Nostalgia In Book Form - Yearbooks Are Collectible

November 21, 2010

Vintage yearbooks have become a boom area of collectibles. They represent the perfect “Trash or Treasure” model, because a yearbook is worth its weight in gold to the those who graduated that particular year from that particular school, while it is a “paper-weight” i.e. meaningless trash, to anyone else.
Yearbooks have been on the rise in value in the last three years, as nostalgia is a growing factor in the times in which we live. In 2010, yearbooks are an area of interest similar to baseball cards of the late 1900's. In my experience, nostalgia seems to peak when times are financially troubled. This could be due to many factors but I tend to believe it's because when people don't have money to spend, they tend to focus on times past, or the “good old days”. For many, those “good old days” generally include the high school years.
High School Yearbooks unlike college yearbooks, are heavily entrenched into our memories and good times. College yearbooks do not mean as much to most of us because in college we are a number, a much more random unit in a large system, lasting generally for 4 years, commencing when we are young adults, whereas high school friends may have been around us for two-thirds of our young lives. Twelve grades (and in many cases, kindergarten) in the life of an 18-year-old is a significant portion. It's the time when we first begin to “bond” and choose friends. We are born into our families, however our first friends are chosen in school, leading up to the culmination of those times, in a high school graduation.
Many childhood memories surround our schooling, the first dance, the first date, going to high school sporting events and learning “esprit de corps” of rooting for common interests, the football or basketball team. The “first kiss” is supposed to be the kiss all others are measured by, it generally happens in high school. The school play, or sporting events, the first time we step on the world stage occurs in our home town playing field, or auditorium. The High School yearbook commemorates all of this, and while the experience is different for everyone, there are enough pictures and commonalties that we all enjoy that book, built on our history.
Because of this thinking our yearbooks have intense interest in certain places and times, and are meaningless beyond that town or out of that era.
Yearbooks as collectibles are built on this premise.
Unlike some categories of collectibles, with yearbooks, the oldest examples are not the most valuable. Yearbook values are often determined instead by the size of the class or the school's population. Larger schools have larger followings. Smaller schools, though, sometimes have tighter knit communities. In the case of my yearbook business, the most valuable books (right now) are generally from the 1960's, 1970's, & 1980's. Again, advanced age does not dictate larger dollars. People who graduated from school from the 1960's to the 1980's are active and interested in the books that reflect that not so distant era in their lives. This makes the interest on 20-40 year old books the most intense. Similarly books from the 1990's or 2000's have yet to catch on in interest, but they will.
As part of my buying ritual, I visit flea markets all over New Jersey, New York, and Pennsylvania. Generally, when vendors hear that I buy yearbooks, they tell me one of two things. The most common is “I had them, but threw them out, not realizing anyone would want them.” The second is something to the effect that the yearbook is valuable because it's so old. As I said earlier in this arti-cle, yearbooks as collectibles rarely have value for their age alone, so it's not the best way to try to market them. I don't always have time to explain all to this them, and they seem amazed that I would instead buy a book from 1973 than to take the book from the same school from 1933.
Actually the person who says they “threw them out” really amazes me, as they have no idea what I might have paid them for that yearbook.
I'm often asked, “where do these yearbooks come from?” The answer is as varied as there are books. There are over 23,000 schools of secondary education in the USA, and most have 50 to 100 years of history (and yearbooks produced). Simple math tells you there are millions of yearbooks in existence. They come from yard sales, flea markets, online auctions, basement and attic cleanout services, estate sales, storage locker auctions, thrift stores, Salvation Army stores, regular auctions and from the belongings of some-one who has passed away. The last area is one I want to make mention of because it is noteworthy. I came across a lady about a year ago who told me that she wanted to donate a book to me, for me to place with someone. I thought “gee that is nice” and I asked why. She told me that this book was from her husband's high school days, meant little to her, but the world to him, and she wanted to pass along the book to some classmate of his who might long for the memories that book contained. I mentioned this story a few times on my radio show, and since then similar donations have occurred. It restores your faith in humanity to see people offer something for-ward that is of such a personal nature to their deceased spouse, for the benefit of someone else, in this case their classmates.
