Friday, May 17, 2024

How to Buy More Books Than You Can Afford – Creative Financing Explored


I recently had a conversation with a well-known book dealer who’d just sold a Kelmscott Chaucer to a collector.  This put us both in a rather giddy mood.  As it should.  I didn’t ask the price, but I’m guessing William Morris’ monument to fine printing was in the high five-figure or possibly six-figure range.   But what struck me the most was they had worked out a deal to finance the purchase over three years.  The collector was willing to stretch his budget to the maximum for the prize.  I admire that kind of dedication as long as you don’t end up broke, your beloved books torn from your pitiful, crying self, as you watch them carted off to auction or a bookseller’s stock (or The Nightmare: a garage sale overseen by your soon to be ex-wife and eagerly attended by all your former book collecting friends).

This led me to think about creative ways to Buy More Books Than You Can Afford and keep them without suffering a complete financial meltdown.  My suggested methods can work for many levels of collectors from cash strapped college students to monetary titans.  I have personally used most myself.  There are certainly other methods, and I hope my examples will stimulate your own financial creativity.  I am especially sympathetic to the impecunious collector who can’t live without a special book and is contemplating radical action to make it happen.   Recall even the railroad baron Henry Huntington with almost unlimited funds bought so many books while building his collection that he had to start offering railroad bonds in lieu of cash to willing booksellers.  The biblio-fever runs hot at all levels.

Before we get into specifics, let us take a moment and chant the mantra that serious book collectors follow, “It is always easier to make more money than to find another copy of a coveted tome.”  Followed by, “It’s not the ones you buy that you regret, but the ones you let get away.”  When you are waffling about a purchase these maxims will steel your resolve. And if you are still wavering remember that one of your book competitors will buy the book and they will have it and you will not.

First, let’s focus on the youthful but inspired collector; one who is in the budding of book gathering with more energy than funds.  This is a precarious time in a book collector’s life.  A successful start will lead to a lifetime of enjoyment.  A misstep and the frustrated collector could turn to something cheaper but less palatable such as beer can collecting, exercising, or social media.

Desire is the mother of frugality in book hunting.  Frugality to save for a book can be applied at any age or level, but it is good for the youthful collector to practice it regularly.  Frugality comes in many forms, and if you have a higher book purpose, it is amazing what can be accomplished.  The crowning achievement for me in this area was not sacrificing food, alcohol, vacations, brake jobs, or a spouse’s Valentine’s Day present, but refraining from buying another book for thirty days after I bought a particularly expensive example.    I still stick my chest out and strut a bit when I recall this miracle. 

If one happens to be in college and student loans are available, huzzah!  Now a caveat here--we want to develop a refined book collector not a wild-eyed bibliomaniac.  Use your student loan money to first pay college tuition and expenses.  An actual education will help your book-buying power down the road.   Reserve what you can to purchase books for your collection.  And nowadays if you fall into the right category these loans may be waived entirely.  Free books!  That is always a good price.  In my own case, I happily stretched out my student loan repayment the full ten years.    Now thirty-five years later (has it been that long?) just one of those books I purchased – a rare Gabriel Garcia Marquez item – is pretty much worth my original loan amount.  But results may vary.

While I speak of loans, it is imperative to keep your credit score clean and your powder dry.  Don’t implode your credit via unfettered extravagance.  Credit is your friend, and without it life can be a real challenge.  Especially in book collecting.  Your goal in the early years is to acquire a credit card, use it wisely, and then get another credit card just for books.  For those who already have a card(s), the dedicating of one card to book purchases allows more mental (if not actual) budget space with less guilt.  Seeing book charges intermingled with groceries, vet visits, and your kid’s braces payment can cause hesitation when action is needed.  As you hopefully progress up the socio-economic ladder, never miss payments on said card and always increase your credit limit when you can.  Carrying a balance, possibly substantial, will be a fact of life for most collectors.  Don’t neglect low interest balance transfers when the card gets heavy.  Financial discipline is required for this but draw upon your Higher Purpose to work through the pain.

