I’ve spent the past few days trying to sell off sections of my dad’s library, with little success. I thought I’d hit the jackpot when I found several 19th books, only to be told, somewhat apologetically, by a dealer in San Francisco that the memoirs of European adventurers in Africa are somewhat out of fashion these days. Fair enough. But it’s not just colonialist/imperialist literature that’s taken a hit. The rare and antique book markets have seen prices declining for years, and surely it’s telling when the International League of Antiquarian Booksellers (ILAB) is urging would-be investors to collect books for love and not for profit. Even the local used bookstores I’ve spoke to are inundated with more books than they can house and sell, and libraries are giving books away. This is not a good time to be trying to unloading hundreds of books.
By now you’re thinking this is about to turn into a spot of hand wringing about the state of literature, or publishing, or how Amazon is destroying the world. It’s not! I have something much better: rock-solid, well-researched investment advice*.
According to the dealer I spoke with in San Francisco, the most coveted items in his shop aren’t books at all but pamphlets put out by radical groups in the 1970s. You could be forgiven (just) for snickering to yourself that you’d expect nothing less from such a dealer. But the collectors of our more recent radical movements are already out, with several major institutions getting in on the act. Occupy ephemera is where it’s at. Even the City of Los Angeles recognized the moment and decided to preserve the murals curated by occupiers at city hall. You probably won’t have many chances to build an archive alongside the guy from the Smithsonian, but this could be one.
The ILAB’s advice to buy what you love applies here, as well. Aside from a few blockbuster items, the people who pay most for an old book or the ephemera of a movement are the ones with a personal connection to it. 99% is a lot of the population, after all, and a lot of them may be in the market for a momento.
*Not intended as a factual statement.