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Beautiful rarity

Ursula Gross
Matt IndenJohn Keck explores the beauty of rare books from his shop on Gore Creek Drive in Vail.
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Best-selling author John Grisham gave away his first novel, A Time to Kill, from the trunk of his car.

Today, a first edition and first printing of A Time to Kill can sell for several thousand dollars on Abebooks.com (a rare-book marketplace), or for over a hundred dollars on EBay. A first-edition of The Firm can cost over $600 on Abebooks.com, depending on the condition of the book.

Last week, Traveller Books on Gore Creek Drive in Vail sold a first-edition Firm for $50. It also sold History of the Early Settlements of Denver (1599-1860), published in 1942 as a limited edition, for nearly $300.

The world of rare books is driven by that rare find – that book in such good condition, in such a limited quantity, and with such intrinsic value that it is more than a good read, it is a rare artifact. Whether it is a best-selling author like Grisham or a regional publication like Early Settlements, rare books are the quiet collectibles of book lovers.

Traveller Books is just a part of the Gore Creek Gallery in Vail. John Keck partnered with his brother-in-law to create a gallery that is part rare books, part fine art, and part jewelry. Keck runs the rare books portion of the gallery, originally filled with books from his own collection.

Today, however, Keck shops for the gallery at rare book markets in Denver and other cities. The challenge of finding what will sell is one driving force – he looks for rare books on skiing in the winter season, golf in the summer, and lately his interest is in luxury cars. Keck also theorizes that summer visitors to Vail will also enjoy unique books about the cars they may even own themselves.

His personal interests extend into books with military, sporting, or western Americana themes, and these interests motivate him as well. He describes his buying style by saying, “I try to buy the books for the gallery that I like, that I think are uncommon, and that I would want to own myself.”

Being a rare book dealer is more than perusing dusty bookstores or visiting book fairs. It is knowing when a book is worth the price, when it will increase in price, and if it has resale potential. To a certain degree, though, some of it is just luck.

“You buy things that you think are quirky and no one will have any interest in, and someone just beats you over the head for it,” Keck says, laughing.

In fact, certain areas of antiquarian book collecting are unbelievably specific – rare books on yoga and other eastern practices are hugely popular within certain circles. The Internet has made collecting such subject-specific books easier, giving those niche buyers an opportunity to find their perfect book.

And finding that dream book – a first edition of an admired author or a signed copy of a childhood favorite – is not as difficult as it may seem. The windfall of rare books that enter the marketplace upon the death of a major collector or the auctioning of a private library make the market of rare books cyclical, Keck points out when asked if there are many rare books left to be found.

Rare books will also always have an outlet in the major auction houses – Christie’s and Sotheby’s – despite their relatively low profit margin. Neither house will stop auctioning rare books because that would surrender an entire genre to their rival, taking them out of the running to handle large estates with rare books.

Unlike other collecting arenas, it takes relatively little money to become a figure in the world of rare books. It does, however, take time to see growth in any collection, usually 10 to 20 years at minimum (A Time to Kill was first published in 1989, making today’s prices a result of about 16 years).

In addition to time, a rare book collector also needs taste, or at least a gut instinct. Keck maintains that, “If the book itself doesn’t have any value, it doesn’t matter if it’s a first edition or not.”

A truly rare book, not just an old book, is both important in its field and in good condition: a tight binding, intact dust jacket, and little wear on the pages all increase the selling price. The best advice to a beginner book collector, though, is to collect what is of personal interest, whether that be fictional or spiritual.


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