Rare Book Monthly

Articles - September - 2012 Issue

Free or Nearly Free: Great Finds that Cost $0 or Next to $0 & Sell for a Great Deal More

Zero $$

My dad, the great book seller Morton “Jock” Netzorg, a dealer for well over 50 years, had all kinds of rules about how to make money selling books. But Netzorg’s #1 rule was: “What you pay for it has nothing to do with what it’s worth.”

Looking over my list of sales so far this year I was surprised to notice how many of the things that were profitable came in the door for free – found sitting on the curb waiting for the garbage man or were, if not free, nearly free – cost to me $1 or even less.

I sent a query to an on-line list where dealers chat among themselves and asked did this happen to other sellers, and if so how often? My in-box rapidly filled with many examples from those with similar experiences.

Buy low, Sell high

There were too many stories to share them all, but here are just a few examples:

* The Florida dealer who got a first edition of the Alcoholics Anonymous Blue Book for $1 and sold it the next day for $150.

* The North Carolina dealer who paid $2 for a ratty looking antique astronomy book with a big black ink spot on the cover who resold it within 24 hours for over $200.

* The Alabama used book seller who bought a box of vintage golf course score cards for $10. So far he estimated he’s made over $2,000 on what’s been sold and he still has a third of them left.

* The Iowa dealer who got a first edition, second state of the Hobbit for a quarter and resold it for $1200.

* The seller in Europe who picked up a batch of older books in English for a few pounds. In the lot he found some early mystery and detective stories. Just two of the best ones brought over £900.

*The retired dealer from the East Coast who often helped haul away freebies. In the pile he found Portrait of an Artist by James Joyce. It was a ratty copy and a later printing. He estimated its value at about $2. But when he discovered it was signed by Joyce the price went up steeply. He sold it for $4,000.

*A California seller told about a signed biography of a billiard player, “I paid about 35 cents for a paperback. There were none listed for sale online and I had no idea how much the book was worth, so I listed it on eBay with a starting bid of $50.00. I ended up selling it for $1750.”

It happens all the time

Almost everybody who wrote said this has happened to them not just once, but with reassuring regularity. Some added the proviso, “These kinds of finds do not come along often enough to make a living from them,” but the consensus was great deals do happen and often enough to make things interesting.

Even in the days of on-line information galore, you’d think people would look it up before they throw it out. But they either don’t know how or could care less, as a result good stuff can come your way and sometimes it’s free, gratis and for nothing.

But as the seller your part of the deal is to be looking for it.

What you bring to the equation is curiosity, knowledge and an intuitive sense of who else might not only want what you have, but might actually be willing to pay for it.

The things I find that seem to have the best margins are usually non-fiction pre-ISBN books and vintage or antique ephemera. I find them because I’m looking.

Looking means really looking

Looking is not just a glance. Looking means not just the outside but the inside, not just the front but the back. Not just the book itself but what’s laid inside the book, not just the subject but why someone would be interested in the subject. Not just the condition but the content. Not just the text but the pictures, the dust jacket, the credits, the inscription. Not just books but magazines, photos, and every other kind of paper. Just because somebody else has tossed it doesn’t mean it is without value.

Here’s the way one Massachusetts seller put it: “Right now I am going through a few mixed boxes of ephemera from an ABAA member who does primarily books
and all this paper would have slowed him down. So I am going through the paper one piece at a time and I am making a pretty penny. He already got what he needed from these lots.


She went on to say, “I pulled out a few items and sent a box to still ANOTHER dealer who does even more specialized material. It's sort of a trickle down bookselling.”

Rare Book Monthly

  • <center><b>Swann Auction Galleries<br>View Our Record Breaking Results</b>
    <b>Swann:</b> Scott Joplin, <i>Treemonisha: Opera in Three Acts,</i> New York, 1911. Sold March 24 — $40,000.
    <b>Swann:</b> Louisa May Alcott, autograph letter signed, 1868. Sold June 2 — $23,750.
    <b>Swann:</b> Anne Bradstreet, <i>Several Poems Compiled with Great Variety of Wit and Learning, full of Delight,</i> Boston, 1758. Sold June 2 — $21,250.
    <b>Swann:</b> William Shakespeare, <i>Comedies, Histories, and Tragedies. Published according to the true Originall Copies. The Second Impression,</i> London, 1632. Sold May 5 — $161,000.
    <center><b>Swann Auction Galleries<br>View Our Record Breaking Results</b>
    <b>Swann:</b> John Bachmann, <i>Panorama of the Seat of War,</i> New York, 1861-62. Sold June 23 — $35,000.
    <b>Swann:</b> Charlotte Bronte, <i>Jane Eyre,</i> first edition, London, 1847. Sold June 16 — $23,750.
    <b>Swann:</b> Elihu Vedder, <i>Simple Simon, His Book,</i> 1913. Sold June 9 — $12,350.
    <b>Swann:</b> Frederick Catherwood, <i>Views of Ancient Monuments in Central America, Chiapas and Yucatan,</i> London, 1844. Sold April 7 — $37,500.
  • <center><b>University Archives<br>Rare Autographs, Manuscripts & Books<br>August 17, 2022</b>
    <b>University Archives, Aug. 17:</b> George Washington ADS, One of the Earliest in His Hand, A Survey from 1752, the Same Year He Inherited Mount Vernon.
    <b>University Archives, Aug. 17:</b> Rare JFK Signed Check & Transmittal Letter During Campaign for 1956 VP Nomination, Both BAS Slabbed; Possibly A Unique Combo!
    <b>University Archives, Aug. 17:</b> Daniel Boone Signed Receipt as VA Delegate; During His 1st of 3 Terms, Boone Was Kidnapped by British Forces Gunning for Gov. T. Jefferson & Other Legislators.
    <center><b>University Archives<br>Rare Autographs, Manuscripts & Books<br>August 17, 2022</b>
    <b>University Archives, Aug. 17:</b> Benjamin Franklin Signed Receipt for “Pennsylvania Gazette,” Important & Beautifully Displayed
    <b>University Archives, Aug. 17:</b> Lincoln & His Civil War Cabinet: 8 Signatures, Beautifully Presented!
    <b>University Archives, Aug. 17:</b> G.A. Custer ALS from Fort Lincoln, Dakota Territory to Capt. Yates, Who Also Died at Little Bighorn, Re: Acquiring “good horses” from Kentucky for 7th Cavalry.
    <center><b>University Archives<br>Rare Autographs, Manuscripts & Books<br>August 17, 2022</b>
    <b>University Archives, Aug. 17:</b> Jefferson Davis ALS: “the negroes are humble and generally inclined to cling to their masters…neither crop or stock could be protected from their thieving” – Incredible!
    <b>University Archives, Aug. 17:</b> Lee Harvey Oswald Signed Letter: “if we finally get back to the states…maybe we’ll…settle in Texas,” Warren Commission Exhibit.
    <b>University Archives, Aug. 17:</b> Babe Ruth First Edition Biography Signed Just Months Before His Death, Excellent Signature!
    <center><b>University Archives<br>Rare Autographs, Manuscripts & Books<br>August 17, 2022</b>
    <b>University Archives, Aug. 17:</b> “B Arnold” ANS on Pre-Revolutionary War Promissory Note Dating From His Days as a New Haven Merchant
    <b>University Archives, Aug. 17:</b> Bob Dylan Signed LP “Blonde on Blonde” with Jeff Rosen COA.
    <b>University Archives, Aug. 17:</b> Marilyn Monroe & Joe DiMaggio Signed Checks, Handsomely Displayed.

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