Volatile values for old volumes

Books on space are blasting off

By Pamela H. Sacks

Got any old books on computers or space travel?

If so, save them, says Ken Gloss, proprietor of the Brattle Book Shop, a nationally known used and rare book emporium in Boston. Or better still, if they are in superb condition, sell them.

“Post World War II electronic computing books, some are going for thousands of dollars,” Mr. Gloss said. “And space travel and exploration have gone through the roof. All the early astronauts are like Captain Cook and Sir Francis Drake.”

As the 20th century recedes, some of its books and documents are gaining currency as artifacts, Mr. Gloss said from his store in Downtown Crossing. The baby boomer icons, such as “Catcher in the Rye,” “To Kill a Mockingbird” and the children’s book “Make Way for Ducklings,” each can be worth a tidy sum. With one proviso: The book must be in perfect condition.

“That’s a trend,” Mr. Gloss said. “It can’t just be good; it has to be the best. Buyers are willing to go way over the top, but they want the best.”

It’s a fickle business, however.

In the 1920s, British writer John Galsworthy (“The Forsyte Saga”) was hot. “Now you can’t give Galsworthy away,” Mr. Gloss said. “So the `Catcher in the Rye,’ which meant so much to me, will it mean as much to my grandchildren? I don’t know.”

Mr. Gloss, a regular on PBS’ “Antiques Roadshow,” has entertained audiences for a quarter century at libraries across Central Massachusetts with anecdotes about the rarities that have passed through his hands. Like the one about the 40-volume set of 19th-century Edward Curtis photographs of American Indians he bought from a library in Maine.

“You normally only see them in a museum,” Mr. Gloss said. “I got to take it home and go through it page by page.”

He paid $70,000 and sold it for $100,000. Not long ago, a set sold for $1.4 million.

Any regrets about letting that one go?

“I couldn’t afford it then, and it would be hard now to hold on to a $100,000 item,” Mr. Gloss said. “It’s a business. If you’re going to save it all, you won’t have a business.”

Mr. Gloss will be at the Marlboro Library Thursday evening to talk about old and rare books, answer questions and appraise volumes that members of the audience bring along for his perusal. It is amazing what people have tucked into bookcases and stashed away in boxes, he said.

“A book worth $200 is a problem,” Mr. Gloss observed. “It’s not valuable enough to do anything with, but you can’t just give it away. If it’s worth $20,000, then that can help with a college tuition.”

Mr. Gloss inherited the Brattle Book Shop from his father, with whom he worked before the elder Mr. Gloss’ death in the mid-1980s. Today, the business continues to be a family affair. Mr. Gloss’ wife, Joyce Kosofsky, works at the shop, as does daughter Emily, who just graduated from George Washington University and is doing cataloging. Daughter Sonia is a sophomore at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst. The family pets, Duke, a Bernese Mountain dog, and Rex, a chihuahua, also pass the day among the stacks.

Mr. Gloss spends considerable time on the road, visiting people who want to sell books – often because they are moving to smaller quarters – and poring over volumes in estates in cities and towns across New England. A Southboro woman who contacted him had 15 crates of books from the 1930s in her basement. She needed to sell the books to pay for repairs to her heating system.

“Turned out there were fabulous books there,” Mr. Gloss remembered. “The books more than paid for the repairs.”

Mr. Gloss and his wife also travel the country on the trail of antiquarian treasure.

This year, Ms. Kosofsky joined her husband as an appraiser for “Antiques Roadshow.” She was in Tucson, Ariz., and Salt Lake City; he was in Philadelphia and, only last week, Honolulu. The show’s appraisal sessions are marathons, lasting from 6:30 a.m. to 7 p.m., but they’re fun, Mr. Gloss said. Visiting new regions of the country is an added bonus.

“I have found almost any place you go, if you’re willing to drive a two-hour radius, it’s fabulous,” he said. “Last summer, I went to Bismarck in North Dakota. We had a great time. We went to the North Dakota State Fair. In Omaha (Neb.), I had the best Persian food I’ve ever had.”

While the Brattle is doing a brisk business, a dark cloud hangs over the used bookstore trade. The cost of leasing store space in many areas goes up and up, even while the Internet has made the access to, and distribution of, used books considerably more efficient and, in the process, driven prices down.

“Now, you go ‘click’ on a computer, and you quickly find a book that was hard to get 10 years ago,” Mr. Gloss said, adding that used bookstores are going out of business so fast there are not likely to be any left in another 10 years’ time.

The Brattle is in a stronger position than some. Mr. Gloss said that he owns, rather than leases, his space, and, as other stores close, he is picking up business bit by bit. In any case, rare books make up 5 percent to 10 percent of the volume of the Brattle’s business, while those valuable items bring in 50 percent of the annual revenue.

“It’s a treasure hunt every day,” he said.