10 Ways to Build a Library on the Cheap

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I’ve been creating a library for the past three years. I’m obsessed with building a sprawling selection of quality books, but I rarely pay cover price. I’d never be able to afford it.

The Lakeland Library Cooperative in Michigan says the average cost of a fiction trade paperback in 2012 was $16.92. (“Trade” means a paperback produced for sale in bookstores.) I own roughly 400 titles, about 300 trade paperbacks and 100 hardcovers, which go for about $28.73 a pop. At those prices, I would have paid $7,949. But I didn’t.

If you want to build a nice-looking library of good reads and not a collection of yawn-inducing, just-for-looks books, follow these tips:

First up, here’s where you should be looking.

1. Thrift shops

Almost all thrift stores sell used books, but the selection varies from a few good choices to a goldmine. Prices vary by store. For example, Goodwill sells books from 50 cents to a few bucks each depending on the location, but I’ve been to stores selling trade paperbacks for a quarter. Go to TheThriftShopper.com and ThriftStoreListings.com, find some local stores, and take a Sunday or two finding the best spot.

2. Library sales

Local libraries clear out their inventory at least once a year, offering hundreds — sometimes thousands — of books at cheap prices. The library may price books individually at first, but as the sale days run out, they often begin selling them by the box or bag. Go early in the beginning so you get first dibs and pick up any must-haves. Then go at the end and pick up more at bargain-bin prices.

3. Used bookstores

Used bookshops offer a better selection, but they’re pricier. However, they might let you trade in books for credit. You can trade in your own unwanted books or do what I do — trade up from thrift store finds. I buy popular books like those in the “Twilight” series for a buck or less at thrift stores and trade them at used bookstores for credit. Since popular books have a higher demand, you’ll net more credit.

4. Online retailers

If you’re looking for a specific title, you’ll have a better chance of finding it online. Shop around to get the best price.

These are the sites I use most:

  • Amazon.com. When buying from the online retail giant, always check the used-book prices and scan the “formats” box for cheaper editions.
  • Barnes and Noble has a discounted-books selection.
  • Alibris.com routinely offers 10 percent off $30 and $50 orders via its newsletter coupon.

Now that you know where to spend your money, it’s time to fine-tune your skills.

5. Know how to pick a good book

Whenever you’re buying a used book, don’t just check the cover and binding. Flip through and scan for highlights, margin notes, and underlined sentences. I’ll buy textbooks with highlights, but I avoid marked-up fiction. Most of my books range from “fair” to “fine” quality. (AbeBooks.com has a guide to book conditions.)

6. Books to never buy new

Books by Stephen King, Dan Brown, Stephenie Meyer, E.L. James, Augusten Burroughs, and John Grisham — in other words, popular authors — always seem to end up in thrift shops, so don’t buy them at full price. Other trade paperbacks I’ve seen in thrift stores from Connecticut to Louisiana include “Snow Falling on Cedars” ($12.64), “Memoirs of a Geisha” ($10.98), and “Dreams from My Father” ($11.99). Combined, those three books cost $35.61 at Amazon. I got them for $1.63 total (tax included) — 4 percent of their market value — thanks to the flat rate of 50 cents per paperback at a local thrift store. In short, if it’s a best-seller, it’s more likely to find its way to thrift stores.

7. Buy cheap “placeholder” books

In some instances, you might want to get a crummy edition of a book you can’t wait to read, and keep an eye out for a better copy later. I really wanted to read Nabokov’s “Lolita” without waiting for an excellent copy, so I grabbed a cheap mass-market paperback edition for 25 cents. I made a mental note to look for a better edition, and found one a few months later.

8. No more teachers means more books for you

When school lets out, student books get donated. I stacked my sections of plays, literary theory, and classics by scoping out thrift stores at the end of the school year. The thrift store in a suburb where I used to live had a terrible selection, so I’d travel to a nearby urban area that was home to several colleges. The thrift stores there always had a better selection and a higher turnover rate. Even better: Duplicate copies are more common, allowing you to pick the one in the best condition.

9. Expand your interests

I like to cook sometimes, so I buy old cookbooks. I also enjoy psychology and science, so I grab titles on neuroscience, but only when they’re $1 or less. Think of subjects you’d like to know more about and keep an eye open for a book. You’ll cheaply add sections to your library and enrich your mind.

10. Compare prices and editions

Used bookstores’ finer selections will include some gems, but comparison shop before you check out. For example, I once found an awesome sociology book on Ancient Rome at my used bookstore, but it was priced at $25. I went online and found an older edition for $5, including shipping, at Alibris.com. The newer edition had a better glossary, a new introduction, and some more notes — not worth the extra cash.

If you have a smartphone, download an app like Shop Savvy to scan the barcode and compare prices. And on Groupon, I recently found a $20-for-$10 coupon at a local used bookstore in my city.

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