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Gushing over "Gatsby"

You don't forget an encounter with a rare first edition

The New York Times ran a story yesterday on the DiCaprio-emblazoned paperback edition of "The Great Gatsby" and how it’s offended the sensibilities of some booksellers. The article recalled to my mind a first edition of the book, complete with iconic dust jacket, I encountered four years ago while working on a short profile of Buckhead’s Grey Parrot Gallery.

You don’t forget an encounter with such an artifact, which has since sold for $85,000. (You don’t forget much of what you see in that shop, a mini-museum of extremely rare books, maps, and historical documents.) It had a first-edition cover but a second-printing dust jacket, those disembodied eyes somehow more eerily penetrating in their age. Had the jacket been a first printing, it would have sold for more like $150,000, according to the store’s curator, Kenneth Hosley.

Because of their fragility, Hosley explained, dust jackets are the most valuable part of any rare book. But the "Gatsby" wrapper is particularly prized because it marked a shift in the jacket's role from function to form.

“A lot of the dust jackets before it weren’t terribly decorative. They were just there for the purpose of keeping the dust off the book, and people would throw them away,” he said. “When 'Gatsby' came out it was really pushing the boundaries of modern art in order to sell the book. Hemingway said he had to throw away the dust jacket just to read the book. Finding one in that original condition from even the 1930s and 1940s is exceedingly difficult.”

A first-edition "Gatsby," period, is pretty tough to find. A search of AbeBooks.com, a website favored by booksellers, shows that the nearest one is available at Maryland’s Second Story Books, lacking a jacket, for $1,000.

“That’s the thing about rare books—they’re kind of rare,” says Glen Thrasher of Inman Park's A Cappella Books. A first-edition "Gatsby," also sans jacket, came and went through A Cappella's doors within the last five years, but he doesn’t remember the price. “To me it is kind of an ugly dust jacket. But it’s a good book so who cares?”

Fitzgerald fans, take note that Grey Parrot Gallery currently stocks a jacketless first edition of "The Beautiful and Damned" for $400.