How to Start a Book Collection on a Small Budget

Last Friday I was able to visit The Morgan Library and Museum, a hidden gem in Midtown that houses the library of American banker J.P. Morgan.  It features his personal collection of books and art, and acts as a reference library, rare book room, and museum. His collection includes drawings and prints by many of the great Renaissance artists, manuscripts by famed authors such as Lord Byron and Henry David Thoreau, and even recently a notebook from Bob Dylan where he wrote the lyrics to my favorite album of all time, Blood On The Tracks.

The building and collection are beautiful to see – thousands of extremely rare books, housed in a room with custom painted ceilings and tapestries hanging on the walls.

The main collection on view in The Morgan Library.

But, of course it’s going to be beautiful! One of the richest men of the turn of the century built this- he essentially had the world at his fingers. And while it’s easy to look at this library with intense envy (I know I did), I want to take the time today to turn the conversation back on us normal folks, and how to build a nice personal collection of your own.

There are plenty of reasons to start collecting books. Maybe you’re an avid reader who is looking for more guidance when they enter a bookshop. Maybe you have a really niche interest, and start naturally collecting books on that topic. Maybe you like collecting the different editions of your favorite books. Or maybe you just need some decor for your apartment, and having a bunch of old books makes you look really cool (see picture above, for example).

I personally have a few different branches of book collecting that I like to foster, mostly focusing on specific editions of books. For example, I started collecting Penguin Orange Classics almost three years ago, and now have grown my collection to 14 different titles. Definitely smaller compared to the more serious collectors out there, but I’m still very proud of my little stash.

I think the most fun part about being a book collector is that it’s almost like you’re on a perpetual scavenger hunt. Every bookstore, flea market, and yard sale might hold the gem you’re looking for, and when you do manage to find it, it’s like finding a holy grail. Over the summer when I found 4 Penguin Orange classics in a one used bookstore, I honestly almost started crying right then and there.

Here are my tips for growing or starting your own book collection (on a non-J.P. Morgan budget):

  1. Know what you’re looking for ahead of time

The main difference between a personal library and book collection is that the latter has a certain theme running through it. Be it books all by a single author, books all of the same edition by a publisher, or books all about a certain topic, having an idea of what you’re looking for before embarking on your search makes it all less intimidating. I know I personally start off every trip to a used book store or flea market with looking for editions of Jane Eyre and The Hunchback of Notre Dame, because those are two titles I like to collect different editions of. Which brings me to my next point…

2. The older the book, the easier the search

Jane Eyre and Hunchback are both massively popular books from over a century ago, which means that there are many different editions and versions of them. It makes collecting those titles particularly interesting, almost like a time capsule to see different publication design trends throughout the eras. So if you’re looking to collect a certain title or build a collection by a certain author, you’ll have better luck starting with ones that are older and more well known. It’s a good way to kick start your collection, and from there you’ll be able to branch off into more rare titles or variations.

3. If you’re searching online, know the lingo

I have added books to my collection from sites like Etsy and Abe Books, and while I don’t find it as satisfying as searching for books IRL, it is undoubtedly a good way to get the exact edition you’re looking for, or even get your hands on a first edition. However, since you can’t hold the book in your hand before you buy, you’ll want to pay close attention to the quality reported by the seller. The basic guidelines most sellers go by are As New, Fine (F or FN), Very Good (VG), Good (G), and Poor. These are mostly self explanatory but do have certain specific difference that you can read more about here. It certainly does help narrow down your search and get an idea of what condition the book is in, but unfortunately sellers idea of Good vs Very Good for example can range widely. Don’t be afraid to message the seller asking for more pictures or close ups of reported damage before you buy!

4. Age doesn’t always equal quality

For most common folks, spending hundreds of dollars on a single book is a ridiculous idea. Sure, it might be 500 years old, but don’t let a seller swindle you out of your hard earned money. Professional book sellers are easily able to spot a novice collector and can sometimes try to overvalue their older, but not necessarily rarer, books. If you’re looking to add particularly rare books to your collection, make a strict budget first and do your research on how to spot them. The same goes for “limited edition” books, especially ones printed within the past 20/30 years or so. Most LE books were just published as marketing ploys and do not actually hold much value.

5. Pace yourself

This one is possibly the most important of them all. It’s easy to get wrapped up in the whirlwind of hunting for books and adding to your collection, but part of the joy of this whole process is slowly building your collection piece by piece, so that at the end you have a set of books that you truly cherish. It’s very tempting to go to Etsy, fill your cart, and blow your latest paycheck on books for your new collection, but book collecting is a marathon, not a sprint.

Do you collect any specific types of books or publications? When did you start collecting, and where do you search to find additions?

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4 thoughts on “How to Start a Book Collection on a Small Budget

  1. Ultimate book search was in Serendipity. The obsessive search for a single book that holds the key to one mans happiness. The book? Love in the time of cholera

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