The exception to these general rules of what makes a yearbook valuable is in the yearbook of the famous person. I am not talking about the personal property of the famous person, I am talking about famous alumni within a class. Famous people were all once part of someone's class. I, for instance, went to school with track star Carl Lewis, winner of 10 gold medals, spanning a few Olympic games. The noteworthiness of Carl Lewis did not affect the yearbook that I treasure, however, because he graduated two years after I did!
Recently I sold a 1961 Eastern District High School yearbook for $240. Why would anyone pay that kind of money for a year-book? Because it was the senior class yearbook of singer/composer Barry Manilow. I've sold yearbooks from the school years of other noteworthy people, including Susan Sarandon, George Bush senior, Shaquille O'Neal, Karim Abdul Jabbar, and former New York City Mayor, David Dinkins. Often, the age factor does play into the value of a yearbook containing a famous person, because the older the book, the less there are authentic replacements to be found.
Many give me kudos for becoming involved in something that is so obscure that it has not been previously thought of. While I sell yearbooks as many now do, I also offer an ongoing search feature to members of my Web site. I search for their books, until found, at a very small cost to them. That facet of my business is unique, as there are few who do that. The two (selling and searching) fit well together because I use that data base as the determining factor to make my book purchases. Better to buy a book that I know can be sold immediately, than to take a chance on one I may end up owning forever. For this reason, I pay three times as much for books I know can be immediately resold.
People are curious about how and why I entered the business of buying and searching for yearbooks. The answer is fairly simple. I was looking for a yearbook for myself, from Willingboro High School in New Jersey, 1976. Mine had been damaged beyond use in a 1980's flood in my father's basement that occurred after a summer hurricane in the northeast. The Internet had not yet fully evolved, but in the late nineties I started searching via the Internet, using various search engines, for a replacement for that treasure that had been destroyed. I spent years in pursuit of this item - with no luck. However, in the meantime I was finding other yearbooks, from other schools, for sometimes next to nothing. I don't know why, but something inside me said “start buying them,” and I did, for $3 here, $5 there, and soon I had accumulated a library of these books.
Still not yet sure what I would ultimately do with them, on some level I knew they would have some value because surely I was not unique - if I was willing to part with that kind of money for my own yearbook, surely others must be willing to buy these “orphan” yearbooks I was finding. I turned the “needle in the haystack” idea upside down - I had the needles, I just had to find the haystacks! I started evolving ways to reach those people, ways that I am not willing to share at this time, but suffice it to say, there was interest, and a new side business, labor of love, and hobby entered my life forever. I even saw it as good “karma,” when I saw the tears of joy people felt at being reunited with this piece of nostalgia from their past.
This was the true win - win - win scenario. The seller was happy to get a few bucks for their otherwise meaningless piece of trash, I was happy to get the item to sell, and best of all, the buyer (found in time), would be pleased as punch to be able to obtain their book. There were no losers here.
In fact, and as the happy ending to my story, I can report that I found that 1976 Willingboro High Yearbook, my own personal holy grail. I was the beneficiary of some really terrific press in 2009. One of the articles about me was on the top half of the front page of the Trenton Times of March 4, 2009. This article brought about tremendous local interest, and I got no fewer than 800 requests for help in finding yearbooks. One of those requests came from Mayor Doug Palmer of Trenton who is a local celebrity of sorts. I found his yearbook and he was so pleased that it became the subject of a second page one article in the Times. Mayor Palmer calls me his “new best friend” and when presented with the book, he viewed it before myself and the Times reporter and other visitors, including TV cameras.
Something very good though, happened through all of this publicity. The notoriety of what I did, got so much attention, that one of my classmates' brothers sent the articles to another of my former classmates, Guy Boucher. Guy was now living in Texas and would not have seen the article otherwise. Guy it seems had married fellow classmate of ours, Susan Moran, and this meant that the couple had two yearbooks between them. In one of the most selfless and charitable acts I've experienced in my life, Guy and Sue decided that they would make a gift to me of Guy's yearbook! This was how my idea grew into a bonafide business, with people pleased as punch that I do what I do.
I had acquired, over time, so much knowledge and information that even though I had found my own book, I decided to continue for the benefit of others and make this one of the cornerstones and focuses of my life. With over 250 people having benefited already, and seeing their joy, I just could not stop. I decided to press on, and hope that some day this business will be able to sustain me in my old age!


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