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Condition, condition, condition

By Roger Gozdecki
Source: O.P. World, April 1998

After 17 years in the business, I have become convinced that there are only two types of booksellers: those who grade their books accurately and those who do not. The fundamental difference in mindset between these two groups speaks volumes about their differing approaches to the trade. Ultimately, I believe that a dealer’s attitude toward the topic of condition comes to be reflected, for better or worse, in all of their key business practices.

If you fall among the latter sort of dealer, who has never fully come to appreciate the distinctions between a fine copy of a book and a poor one, you need read no farther. What follows is a message that you have heard hundreds of times before but not acted upon. So just go on about your business without a second thought as to what follows the conclusion of this paragraph.

As long as I can remember, the AB Bookman’s Weekly has prefaced each week’s issue of the Books Wanted section with a clear, concise statement regarding the physical description of books. If the cumulative weekly repetition over several decades of 14 column inches devoted to basic trade terminology cannot sufficiently educate the second-hand and antiquarian book selling community, I have no illusions concerning the likelihood that anything I say within this meager allotment of space will produce fresh converts to the cause of accurate physical description.

Still, I think it’s a message that bears repeating. Last October out of more than fifty books that my firm ordered over the Internet, only eleven were purchased for stock. Ten(!) of those books had to be returned immediately upon arrival, because they had serious flaws that were not disclosed by the sellers. This occurred in spite of the fact that we always call dealers with whom we aren’t well acquainted first and attempt to answer any questions we have concerning the book’s condition, while they actually take it in hand and describe it to us over the phone.

In the case of a group of four Mark Twain first editions, the sad difference between one bookseller’s written description and subsequent verbal assurances that the books were really “very good” (bindings not worn, hinges tight and unbroken, pages intact, etc., etc.), and the disappointing reality of their actual condition was devastating. Months after the fact, I am still dumbfounded why (after spending more than 15 minutes on the phone with the vendor and discussing the condition of each book prior to sending off my $675 check) there was such an incredible discrepancy between what I believed I was ordering and what I received.

Evidently, we weren’t speaking the same language.

So now for his benefit, and for the benefit of all those who don’t understand the meaning of words like “very good” in reference to a book’s condition, I am going to provide a brief translation of some of the basic terminology of book grades.

“As New” is tantamount to the condition of a book when it is published. It is an immaculate state which very few books that have circulated can honestly be said to possess. Inasmuch as books are printed and not “minted” like coins, the term As New is preferable to the much abused (and inappropriate) misapplication of the word “mint” to the condition of books that might genuinely merit the appellation.

“Fine” books are those which, including their- dust jackets, posses no defects, although they lack the overall crispness that they possessed prior to being opened by considerate and careful readers, who have otherwise left no trace of previous ownership.

 “Very Good” can be used to describe a book that shows minor evidence of wear. Still, any defects or signs of wear to either book or jacket should be noted.

If we accept the condition of As New as the original, unsurpassable grade of condition, and take the term Fine to mean its practical counterpart for books that have been handled, but remain flawless, then it follows that any defect or evidence of wear that departs from this standard needs to be noted.

This includes, but is not limited to, things like previous owner’s signatures, price- clipped jackets, any soiling or smudging of the pages, and any rubbing, creasing or tears to the jacket. In short, any book that can’t honestly be described as Fine In Jacket has something wrong with it that should be disclosed to the prospective buyer prior to accepting payment.

The most common error that booksellers make when describing books is attempting to employ one or two adjectives or an abbreviation to convey the entire picture of a book. This tendency has been aggravated by the uninformed reliance upon quoter’s shorthand and the widespread adoption of computer programs that don’t allocate adequate space in the condition field. The best way to minimize misunderstandings and to avoid making refunds for returned merchandise is to take the time and space necessary to describe it fully.

Frequently in my conversations with some booksellers about the condition of their books, I have reached a rather awkward impasse, when they profess something like the following, as if it was acceptable to employ the same language to inform two different classes of buyers:

“Well, this book is definitely not what you would call a collector’s copy, ( doubt because the jacket is torn, the rear hinge is cracked, and the frontispiece was re-glued...) but it’s still fine.”

As I think about it in context, I suppose it’s possible that our colleagues who take such an undiscriminating approach might be using the term “fine” in the same way that we do when we smile weakly and tell the waitress after a barely tolerable lunch, that “everything’s fine,” because hamburger is hamburger, no matter if it’s flame-broiled or chicken-fried and we really weren’t expecting filet mignon for $4.95. In medicine, I’m sure that there have been a fair number of heart patients who have dropped dead on the treadmill, shortly after they told their cardiologist that they felt just “fine.”

I’m sorry, but there cannot be much latitude with the basic terminology of the trade if we hope to interact successfully with both colleagues and customers. “Fine” means Fine, “Very Good” means Very Good, and we can’t permit different frames of reference concerning their usage where our stock in trade is concerned.

While I could continue to amplify upon the meaning of terms for books of lesser quality, I will stop for now because it is within this upper realm of the condition spectrum that most buyers wish to make their purchases.
Besides, when was the last time that you came across a description on Interloc that read “P” for poor?

Under the circumstances, we can avoid a lot of misunderstanding and aggravation, if those booksellers who fail to grasp the fundamental importance of accurate physical descriptions would insert the following disclaimer into their terms of sale:

“NOTICE: I do not sell books to collectors, so if you really need to know about all of the flaws in my books before you buy them, I suggest that you shop elsewhere!”

Bookselling has flourished for the past 400 years because vendors have dependably described their books through catalogues which buyers can read and order from with confidence. Now that almost anyone with a shelf of books and a modem has access to a worldwide cyber-marketplace, it is more imperative ever that conscientious book dealers scrupulously apply the same set of universally accepted standards to the description of their wares.

Roger Gozdecki owns The Book Shop, which specializes in Literary First Editions, California & The West, Science Fiction, and Jazz & Jazz Musicians.