Good eye by Peggy Whiteneck

Discover Vintage America - MAY 2018

Why collector books will never go out of style

Full disclosure for this month's column: Collector books have been a major focus of my career as a writer. Late last year, my small publisher went out of business. I am currently negotiating with a collector book publisher large enough to compete effectively with Amazon, and, as of this writing that publisher has offered me a contract on the first of what I hope will eventually be revisions of all three of my collector books. So why is my new publisher still interested in collector books? And why do I bother to continue writing them?

I found this pair of candleholders in an antique shop, bargain priced and identified on the dealer's tag as "Marigold Carnival Glass" with no other attribution. Because I buy a lot of collector books and study them closely, I was able to recognize the shape of the holders as Fenton Art Glass, the color as Tangerine, and the type of glass as Stretch (not Carnival glass), so named for the distinctive striations shown clearly in this photo on the foot of each holder. I was also able to date them to 1927-29. Anything in this color glass treatment is considered scarce because of its short production run. Could I have found some of this information online? Undoubtedly. Would I have remembered the shape without my books, and would I have been reliably able to assess the extent of their availability just on the basis of information found online? Hardly. The information the dealer didn't have became his loss and my gain.

The answer, of course, is that there is an ongoing consumer demand for collector books. But that begs another question. In this age of Kindle and eBooks, why do people still want to own print books about the items they collect or sell? Despite the room and weight they take up, why does the demand remain so strong that online scalpers are charging hundreds (sometimes even thousands!) of dollars for collector books that recently went out of print at a last retail price of $29.95?

The search for substantive and reliable information

Not long ago, when I was teaching at the college level, one of my biggest challenges was trying to get my students to read a peer-reviewed book or journal article – either of which was freely available from the college library – as an information source for a paper instead of relying solely on a Google search. Initially, students didn't fully understand the limitations of the Web. They had difficulty thinking critically about and evaluating information sources for bias: if they found something online, they figured it must be valid. (This problem has only worsened with the proliferation of social media, where students aren't the only ones taking the click-bait.)

Even reliable online information tends to skate on the surface of topics in order to cater to attention spans so short that even an email that's longer than two lines is too taxing. When it comes to antiques and collectibles, much of the information on the Internet is not only inaccurate but also, unsatisfyingly brief. For serious collectors, there's nothing like a lengthy read, written by someone with expertise in something we collect and about which we passionately care to know as much as we can.

In most cases, that's going to mean reading something in print written by someone with genuine expertise. Such print media are important for dealer research and education, too, because what we don't know about what we're selling can really bite in lost opportunity costs in acquisition as well as sales.

The feel of a book in hand

We collectors tend to be a tactile lot. We like being able to hold things in our hands; after all, that's one of the basic appeals of collecting itself. That visceral need extends to our information sources, including books and other print media (such as Discover Vintage America!). Judging from the number of secondary market dealers whose stock in trade is books, collectors aren't the only ones who still value the feel of a book in hand.

Quick access to remembered information

It's a lot quicker and easier to find specific information – for example, a remembered photo or text – in a book than in an eBook. For specific item identification, there's no electronic substitute for being able to quickly page through the photos in a print book. And if you can't remember exactly which of your books you first saw it in, imagine trying to use an electronic reader to identify a source from among several possible books!
Books about collectibles, like books in general, will never go out of style. Happy reading!


Peggy Whiteneck is a writer, collector and dealer living in East Randolph, VT. If you would like to suggest a subject that she can address in her column, email her at allwrite@sover.net.