News & Politics

Have More Fun: Book Collecting

The Pleasures of Collecting Old Books

“There are many paths toward becoming a book collector,” says Joshua Heller of Tenleytown’s Joshua Heller Rare Books, “but the common entry point is following what inspires you.”

It’s a good idea to acquire titles by a favorite author or illustrator; those in an area of interest, such as children’s literature or politics; or first or limited editions. A random assortment is fine for a personal reading library but doesn’t lend itself to the idea of a “collection.”

A book’s condition is of primary importance. Novices should familiarize themselves with the used-book grading system, where “good” means average and “fine” is top of the line. Books that have been well cared for have a better chance of retaining value.

Heller has seen people start modestly and build magnificent collections on a shoestring. Items in Heller’s catalog (by appointment; 202-966-9411; range in cost from $15—for A Coffee Cantata, a folded-paper concertina featuring a list of words relating to coffee—to $25,000 for a volume featuring work signed by artist Robert Rauschenberg.

Ephemera—small printed objects such as pamphlets, booklets, and broadsides—can be a good way to make your foray into collecting, as they’re often less expensive.

Heller advises keeping abreast of what’s happening in your subject matter, joining mailing lists, getting to know booksellers, and finding out what’s coming up on auction.

Kensington Row Bookshop (3786 Howard Ave., Kensington; 301-949-9416; and the Lantern bookshop (3241 P St., NW; 202-333-3222; are good places to start hunting.

The Washington Antiquarian Booksellers Association’s Web site ( lists sellers of used, collectible, and antiquarian books. Other excellent sites are the Antiquarian Booksellers Association of America ( , Amazon’s, Advanced Book Exchange ( ,, and

Good books include ABC for Book Collectors by John Carter and Nicolas Barker; Book Collecting: A Comprehensive Guide by Allen and Patricia Ahearn; and Among the Gently Mad: Strategies and Perspectives for the Book Hunter in the Twenty-First Century by Nicholas A. Basbanes.

Don’t Miss Another Big Story—Get Our Weekend Newsletter

Our most popular stories of the week, sent every Saturday.

Or, see all of our newsletters. By signing up, you agree to our terms.