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Connoisseurs, cognoscenti & collectors: black book enthusiasts are transforming their personal libraries into meaningful collections--and a few are finding gold in their sentimental attachments.

Mike Glenn's voice deepens with passion and quickens with a kind of adrenaline rush, as he talks about his favorite way to enjoy his cherished copy of Phillis Wheatley's 1773 volume, Poems on Various Subjects. In one of the many book-filled rooms in his suburban Atlanta-area home, he turns on soft, old-time jazz. Then he carefully pulls the book from the shelf, cradling its delicate pages, its fragile spine in his palms with the same tenderness lavished on a newborn baby. And then he reads some of Wheatley's verse aloud. [paragraph] "It's an awesome feeling, because she wrote this before America became America" says the former NBA player and now TV basketball analyst for the Atlanta Hawks. "It's inspiring and rejuvenating to read" he says, "because it feels like she's just opening up her soul to me personally. This great woman, this African American woman, is talking straight to me." Glenn, 45, describes a similar sense of pride when perusing any of the first editions he has in his home--whether by Frederick Douglass or Langston Hughes or Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Even though he started collecting only four years ago, his collection is now more than one thousand strong. "I'm a total book lover," he says. "Because this is our history, our culture. It defines and inspires us." [paragraph] And right now, Glenn is competing with a growing number of people who are scouring the Internet, sifting through used and rare bookstores, and bidding high at auctions to score their own first editions by African Americans.

Black book collecting is a hot-off-the-presses trend that correlates with a surge in the world's fascination with all things rooted in Africa, says the dean of black book collecting, Charles Blockson, curator of the Charles Blockson Collection at Pittsburgh's Temple University.

"The world of color is beginning to regain the cultural prominence that it had in ancient times," says Blockson, who started his collection of more than 200,000 books over a half-century ago as a child after a teacher told him, "Negroes were born to serve white people." Today, he says, "I am so proud to witness this resurgence in African American literature."

A Growing Collector's Market

Just as record numbers of books by African American authors are being published now more than ever, more more black people are excelling in professional jobs that afford the disposable income to invest in the pricey pursuit of book collecting.

"A Phillis Wheatley just went for $20,000 at auction," says Blockson, author of Damn Rare: The Memoirs of an African-American Bibliophile (Temple University Press, October 1998, $24.95, ISBN 1-892-69700-9). "Now you have all these books just skyrocketing"

Another reason is more people are cultivating friendships with bookstore owners, or checking rare book catalogs and sleuthing book fairs. And there's a growing sense that our history--as told in books--must be gathered and preserved as a strong foundation for our children to carry proudly in the future.

"My motivation for collecting books is to pass down to my ten-year-old daughter the wealth of talent that our people are finally being acknowledged for," says Rita Pompey of Durham, North Carolina. But the 39-year-old says she personally cherishes her signedbooks by contemporary authors such as E. Lynn Harris. "It's so special to me because the author has physically touched this book" Pompey says. "And eventually the books will be part of history. So we can hold onto our culture."

That's also what motivates Sherry McGee, owner of Detroit's Apple Book Center, to collect hardcover books for children featuring notable black illustrators like Minty: A Story of Young Harriet Tubman, illustrated by Jerry Pinkney and The Story of Ruby Bridges by George Ford. These historical tales teach. "Children today think something is hard, but they don't know what hard is" says McGee. "These books can help them appreciate that."

Glenn has showcased his books for children at Atlanta's Philips Arena, the NBA store in Manhattan and in TV spots on Fox Sports Net. "I'm capturing the spirit of our ancestors," Glenn says, "and to share that with young people is awesome." Glenn has helped his seven-year-old son collect his first one hundred books.

The popularity of genealogy is also inspiring people of all races to seize these "pieces of history," says Deborah Lee of Detroit's John K. King Books. "More people are realizing that their families are a melting pot" she says. "So they want a better understanding of what African Americans have gone through."

When Pop Culture Trumps History

Others say the dynamic of supply and demand fuels a sometimes frenzied quest for black books. "I'm learning to grab them once I see them," says McGee, who has nearly a hundred black children's books, especially those illustrated by the award-winning black artist Jerry Pinkney and his talented sons Brian and Myles. "Black books don't stay on the market forever," she says. It's often surprising which authors people collect. "Take Beverly Jenkins, for example. We probably get a dozen requests a week for her historical romance books, and we can't get those anywhere." More people are asking for black biographies of pop culture figures, Lee says, thanks to an upsurge in television specials about entertainers such as Josephine Baker and the Temptations.

"A lot of people just start collecting because they love to read," says Vanessa Woodward, head of Journeys End book club in Raleigh, North Carolina. "If you read two or three books a week like some folks do, you'll have a collection whether you intended to or not."

"It's a spiritual quest," says Glenn. "It's as if you know the books are going to find you. It feels so wonderful to find a book I've wanted. It's like Christmas day."

Collecting Tips for Beginners

Advice from those in the know on how you can formally begin a black book collection:

* Attend book signings at local stores and hold onto the first edition autographed book. As the author's popularity grows, so will the value of their work. "Waiting to Exhale was up to $125 for a first edition signed copy," says Detroit collector and bookseller Sherry McGee. A small number of folks know that books by a writer like Terry McMillan, who has opened, the door for hundreds of other African American writers, can be valuable later on. "Young people are coming in droves for The Bluest Eye, the first novel published by Toni Morrison," adds Debra Lee, another Detroit bookseller.

* Set a budget. A signed Langston Hughes can cost $395. Want a Paul Laurence Dunbar? Just a signed, autographed card can cost you $2,000.

* Buy what you love. Start where your passion lies--whether its an author like Richard Wright, a genre like slave narratives or religious books or even popular categories like cookbooks and black beauty books.

* Find books in good condition. The book is more valuable when it's clean, with an intact jacket and a tight binding. Check the copyright page and make sure the book is a first edition, which is more prized.

* Watch trends. Of course, the death of an author like Gwendolyn Brooks raises the market value of her first editions, notes the esteemed bibliophile Charles Blockson.

* Think quality over quantity. It's better to buy one rare, expensive book than to spend the same on three more common works. Two things that make you miss the essence of book collecting is asking "how much?" and "how many?"

* Get insurance. Amend your homeowner's policy to cover the growing value of your book collection.

* Join the network. Make friends with booksellers. Visit Web sites and stores. Subscribe to catalogs. Search Internet auction sites. All this could put you one phone call or click away from that rare copy of Behind the Scenes, a slave narrative by Elizabeth Keckly, seamstress to former President Abraham Lincoln's wife.

How to Identify a First Edition Book

1 -- Look for the words "first printing" (the best indication) or "first edition," which is found at the front of the book, usually on the copyright page.

2 -- Check the series of numbers on the copyright page, which denotes the book's printing. The lowest number of that sequence usually denotes the numerical printing of that issue.

3 -- Make sure the book is not a book club. edition, which is oftentimes stated on the inside flap of the dust jacket.

4 -- For authoritative references, see A Pocket Guide to the Identification of First Editions compiled by Bill McBride and First Editions: A Guide to Identification edited by Edward N. Zempel and Linda A. Verkler.
COPYRIGHT 2001 Cox, Matthews & Associates
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Article Details
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Author:Bowman, Elizabeth Atkins
Publication:Black Issues Book Review
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Nov 1, 2001
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