoses dated 1729 off the shelf. It is priced at about $350. Had the book been repaired, she explained, it would not have been worth much.
An object''s provenance can enhance its value, and this is the case with old books as well. O''Brien advises not to discard any papers found in or around an old volume since this might provide important information about where the book has been.
O''Brien notes that going into work each day can be an adventure. Not so long ago, a woman came in with a box of books she wished to sell. Rather than wait for O''Brien to look at each book and determine its value, the woman just wanted a price for the whole box. O''Brien complied but then later discovered a real treasure nestled in the bottom of the box--a copy of Lewis Carroll''s Alice in Wonderland signed by Alice Liddell, the little girl who was the prototype for the novel''s heroine. O''Brien contacted the lady who brought in the box and explained what she found but the woman responded that a deal was a deal, and told O''Brien to keep the book.
On another afternoon a Salinas man walked in with a signed first edition of one of Virginia Woolf''s novels he found in a pile of books tossed in a dumpster.
One never knows where a literary treasure may lurk so O''Brien emphatically advises people to "never throw anything out until you know what you have".
The Old Monterey Book Company is at 136 Bonifacio Plaza in Monterey. 372-3111.