BRATTLEBORO—When it comes to buying and selling old books, Ken Gloss has two main principles — a book is only worth what someone is willing to pay for it, and the appraised value of a collectible book is totally subjective.
As the co-proprietor of the Brattle Book Shop in Boston, one of the oldest antiquarian bookstores in the U.S., and an appraiser of old books and ephemera on PBS’s “Antiques Roadshow,” Gloss is sought after for his expertise on old books and loves to share what he knows with fellow book lovers.
More than 60 people jammed into the meeting room of the Brooks Memorial Library on Nov. 16 to hear Gloss tell stories about a lifetime in the book trade. Nearly all were clutching old books for Gloss to appraise, which he did after his talk.
As much as he loves old books, Gloss said he loves the stories about finding them and the people he has met in the process even more.
He also said he loves to give talks at libraries, even though he admits that almost all the books people bring for an appraisal aren’t valuable. For him, he said, it’s about sharing his love of books, telling stories, and making sure people know to call him if they think they have a valuable book.
Gloss was happy to dispel some of the misconceptions about book values.
Having a first edition of a book doesn’t mean it’s valuable, he said. “Most books never see a second edition printed.”
And all book dealers have their own opinions of what a book is worth.
“Interpersonal relationships are everything in book selling,” he said. “Get to know book sellers, and you’ll know what they mean when they talk about the condition of a book.”
To those who go online to search for books and for what a volume might be worth, Gloss offered this advice: “Don’t look at the top or the middle of the list. Look at the bottom. Look at how many copies are for sale and how much they’re selling for.”
Impact, age, and scarcity
The importance of a book and its author matters too.
Only 49 Gutenberg Bibles exist, and only 21 of them are intact. Gloss said the last time one was sold, in 1978, it went for $2.2 million, and would be worth millions more today. Pages from dismembered Gutenberg Bibles fetch as much as $100,000 at auction.
“Anything printed in the 1400s is worth money, just because of its age” he said as he passed around a page from a book printed in that era.
Scarcity is another factor.
One of his holy grails of old American books is “Tamerlane and Other Poems” by Edgar Allen Poe. Only 50 copies were printed during Poe’s lifetime under the name, “A Bostonian.” It was the first poem that Poe published, and the 40-page chapbook was not a big seller. It was only after Poe’s death that it became valuable.
Holding up a copy of “Tamerlane,” Gloss said the few that still exist will easily fetch $1 million or more. He was quick to point out what he was holding was a reprint.
“I don’t like to carry million-dollar books around with me,” he said.
Some of his favorite finds include a first edition of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby,” inscribed by Fitzgerald “to the greatest living poet, T.S. Eliot.” Gloss said Eliot annotated his copy of the book from start to finish.
Something like that makes a book valuable, regardless of its condition, Gloss said.
But, he added, “books don’t have to beexpensive to be fun,” and held up a copy of a souvenir book printed after the Boston Red Sox won the World Series in 1912 to illustrate the point.
Ultimately, he said, “the real value of a book is the knowledge that it contains.”
Born to the job
The Brattle Book Shop was founded in 1825 in the West End of Boston in the section of that neighborhood that later became known as Scollay Square. The urban renewal projects of the 1960s obliterated the West End and Scollay Square, as well as the street that gave the store its name. Boston’s City Hall now sits where Brattle Street used to be.
Gloss’s parents, George and Dorrit, bought the Brattle Book Store in 1949, and by the 1960s, it had moved several times before it finally found a permanent home on West Street, between Tremont and Washington streets, in downtown Boston.
Gloss said he worked in the store with his family from grade-school days onward. “I grew up in a bookstore,” he said. “My parents claimed that the first word I spoke was ‘book.’”
He thought he would escape his fate by studying to be a chemist at the University of Massachusetts, but when he was ready to go for his Ph.D. at the University of Wisconsin in 1973, he took a year off to help his father in the store “and I never left.”
With his father’s health failing, Gloss and his wife, Joyce Kosofsky, took over running the store. A fire in February 1980 burned the Brattle to the ground, Gloss said, but thanks to the help of the store’s many friends who donated books, his family rebuilt the business in a storefront just up the street, and the Brattle Book Shop was reborn within a matter of weeks.
Today, the Brattle Book Shop has more than 250,000 books jammed into it, ranging in price from a dollar to tens of thousands of dollars. Gloss admitted that the internet has hurt book retailers, but in cities like Boston, rising rents and property values have done more to kill off book stores than Amazon.
He said he and his wife were lucky, because they’ve owned the building they are now in at 9 West Street since 1984.
“I hope to be doing this for the rest of my life,” he said.