CONWAY — Those who predict the end of the printed book had better think again.

Because when Ken Gloss, owner of the Brattle Book Shop, one of the last independent used bookstores in Boston, came to North Conway to give a recent talk (and offer appraisals), he had to muscle his way through a standing-room-only crowd to get to the multipurpose room of the Weather Discovery Center.

And every member of that crowd was holding a book.

Gloss says he's used to packing rooms like this – even beyond the convention centers of “Antiques Roadshow,” the PBS series on which Gloss frequently appears.

“I do basically two talks a month” throughout New England, he said. “It’s a way to get out and see people, since a lot of people don’t come in to downtown Boston,” where his bookstore is located on West Street near the Common.

Most times, an older demographic attends his talks, though he has done a few career days for fifth-graders, said Gloss before launching into one of his trademark anecdotes.

“One kid was an antique coin collector, and I was showing the class some 19th century newspapers. Later, he came up and said, ‘I wonder if someone bought this newspaper with that coin.’ A pretty astute comment, don’t you think?”

At his Mount Washington Valley appearance, the bookseller was introduced to the gathering by North Conway Library Director Andrea Masters and board member Neil Osgood, as the library was hosting the talk.

Many in the crowd already knew of Gloss’ pedigree from the ads and articles that had appeared in the Sun. But for those who might have expected a talk as musty and fusty as many of the books in which Gloss deals, they were in for a pleasant surprise.

Gloss came armed with handouts and visual aids, as well as a ton of entertaining stories not only from his own long career but also that of his father, George Gloss (1912-1985), who established the bookshop decades ago.

“I’ve done this all my life,” Gloss said. “My parents said my first word was ‘book.’”

A large part of his business is going out to estate sales, he said. “When I go out, I feel like Jim Hawkins on ‘Treasure Island,’” he confessed.

One memorable character he recounted was the lady in the unmemorable house.

“One day, I got a call from a lady who said she had some books she wanted to get rid of,” Gloss said. “I went to her home — a little ranch house, nothing special. The woman was quite elderly. But when she showed me into the house, I noticed there were gorgeous antiques everywhere.”

It turned out the old woman had married the prince of Ukraine, a cousin of the late czar of Russia, and was actually incredibly wealthy. Gloss said he admired some watercolors on the wall. “Oh yes, they’re all Turners,” the lady said off-handedly, speaking of the celebrated English artist J.M.W. Turner whose works hang in museums and often sell for millions of dollars.

Gloss said the lady’s book collection was similarly impressive, though she didn’t end up selling any to him.

But this was about six anecdotes into his talk, which started with a discussion of what makes old books valuable. The most valuable, Gloss noted, would be the Gutenberg Bible, the first book produced by movable type, dating back to 1456. “If you have one,” he joked, “a single page goes for $50,000-$100,000” (and that’s no joke).

He then held up an unimpressive-looking yellow pamphlet. “Have one of these in your attic?” he asked. “If so, please give me a call.”

Turns out, it was “Tamerlane,” Edgar Allen Poe’s first book.

“In the 1890s, it sold for $1,000. In the 1950s, it sold for $10,000. Twenty years ago, an antiques dealer in Newburyport died, and they sold all his books as a group. This was among them, and it fetched $198,000. A few years ago, it sold for $800,000. Today, it would possible be worth $1 million.”

Obviously, Gloss added, “this one is a facsimile.”

However, contrary to popular belief, not all old books are worth a lot of money. “Obviously, any book printed in the 1400s has value,” Gloss said. “After that, it depends. A book printed in the 1500s that was dull and uninteresting is still dull and uninteresting.”

The flip side to that phenonenom is that newer books often can fetch astronomical prices. “The first printing of the first edition of the British 'Harry Potter' book sold for $80,000,” Gloss said.

Speaking of which, Gloss warned people not to get all excited at seeing the words “First Edition” on the copyright page of their books. “A book has to have historical, scientific, literary or some importance for that ‘First Edition’ to lend value,” he warned.

The condition of a book also affects its worth. For example, if it was issued with a paper dustjacket, to get top dollar, it better still have that dustjacket, and one without rips or stains. Likewise, the book itself should be relatively pristine in order to attract a collector’s eye.

After all, “a lot of collecting is prestige,” Gloss said. “It’s that ‘I have what you don’t have’ thing for people who can afford it.”

A third attribute Gloss mentioned was inscriptions – that is, if a book is signed by a famous or important author, that signature can send the value through the roof. The key word to remember is “famous.”

“My cousin wrote his memoirs, and if he signed the book, probably no one would care. But if Ernest Hemingway signed one of his books, it would add hundreds if not thousands of dollars to the price,” Gloss said.

Another famous signature was that of F. Scott Fitzgerald, author of “The Great Gatsby.” The well-worn and read copy had no dustjacket, but it was doubly valuable in that it was the personal copy of famous poet T.S. Eliot. “Fitzgerald not only inscribed it to Eliot, but Eliot made marginal notes on many of the pages,” Gloss said. That copy is now worth $200,000-$400,000.

This comment led to yet another interesting anecdote. “A man came in the shop and said he had a group of letters of J.D. Salinger.” The reclusive “Catcher in the Rye” author, who lived in New Hampshire, never signed his books, so the letters were significant. Perhaps even more significant – at least to sports fans — was something mentioned in one of them.

“When Salinger’s house was built, a bunch of local high school kids worked on the foundation, including a kid named Carlton Fisk.” Fisk, as many recall, grew up to catch for the Red Sox and play in the 1975 World Series.

Another batch of letters came from a lady who announced to Gloss, “President Kennedy slept with me. “ She said she had been his mistress and in fact had a whole series of handwritten letters.

“I gave her a tremendous offer, but it turned out no way could she sell them,” Gloss said. “The family still has them.”