I should also briefly touch on other helpful credit avenues.  One such is Paypal credit, associated with Ebay but used in many book purchase situations.  This credit card hybrid currently allows a purchaser of an item of $100 or more to have six months to pay the amount back without interest.  Judicious use of this option can be particularly helpful when a payment spread over a few months makes all the difference.  However, if the item is not paid off before the six-month deadline the total with accumulated interest converts to regular credit card debt.  The interest rate is high enough to make a loan shark wince.  The Paypal credit option can also be particularly useful in flipping a book for a profit.  My record so far is purchasing a rare Texana item on Ebay for $4,500 utilizing my Paypal credit and selling it a couple months later via consignment with a friendly dealer for $20,000.  Not a cent of my own money was involved.  You can guess where I put those profits. 

My unexpected windfall leads to the fact that advanced collectors inevitably accumulate duplicates and encounter underpriced items with the potential to be resold.  These profits should be put into more books, or at the very least, pay down book debt. (The books can also be swapped with other collectors and dealers for more pertinent material.)  But it is a slippery slope from collector to scout to dealer.  Almost without exception, rare book dealers began as collectors (and a few remain so) but their temperament has led them into bookselling as a focus, not collecting.  Fair enough.  For our purposes, any excess would be plowed back into the collection one way or another.  Don’t neglect this area.  You may be surprised at what is on your shelves that can be released back into the stream for fellow book anglers.   

Other more unconventional ways to Buy More Books Than You Can Afford include borrowing money from family members, like parents.  Tread carefully here.  But sometimes rare opportunities call for bold initiative.  In my early collecting days, I borrowed 5K from the Parental Account to buy great biblio-material at the Frederick B. Adams, Jr. auction in London.  You bet I damn well repaid the loan in short order with much sacrifice.  But then my parental credit was golden.  (Stressing what a great deal you got is also helpful in boosting their confidence in to what to them seems a head scratching obsession.  Remember, they just want to see you happy.)

Another source for a major purchase would be to draw on your home equity line of credit.  If you have reached a circumstance where you have a home equity line of credit congratulate yourself.  The American Dream is in sight.  Again, move carefully and establish firm ground rules on repayment.  Securing the permission of your spouse or significant other is highly recommended.  These are dangerous waters otherwise.  For example, a surprised spouse may demand the same amount for their own use.  A tactical error here and poof, half your needed funds are gone!

Perhaps the finest achievement, besides simply paying cash which this essay assumes you can’t do, is to self-finance.  You’ve saved, invested, built a small stash or a mighty amount, even with all those fine books on your shelves, and an opportunity to buy an exceptional single book or a collection materializes at an inopportune time – and the time will always be inopportune.  You withdraw the substantial amount needed from your pile of retirement gold and promise to pay yourself back with interest on a set schedule.  The added interest will soothe the potential loss of the same if you’d simply left the money alone.  Write out an agreement and sign it. Post it prominently.  This will lessen the chance of weaseling out of the deal and hopefully inspire you to work even harder to make more money (revisit the mantra above).

I’ve heard of other unconventional financing in the form of crowdfunding or making your collection a non-profit entity so you can accept donations. Worth exploring, but I was an English major so take these ruminations with a grain of proverbial salt.  You can’t fit many books in a jail cell.

Finally, one may encounter the rare situation when an abundance of ready money is available, and a sigh of relief comes as your finances turn from red to black.  This can be disconcerting admittedly.  Have a nice dinner out with your significant other and savor the moment.  But don’t kid yourself, for you are a book collector, and soon enough things will turn red again as the fever rises and your package-toting postman will ring not twice but many, many times.

Nota bene: The idea for this essay sprang forth when I was brainstorming with fellow biblio-veterans about Topics in Advanced Book Collecting.  Perhaps the next subject will be “How to House More Books Than You Have Room For.”  This seems a logical follow-up.   

This essay first published in the Spring 2024 FABS Journal.