Build a Quality Home Library—Without Breaking Your Budget!
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 informational heart of your home, 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 even farther. You can sometimes 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 has great coffee and squishy chairs, but best of all, it has a bunch of 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.
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! It’s free to join and swap.
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 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 eBay 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 Prime Membership (You can try Amazon Prime free for 30 Days. AbeBooks.com is also a respected dealer in used books, and often has extremely hard to find books at reasonable prices.
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. I still mourn the loss of Acres of Books in Long Beach, but The Last Bookstore is a good substitute. My other favorite is Shakespeare and Company in Paris. They’re decently organized, full of treasures, and it’s possible to find great bargains. Readers tend to be opinionated about book stores, so there are many lists of “best independent bookstores” online. A few of these may wander into the price stratosphere, but most have sections of affordable books.
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. A couple of my favorite new-book stores are Eighth Day Books and Powell’s.
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 Who Should We Then Read I & II, by Jan Bloom of Books Bloom (I have consistently loved her recommendations). You’ll find more wonderful suggestions in the books below (your local library should have at least a few of these guides):
• 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
Once you’ve begun to collect books, it’s a good idea to catalog them. I catalog some of my books on LibraryThing.com, and have an account at GoodReads, too, which is a more socially oriented site. Either can be helpful when you’re standing before a table of used books wondering if you already have the one you’re looking at. When I was young and my collection was small, I could remember all I had, but that soon passed. Now, I need all the help I can get in remembering what I need, and what I already have.
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.
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