Monday, August 27, 2007

Cheap used books (and what to do with the books I have)

One day last year, when I was substitute teaching, I went to my completely full bookshelf on my way out the door to grab something to read during my prep time. Staring at the bookshelf, I realized that there was absolutely nothing I wanted to read. That made me start to reflect on how much money, space, and time I was spending accumulating books, and thus began my great book purge.

Since then, I have acquired more books - people do like to give them to me as gifts - and I've certainly read many books. Instead of investing a lot of money, though, in really expensive, hardcover, new books, I've been buying a lot of cheap used books and have generated a strategy for avoiding the full but empty bookshelf that got me into this.

My strategy is twofold: first, I decide which books I really want to HAVE then I figure out how to get them. The key here is that there are many books I want to READ but don't want to OWN. Most novels, for instance, are very enjoyable to read . . . once. What I realized that day I stared at my bookshelf is that, while I like re-reading, I would almost always prefer to read something new. I find that if I spend a lot of time at the library I read more and enjoy what I read more. There's no more hemming and hawing over whether a book is worth getting; if I don't like it, I can just bring it back without finishing it. No muss, no fuss, no cost.

There are some books I want to have though. Cookbooks, reference books, books for my classroom, and even some novels by authors I really enjoy, so I've put together this strategy for acquiring cheap used books.

1. Paperback swap is usually my first stop when I'm looking for a specific book. Because I had so many books I was willing to part with, I always have a surfeit of credits just sitting in my account. If the book is available on PBS, it's almost free for me to get. (Not quite free, though, since I paid the shipping on my outgoing books to get the credits.)

2. is my favorite used book marketplace, although I do use the one on Amazon as well. You can usually get cheap used books for less than $5 (if not closer to $2) and since you pay media postage, it comes out very cheap.

3. Used bookstores are my last stop, or my first stop if I procrastinated and need the book immediately. They are usually a little more expensive, since the markup is high, but they are very convenient and allow you to browse.

I also enjoy library sales and garage sales, but I find that if I'm looking for a specific book, this is a very difficult way to find it. And since I try not to buy books "just because," I've steered more away from this in recent years.

The flip side of buying cheap used books is of course trading and selling the books I own that I no longer want. If you want there to be books available on, then you need to reciprocate by selling your books for reasonable prices. I usually list mine for the lowest price available, since I've decided to let them go already and am guaranteed to make more than the cost of postage to get the book out of my house.

I do occasionally also sell my books to used bookstores, and have found them especially useful when I was about to move because I didn't need to wait for someone to purchase my book and then go ship it, nor did I have to pack it up to move. Even more than the markup on the sales, though, these stores make money on the buy. I've had whole boxes of books sell for less than I would get for one book if I sold it myself.

One other thing that I remind myself: buying and selling cheap used books is also good for the environment. Trading in secondhand items prevents trash from going into the waste stream and limits the amount of production needed for making new ones. So, the buyer, the seller, and the environment all benefit! Nothing like a win-win-win!


Patrick said...

I agree with selling used books to bookstores - you just don't get much out of it.

If none of the other avenues you mention work out, you can always donate them to goodwill, churches, hospitals, USO, or any other non-profit. You will be doing a good deed and you will get a tax deduction. It is much better than more clutter or worse, throwing them out.

Val said...

I loved this post. I too am really a fan of used books--however, I like the hunt of finding just the book you want in a used bookstore. The best places I've found for cheap books are Goodwills and other second-hand shops affiliated with churches. I'm just beginning to get into the online used book search. I find it to not be quite as appealing as the tangible search.