Finding and determining the quality of used books


The treasure hunt feeling of antiquing is perhaps my favorite part of this entire vintage book journey. Antique shops, estate sales, second-hand bookstores and library sales are great places to begin your search. The below video is a quick montage of a library book sale at which I found an 1884 edition of Milton’s complete works. It’s of my favorite pieces in my collection!

Maybe I’m just nostalgic, but I love gingerly digging through piles of old books or scanning shelves until something catches my eye.

Obviously, I’m new to this, so I don’t have any particular criteria that I’m looking for, just for a title that I’m familiar with or a binding that piques my very limited design sensibilities. Condition is clearly important, though it can be difficult to weigh the value of condition and rarity. You’re lucky to find both in one volume, but most of the time you have to decide how much restoration a book requires, and merits, before purchasing.

If you’re purchasing online, or enjoy neurotically categorizing things like me, here are some typical guidelines for book conditions.

As New – “As new” is exactly what it sounds like. This book is in the exact same condition is was when it was published, and has never been thumbed, read or opened.

Fine (F or FN) – “Fine”is just under “as new,” meaning there is no visible wear on the book, but it has been owned and possibly read.

Very Good (VG) – A “very good” book may show some signs of wear, but without tears on the binding or paper. Any defects, and this is important to note for any category, should be listed by the seller.

Good (G). “Good” essentially describes the average used, worn book. All pages and leaves are present, and the binding and covers are intact.

Fair – This book has complete text, but may be missing some other elements, such as maps or end pages. There may be mild defects or issues with the jacket, as well. This is where I start to weigh the value of the book, because it may need substantial work for restoration.

Poor – A “Poor” book has complete text and a jacket, but nothing else is guaranteed. Maps and other additional plates may be missing, but should be noted. There may be signification defects, such as scuffs, stains or spots, or loose or broken binding.

Binding Copy – This ends the scale of used book quality, but is a condition worth nothing. “Binding copy” describes a book in which the pages or leaves are all present but the binding is very bad, loose, off or nonexistent. My Milton collection falls under this category; the back of the leather cover is in pieces in the protective sleeve.

Reading Copy – Again, “reading copy” means just what it appears to be. This book is good for reading, and nothing more. It may be useful for research on editions or publication history, but doesn’t have value in collecting.

Like the Milton, I’m certainly guilty of picking up books that might be beyond repair. (How could I turn down a collection that includes “Paradise Lost”? And has leather binding? There was no way). That’s certainly one that I may take to a professional for restoration, if it turns out to be particularly valuable. Maybe regardless; I kind of love it.