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Build a Quality Home Library-- Without Breaking Your Budget!

Janice Campbell

Old books are often bargains! I love libraries. When I was a little kid, and people asked what I wanted to be when I grew up, I always said that I would be an author and a librarian. Many years later, I've written a few books (Excellence In Literature, Transcripts Made Easy, and Get a Jump Start on College), countless articles, and am working on many more. But I'm not a "real" librarian yet. Like many other booklovers, though, I've found ways to fill my craving for books, without spending a fortune.

A home library can serve as the information center of your home, as a source of entertainment when the power goes out, and as a source of lifelong pleasure and learning. Studies have consistently shown that children who grow up in homes with many books do much better in school than those whose minds have been starved. If you're looking for ways to fill your library shelves, and feed hungry minds, here are some ideas for where to look. I've listed them in order of affordability, with the cheapest options first.

Library Book Sales

In some areas of the country, library book sales are the very best way to grow a home library. I've bought hundreds of hardback books for .50 each, and often less, and as the end of the sale day approaches, the price usually drops. You can often fill an entire grocery bag for $1! You may not want to keep everything you pick up, but it's a cheap way to try new authors and to get books you can swap or sell.

Coffee Shop Swaps

My local coffee shop, Ashland Coffee & Tea, is lined with bookshelves. The deal is that you can take any book you like-- you just bring back two to replace it. I've found terrific stuff there, and I always have plenty to donate (this is where you can take duplicates and leftovers from those library book bags!). I've heard that other coffee shops across the country offer similar opportunities, so be sure to check in your community. This is just one more good reason to patronize the local folks rather than the big anonymous chains!

Paperback Book Swap

This internet-based swap site is a terrific way to get nice paperback books for just the cost of postage. You sign up, list books you'd like to give away, and wait for them to be requested. When you've earned a few credits, you may begin requesting books. When someone requests a book you've listed, you are notified by e-mail. You go to the swap site, and confirm that you can send the book, then print out the wrapper, which is two sheets of ordinary printer paper with all the mailing information, printed on. You fold this around your book, tape it, and send it off. It works beautifully! If you click on this link to visit their website, you can sign up immediately to swap paperback books for FREE.

Thrift Shops

Large thrift stores usually have a book section, and it's almost always possible to find something good. Some thrift stores receive nearly new books from the bestseller list. These aren't the type of thing I read, but I sometimes buy them to swap or resell, if they are cheap enough. I've noticed that some of the big chain thrift stores such as Good Will are beginning to price books higher than I want to pay, but the small, individually operated thrift stores often have a wide selection under $1 each.

Used Book Swap Stores

These small, individually owned stores usually focus on paperback books, but many have a section of quality older books, including non-fiction and classics. Prices are usually set at half the original price of the book, or $1, whichever is greater. If you want to bring in books to swap, you receive credit for 25% of the resale value. Most of these mom-and-pop operations don't keep elaborate records, so it can be up to you to keep track of your credits. I solved this potential headache by never bringing in more than I bought!

Online Auctions and Book Stores

If you're looking for a particular book or author, chances are that the internet is the fastest place to find it. You can still find some great deals on e-Bay and other auction sites, but don't forget to factor in the cost of shipping and handling. I buy most of my new books at Amazon.com, as their prices are usually best, and they offer free shipping with a purchase over $25. AbeBooks.com is a respected dealer in used books, and often has extremely hard to find books at reasonable prices.

Green Valley Book Fair

Residents of the mid-Atlantic region of the United States are lucky-- they can easily get to the 25,000 square foot Green Valley Book Fair when it is open. This warehouse in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia is open about six times a year, for about two weeks at a time. Prices for new books are stunningly low (60-90% off retail), and the selection tends to be similar to what you find at the big bookstores. It's worth a trip if you're anywhere near. You can find the current schedule and directions at their website, www.gvbookfair.com.

Antiquarian Book Stores

I love browsing in antiquarian book shops for their quirky selection and cozy atmosphere, but prices are often downright shocking. However, there's always the chance that you'll find something shabby but wonderful lurking on a back shelf. These shops often have sale racks that are quite reasonable. My favorite bookstores of all time are Acres of Books in Long Beach, California and Shakespeare and Company in Paris. They're decently organized, full of treasures, and it's possible to find great bargains.

Old books need careful shelving and special care to protect them from moisture and insects.

New Book Stores

Most new book stores have a bargain book section where you can sometimes find good books marked 50-75% off, or even more. Some chains, like Barnes & Noble, also publish their own line of classics at relatively reasonable prices. They usually aren't the best translations available, but can be useful if you are unable to find a good used copy elsewhere.

Before You Go Shopping

For best results when shopping for used books, know what you want. My personal library numbers in the thousands, so I have to make sure I don't duplicate what I already own. I keep a list of authors I am looking for, as well as specific books I'd like to replace with a better copy.

If you are new to library-building, you may want to read some of the following books to help you get started (your local library should have copies of at least a few of these guides, as well as others):

Books Children Love by Elizabeth Wilson
Honey for a Child's Heart by Gladys Hunt
The Well-Educated Mind by Susan Wise Bauer
Invitation to the Classics by Cowan and Guinness
The Read-Aloud Handbook by Jim Trelease

After You Go Shopping

Catalog Your Books

I'm a lifetime member of the League of Thingamabrarians! Once you've begun to collect books, it's a good idea to catalog them. I catalog my books on LibraryThing.com, and in an off-line program called Readerware. Readerware is available for PC, Macintosh, and Palm, and is very user-friendly. LibraryThing has the virtue of being accessible online, so that when you're at the bookstore and find a pristine copy of a book you may already own, you can go to LIbraryThing on your internet-enabled cell phone and look it up! Both cataloging systems allow you to scan in book barcodes, so that information can be filled in from the service's database. This saves countless hours of tedious typing, and is a lot of fun. Readerware even offers CueCat barcode scanner very cheaply (it was free when I ordered my copy of the software).

Build Sturdy Bookshelves

If you begin building a serious library, you'll soon find that you need bookshelves. Lots of bookshelves. I've found that sheets of particleboard can be sawed into 6" strips at a pretty reasonable cost per shelf. A 4' x 8' sheet of particleboard can yield a pretty decent ceiling-height bookcase. First, saw off two 6" by 8' strips, then saw the remainder of the board into 6" x 32" strips. Screw it all together, and it's pretty sturdy. Be sure to leave space at the top to run a strip of trim around it to connect it to the wall. Never leave it unanchored, or it may fall over! For added sturdiness, you can cut three 2" wide strips from the long edge of the sheet of particleboard before cutting the shelves. Screw these to the edges and center of the back, and screw them into the wall, and the bookcase should be very secure. With a little imagination, you can customize these simple shelves to march up a flight of stairs, or wrap around a room. Your library will soon be looking good!

The bottom line is, you can have a great home library without paying anywhere near new book prices. As your collection starts to grow, people will often offer you their unwanted books. Take them! If you don't need them, you can share them with others, swap them, or even sell them and buy books you need. Someone somewhere is probably looking for a book you want to give away. Take care of your books by protecting them from moisture and insects, and they will repay you with hours of pleasure.

Janice Campbell, author of Transcripts Made Easy, Get a Jump Start on College!, and the forthcoming Excellence in Literature series, is the Director of the National Association of Independent Writing Evaluators (http://www.NAIWE.com). She homeschooled her four sons from kindergarten into college, and has been writing and speaking in central Virginia since the late 1980's. Be sure to visit www.Everyday-Education.com for a free, printable version of her writing evaluation rubric, plus an information-rich e-newsletter.
© 2002-2008 by Janice Campbell


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