“First, I want you to know the language. It’s not antique books, but rather antiquated and rare books,” says Joseph DeSalvo Jr. of Faulkner House Books, a haven for fine literature, rare editions and of course, William Faulkner, located in the heart of the historic French Quarter in Pirate’s Alley.
And with that began my lesson on the art of book collecting in all of its simplicity.
Above all, collect from the heart, says DeSalvo, an enjoyable man with a penchant for books and a great command of the field, too. He can just as easily engage you in a conversation about Ernest Hemingway or Ernest Gaines.
“For young collectors and those with limited budgets, I would suggest they collect authors or writers they like the best,” he says. “Try to get all of his or her books that may have been published. If the author is still alive, take the old books to get signed when he or she is out promoting other books. This will build you a nice collection. The value depends on several factors: the success of the writer and whether the writer becomes a successful older writer. If the writer does, then it will increase the value.”
Joe DeSalvo in Faulkner House Books.
DeSalvo’s bookshop is the 1925 home of the Nobel laureate himself, Faulkner, when he wrote his first novel, “Soldier’s Pay.” Since DeSalvo purchased and renovated the property in 1988 and opened the bookstore two years later, Faulkner House Books has been declared a national literary landmark. The name is a definite tribute to
one of DeSalvo’s favorite authors.
“When I saw his former home, it clicked. I decided it was time to make my hobby my profession … turning my avocation into a vocation,” says DeSalvo, who is also an attorney.
DeSalvo is an avid collector of Samuel Johnson and James Boswell, both well-known writers from the 18th century.
In addition to Faulkner being the principle author, the full-service new and used bookstore specializes in Tennessee Williams, Walker Percy, modern first editions and Southern Americana with an emphasis on New Orleans and Louisiana-related titles.
There is no right or wrong way to start a book collection. Rare and antiquated book collections are as varied as the bibliophiles who build them. A reader’s library is a reflection of who he is—his inspirations, interests and influences.
DeSalvo suggests that those who have been collecting longer seek the writings from more established authors within a pantheon of authors whose work will be
remembered long after their deaths, such as the Faulkners and Hemingways of the craft.
Faulkner’s older books, in good condition, can sell between $25,000 to $45,000 each. Hemingway’s books are even more expensive, DeSalvo says, fetching as much as $60,000.
“Those kinds of prices dictate what kind of people can collect books like that. There is a small limited market to sell to and few books,” he explains. “The values of books have appreciated. I wish I could buy the books I sold for the prices I sold them for. I have sold Faulkner for hundreds, and now, they are worth thousands.”
Rarity is about more than age or availability
“In terms of antiquity and age, you would think somebody like Boswell would continue to be more valuable than Hemingway, but newer authors like Hemingway often sell for more than books written in the 18th century,” points out DeSalvo, who has been collecting for 30 years.
Factors like importance, desirability and scarcity play a major role in determining a book’s worth. Printing history, the quality of paper and binding, number of copies printed, controversy and popularity drive the prices as well.
The key to collecting books less monumental in scope but nevertheless well-read and cherished by bookworms (“Charlotte’s Web,” “The Catcher in the Rye,” “Are You There God? It’s Me Margaret”) is to possess the first edition. First editions are highly sought after and valuable, DeSalvo says, as they are the first public appearance of the text in that form.
A first edition of Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” can sell for $25,000. DeSalvo says that even a second edition may go for as much as $8,000.
“Well, what are you reading now?” asks DeSalvo, after all of our talk about literature, a leaf of the Gutenberg Bible valued at $100,000 and a full Bible worth millions.
My reply: “Up From Slavery” by Booker T. Washington.
“For awhile after the storm, I was selling a lot of books to Cicely Tyson by black authors,” he says, commenting on the works by Langston Hughes, James Baldwin and Chester Himes the famous actress purchased.
“She bought whatever I had. She really likes Ernest Gaines.”
I guess she collects from the heart.