But often he does end up with a treasure trove. One particular sale stays fixed in his mind. “A Mrs. Fischer had called, saying, “Father died and left 500 art reference books in Providence, R.I.” Gloss drove down there and discovered the home was a large Colonial on Benefit Street near the campus of Brown University.

“Well, it turned out that ‘Father’ was John Nicholas Brown II, a direct descendant of the family that founded the university. And it wasn’t 500 books – it was 5,000.”

Gloss said Brown University acquired 80 percent of them – and presumably he got the rest. He added that while he was there, Mrs. Fischer (Angela Brown Fischer) added, “My mother has a lot of books. Would you like to go to Newport?”

Of course, “Mother’s house” was a mansion.

This wasn’t Gloss’ first trip to Newport. “I was called to do appraisals at another mansion, the Perry family.” Yes, as in Oliver Hazard Perry and Commodore Matthew Perry, who opened Japan to the West in the 1800s.

Following this flurry of provocative anecdotes, Gloss took questions from the audience. One woman wanted to know how to keep her valuable books in good condition.

“I always tell people, if you’re comfortable, your book will be comfortable,” Gloss said. “Not too damp. Not too dry. Don’t cram them on the shelves too tight, but don’t have them too loose, either, because the spines could lean. And don’t keep them in direct sun.”

A man in the front row then shouted out, “Hike and the Aeroplane,” indicating he was in the know about an extremely rare book. Gloss elaborated that he was referring to Sinclair Lewis’ first published book, written under a pseudonym as a teenager. Published in 1912, the edition today survives in only a few dozen copies, and if you desire one, it could set you back many thousands of dollars.

Another question asked what type of books Gloss specializes in. His response was quick: “I specialize in not specializing.

“There aren’t that many general bookstores left,” he explained, and Brattle Book Shop is among them. “However,” he continued, “I do have many good friends in the industry, and if you have a question about a certain type of book, I know who to ask and where to find the information.”

Frequently, he said, he and his book-expert buddies will pool their resources and go in together on a rare collection of books.

But before consulting the experts, many people tend to do research on their own. The internet is a great place to start finding out the value of a book, Gloss said, since information on Amazon or ABE Books or BookFinder is so plentiful. But that plenitude, he said, can be a mixed blessing.

“Let’s say you have a first edition of a certain famous book,” Gloss said. “One seller may list it at $5 and another at $5,000. Which is correct?”

One way to tell, he said, is “when you go online, the first thing to look for is how many copies there are. If there are 50 to 100 listings, it’s something to worry about.”

Another boon of our digital age is that you can now easily see what a particular book looks like. Up until about 10 years ago, most used books were simply listed in bibliographies.

You can also get information from book enthusiasts from around the world. “Let’s say you have an edition of ‘Huckleberry Finn,’” Gloss said. “Chat rooms and websites can alert you to reference points,” such as on a certain page the word ‘the’ is misspelled in the first edition and was corrected in a later edition.

That said, first editions aren’t always the most valuable edition. Gloss spoke of the “Life of Washington,” written by Parson Weems in 1800. “It wasn’t until the fifth edition that he made up the story of the cherry tree,” Gloss said. “That’s the one you want.”

Another misconception is that Bibles are collectible, Gloss noted. “The Bible is the most commonly printed book. When I did an ‘Antiques Roadshow’ in Minnesota, we must have seen 50-100 of them, mostly from the 1870s-80s and printed in German.” Few would fetch even $50.

But like most books, the monetary worth of any big family Bible depends on the condition. “If it came with a clasp, and has one in good condition, if it’s embossed in gold, it could be worth from $100-$300,” Gloss said.

Then it was time for the appraisals. Gloss had people line up in the center aisle and quickly and efficiently dispatched the appraisals within a half-hour. He noted that he almost never buys anything at the talks he gives, but prefers to hand out his contact info. “Quite honestly, I prefer not to do business at a public library,” he said. The main thing he wants is for the shop to become well-known, “to keep the name out there.”

Doing “Roadshow” is a great way to do just that. Fun fact: All the appraisers who appear on the show pay their own way to get to the various and sundry locales; buy their own food; fund their own hotel rooms. But, Gloss says, “simply to get that PR, have that recognition” nationally is priceless. It’s also fun.

“My wife and I sometimes treat it like a vacation, to be honest.” Last year, they did one show in Birmingham, Ala., and the next was scheduled in Austin, Texas. “So we drove. Stopped in Memphis, Little Rock, places I never, ever would have thought to visit. It was fabulous!” Gloss said.

Back to the appraisals. Did he find anything noteworthy in North Conway?

“There were a few interesting things,” Gloss said. “One person had photos of American Indians by (Edward S.) Curtis. Another had first editions of Mark Twain. A lot of people brought in Robert Frost, as you’d expect. It was a really nice crowd,” he added.

In general, however, 90 percent of the books people bring in to be appraised are worth only about $50-$100, he said.

“And you know what, I think more people tend to be happy if you tell them their stuff isn’t worth anything. ‘Great, I can give it to my grandkids,’ they tell me, rather than worrying about insuring them."

Regardless of what Gloss said, taking care of a valuable book is a problem a lot of people would like to have.

If you have one you think is worth money, and would like Gloss to give either an insurance or a retail appraisal for, you don’t have to go to Boston or even one of his talks. “Just send me a photo,” Gloss said. Or, if you inherited a houseful of books, “don’t even take them off the shelf. Just show me the spines. I can get the condition from that. That will start the conversation.”

To contact Gloss, simply call (617) 542-0210 or email To hear more of his interesting anecdotes, you can listen to his Podcast on iTunes at “Brattlecast.”

Source :

Yes, you CAN judge a book by its cover
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