Monday, May 01, 2006
The present is far and away the most tumultuous time in the history of book buying. Book buyers have a tool at their disposal, namely the Internet, that has completely changed the way book collectors are able to add to their libraries.
Unfortunately, though the buying tools have evolved overnight, the complexities of book identification and valuation haven't changed. Nor has the time it takes to gain expertise in buying and selling them. So although we find ourselves in a do-it-yourself age, where anybody with a phone line can become an on-line bookseller, buyers must be more careful than ever.
The Antiquarian Booksellers' Association of America (ABAA) was founded in 1949, as the US arm of the International League of Antiquarian Booksellers (ILAB), to maintain the highest standards in the book trade. The ABAA has a Code of Ethics which it has enforced for over half a century. We can't guarantee that you will personally like every ABAA bookseller. Just between us, some of them are horrible bores. But we CAN guarantee, based on over 50 years of putting our money where our mouths are, that ABAA dealers are the leading experts in their fields of specialty, that they will correctly identify, describe, and represent the material they offer for sale, and that if they fail to do so they will be called into account and if necessary expelled from the organization. It's one thing to come up with a Code of Ethics; it is an entirely different thing to enforce it for over fifty years. Anybody can print a very pretty and official-looking Certificate of Authenticity. But that piece of paper doesn't actually guarantee you anything if no history of ethical enforcement stands behind it. A receipt from an ABAA dealer is, without question, the best Certificate of Authenticity you can get in the rare book business.
Some think the ABAA is just an old boys' club. They clearly haven't been to an ABAA book fair, where you can see plenty of old girls parading around as well. But it is true that gaining membership to the ABAA is not easy - it's not just a matter of sending in the requisite number of cereal box tops. Rather, there are strict rules for application, and even strict rules for sponsorship of applicants. So yes, it is exclusive. The names of applicants to the ABAA are publicly posted so that the book-buying community has a chance to weigh in and voice any concerns. But membership is primarily determined by peer review, rather than customer satisfaction. When you think about it, tabulating customer satisfaction, such as by some "buyer-feedback" mechanism, is pretty ineffective for rare merchandise.
When people buy stolen books, forgeries, or mis-identified books on-line, if the buyers don't know they've been duped, they will leave positive feedback. Sadly, this happens all the time. Most victims of on-line bookselling fraud do not find out that they are victims until it is far too late to do anything about it but start buying from reputable dealers. At the same time, sellers who offer stolen books, later printings and facsimiles as first editions, or material that has been restored without identifying it as such, are well known in the book trade. Some of the most popular on-line auction books sellers are, regrettably, held in very low esteem by the rare book community. These people would never bother applying for the ABAA because they know they would never be admitted. It's easier to continue their dishonest selling practices with new victims and call the ABAA an old boys' club. The ABAA is actually more important to book collectors than ever before, because unfortunately the Internet has made it more difficult to separate the good booksellers from the bad ones.
It is true that there are many knowledgable and honest booksellers who are not members of the ABAA. However, neither they nor their ignorant and/or dishonest brethren are held to a Code of Ethics that has the history and strength of the ABAA's. It is true that there are many wonderful books for sale out there that are being offered by non-ABAA dealers. You should buy from them with prudence, just as we do. Just don't come crying to us, as some collectors already have, when the time comes to cash in your chips and you find that items in your collection that seemed too good to be true were.