The inside of Sue Cohen’s Rockville home is like a Barnes & Noble, only smaller and without the Starbucks. Bookcases line the walls of her adult children’s former bedrooms, each filled with rare first editions. Cohen, 69, estimates that those groaning shelves hold 3,400 rare and signed volumes.
And they’re all for sale.
Cohen, a member of Temple Beth Ami, spends her time poring over stacks of old books at library sales and community fundraisers. She searches in hope of striking gold: an underpriced book. Often she buys for pennies and re-sells for hundreds. There’s profit in it, but the thrill of the hunt is truly enriching.
“It just gets into your blood,” Cohen says.
Cohen says she finds underpriced books at used bookstores. She’s aided by the overwhelming inventory and unknowledgeable staffers. At one bookstore, Cohen found a copy of “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” signed by author Betty Smith. Cohen paid 50 cents for the autobiographical novel with a large Jewish presence, and resold it for $400.
Another time, Cohen found a copy of “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre,” a 1927 adventure novel, while browsing though Second Story Books in Rockville.
“That is an incredibly rare book,” she says. “No one has it. I’ve never seen it since. I saw it lying on its side for like $8. It was a first edition. And I grabbed it. I subsequently sold it for over $200.”
Sometimes “small sales will have real gems,” Cohen says. Once she found a copy of “Crusade in Europe,” a 1948 wartime memoir by Dwight D. Eisenhower. She opened it and discovered it was a first edition and signed by the former Allied commander and future president. She paid $10, wrapped it with a dust jacket from another copy she found at a bookstore for $1 and sold the package for $2,800.
“It’s a lot of grunt work. It’s a lot of sweat equity,” she says.
Cohen’s passion for books dates back to childhood.
She says that books “saved my life as a child. I grew up in a small apartment in the Bronx. We were very poor. And my salvation was, as soon as I was old enough, to walk a few blocks up to the library. And I start pulling books out and I just read, read, read.”
Cohen carried this love for books into her career in education. She worked as a preschool teacher and a school principal before starting a consulting firm. One morning in 2003, Cohen and her husband, Peter, were watching the Today show. Charles Frazier, who had just won the National Book Award for “Cold Mountain,” was a guest and mentioned how first editions were selling for more than $100. The couple rushed to their bookshelf and found that they, in fact, had two first editions.
“And we looked at each other and said, ‘Gee, I wonder if I could sell books from home.’”
So Cohen started researching rare bookselling and appraisal. She sought out advice from professional booksellers. They were not encouraging.
“Every single bookseller I met through the Washington Antiquarian Booksellers Association told me I was a moron for trying to go into the business, and that it was dying,” she says.
Cohen pressed ahead. She reached out to Dale Sorenson, owner of a book auction house in Bethesda called Waverly Auctions, for help. Cohen brought him a stack of what she considered her most valuable books.
“He basically opened each book, looked at it and went, ‘worthless,’ ‘junk,’ ‘worthless,’ ‘nothing,’ ‘nope.’ It was very humbling. It was not pretty, but it was very helpful.”
And those two first editions of “Cold Mountain”? Sorenson told Cohen that they were actually 13th printings of the first edition and worthless.
Over the years Cohen gained experience and grew her inventory. She found more and more books to sell online at AbeBooks, Alibris and Biblio. She named her shop, Bren-Books, in memory of her father, Abraham Lederman, a member of the Łódź Ghetto resistance. Bren was a childhood nickname her father gave her, a Yiddish word meaning “fire” or “zeal.”
“It was the best way I could pay tribute to my dad,” she says.
Digging through mountains of books keeps her intellectually sharp. And it sets an example, she believes.
“It is important to your children and grandchildren, for them to see you as a constantly evolving and growing and curious person, that your learning does not stop, that you remain open to new ideas and new experiences.”