ELYRIA — The book was “The Killer Angels,” written in 1974 by a guy named Michael Shaara.
It was the basis for the movie “Gettysburg” and won the author a Pulitzer Prize, and the copy that Mark Mittler found sitting on a shelf at an Oberlin book sale a few years ago was a first-edition print worth about $4,000.
"I about fell down when I saw it there,” said Mittler, a local book collector. Another book collector saw Mittler pick up the book and tried to pull a fast one — he offered to buy it from Mittler on the spot, for a small fee. “I told him I’d sell it for $1,800,” Mittler said. "He laughed — he knew what I had.”
‘Ohio’s Largest Public Library Book Sale’
Finding a book like Shaara’s “Killer Angels” is a rare occurrence at used book sales, but it can happen, Mittler said.
Mittler and other book collectors will be among a horde of folks certain to turn up at Elyria’s “Ohio’s Largest Public Library Book Sale” at St. John Lutheran Church on West River Road today through Sunday.
Mittler sounded hopeful that this year’s Elyria book sale will be different from years past, since Elyria Public Library and the Library Friends group — the event’s organizers — said they won’t be presorting the high-priced books and removing them from the 65,000 items slated for sale.
Elyria Public Library Director Janet Stoffer said volunteer book collectors only pulled about 150 of the more expensive books from the collection — less than 1 percent of the total — so they can later be sold on eBay to maximize the library’s fundraising profit.
That means books that are still valued in the $20 to $100 range could be floating around at the Elyria book sale.
And that’s good news for people like Mittler.
“I hadn’t been to Elyria’s book sale in the last three years,” Mittler said. “I found a couple of little notable books that were pretty to have, but you only have so much room for those.”
Collecting books for more than a decade, Mittler has slowly refined his bibliophilic taste, selecting choice books he knows are worth a little extra. But at this year’s sale he’ll be competing with people who aren’t so much book-lovers as they are people zealously committed to finding a book worth more than a buck.
They’re called “scanners.” They use handheld scanners to scan the bar codes on books, checking a book’s price in a database downloaded to the handheld device. Some people say it’s cheating, but organizers of the Elyria book sale say they’re allowing the scanners at this year’s sale — simply to be fair.
“These people will go in teams and hit row upon row of books with bar code scanners,” Mittler said.
Of course, some of the really old books don’t have bar codes, so a book dealer’s depth of knowledge can be invaluable.
“Dealers know exactly what they’re looking for,” Mittler said.
The Internet, too, has completely revolutionized the world of book collecting, Mittler said, allowing some people to acquire a dealer’s knowledge on the fly. Web sites like www.abe.com — the premiere go-to guide for pricing books — produce instant results on a book’s price.
Popular these days, for instance, are “hyper-modern” books written just within the past few decades, but still hard to find.
Some great examples: Any autographed, first-edition book by Cormac McCarthy floats around $600 to $700, while a 2003 limited-edition print of “The Kite Runner,” by Khaled Hosseini, fetches more than $2,000.
“Most people looking at that would see a new book and just pass right over it,” Mittler said. “That’s where a knowledge of book collecting comes in.”
Mittler cautioned this: Simply having a first-edition print doesn’t necessarily make a book valuable. True first-edition prints have a series of numeric numbers — beginning with No. 1 — on or near the book’s copyright page. And even then, some first-edition books have key errors — a certain misspelling on a certain page, for instance — that tip book dealers to its authenticity.
The errors are called “points,” and there are entire books written on the subject.
As you head into the galaxy of books being hawked at St. John in the next few days, remember this: It seems that a book can be judged by its cover.
“I read prolifically and started collecting all the books I read in school,” Mittler said. “I’d find hardcovers with the original paper coverings, and then find out they could be worth something.”
Book collecting can be addictive.
“You gotta watch it,” Mittler said, chuckling. “There’s a fine line between collecting and hoarding."
Contact Shawn Foucher at 653-6255 or firstname.lastname@example.org.