9 things to know before going to your next (or first) used book sale

I didn’t used to be interested in used book sales.

As much as I love books, I’ve struggled with facing roomfuls of cheap used books in the past—it’s overwhelming to this HSP underbuyer, and I don’t want to bring clutter into my life!

That changed about a year and a half ago, when we moved to a house with space for a library. We planned to build bookshelves (which are now complete) and we didn’t think we had the books to fill them.

(Looking back, we can’t believe we ever worried. But that’s a different blog post.)

We happened to move just before a major book sale at a nearby historic home, so we went. It was our first visit to a used book sale in a decade (maybe two), and we quickly saw what we had been missing out on. All the books are donated; all the funds go to a good cause. And they are cheap.

When we went to our first used book sale, I didn’t know what I was getting into, so I didn’t have a strategy in mind.

There’s another used book sale this weekend, and I will be there.

1. Give yourself freedom to have fun with it.

My biggest tip has to do with mindset. Don’t try to maximize.

Don’t beat myself up about coming home with a book you already own, or leaving a book at the sale that you thought you owned, but don’t. Take a chance on books that look interesting that you might end up not wanting to keep, because at fifty cents to a dollar each that’s not much of a mistake, long-term.

This is a low-stakes way to build your book collection. Have fun with it.

2. Bring a tote bag (or three).

Cheap plastic bags may be available, but do yourself a favor and bring your own. Flat-bottomed fabric totes are ideal; they fold down to almost nothing but can accommodate stacks of books when full. (You’ll see people bring cardboard boxes, which may be fine for the car ride home, but please don’t bring them in to the sale—your fellow browsing book lovers will thank you.)

3. Start fresh, then browse.

Have you ever been to IKEA? I enter IKEA filled with enthusiasm for all my home adventures. I’m going to organize my bathroom and find cute throw pillows and find a step stool for the pantry and wait, aren’t these planters cute? But I cannot sustain this pace for 300,000 square feet (which, if you’ve ever been to IKEA, you will not be surprised to learn is equal to about five football fields). And I leave a depleted, overwhelmed human who just wants to sit down and not make a decision about one more thing.

I want this book sale to be FUN for you, and so I ask that you tackle your priorities while you’re fresh and full of bookish enthusiasm. When your priorities are complete, browse at your leisure.

A room full of books sounds like heaven … but it can also be completely overwhelming. Hunt for your priority purchases before overwhelm sets in.

4. Stash your books by the register.

You brought your tote, but at most sales you can camp your to-purchase stack by the cash register. If you have a few post-its and a pen with you, so much the better.

With these personal rules in place used book sale shopping turned out to be lots of fun.

5. Skip it.

One way to avoid overwhelm is to not look at every book. If it brings you joy to run your hands over the spine of every single book on sale, have at it. But if overwhelm is an issue, you can skip aisles—maybe even rooms—of books. (At my local book sales, the large cookbook section isn’t worth the time. Maybe it’s different at your local sales?)

6. Know your priorities.

To tackle your priorities first, you have to know what they are. I can’t decide yours, but I know mine:

  1. Anything I’ve read and loved, but don’t yet own.
  2. Anything I want to read that’s available in a particularly attractive edition.
  3. Penguin classics, because used book sales turned me into a low-key collector.

Whatever your priorities are (and I’d love to know—tell us in comments), do those first.

7. Embrace serendipity. 

I’m not typically much of an impulse shopper, but here, it’s okay. Low stakes are your friend. Take a chance, and if that book doesn’t end up being right for you, you can give it to a friend, pop it in a Little Free Library, or donate it back to the used book sale and continue the circle of bookishness.

8. Judge a book by its cover. 

Or spine. At a used book sale, buying a book because it’s pretty is 100% okay. That’s the real reason behind my Penguin classics collection: those cheerful orange spines make me happy every time I see them. So whether it’s an outdated history series or cookbooks featuring80s culinary classics, if you think that beautiful book would look great on your shelves, go for it.

9. Be patient. 

Unless you’re collecting the rare stuff, used book sales are rarely expensive. At many sales, books are half price on the last day; at our local sale; the last day is pay-what-you-wish. If you’re patient, you can get a serious bargain. (I’m impatient, but to each her own.)

Are you a used book sale shopper? What strategies do you rely on? We’d love to hear your best tips (and favorite finds) in comments!

used book sale tips

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  1. S says:

    I usually go only to my library’s book sale (no strategy) simply to support them and hopefully find a book or two (I try not to buy much as I’ve typically donated a couple boxes myself to clear the shelves a bit!). But back when my kids were young I bought a lot of cheap but great books for them there. However I do shop at “ The Book Barn” in Niantic, CT and go more for the experience on a nice day with the bonus of always finding a small stack to cart home. It is a book lover’s dream but again I go with no strategy other than a list of some author sections to look through after I meander through all the new arrivals sections to see if anything appeals. It’s a fun place to browse!!

  2. My very first book sale, I didn’t bring a tote bag — and I learned at the door that they had an all-you-can-fit-for-$15 deal going on if you BYO Tote. I ran home, came back 20 minutes later with my own bag, and played Tetris with alllll the books until I couldn’t possibly fit any more in the tote. 😀 GLORIOUS.

    Your tips above are great, and I have one more to add: bring cash! Most book sales I know rarely accept credit cards, even if you’re dropping $20-$50, and most people I know rarely have cash on them without advance notice. So, be sure to hit up an ATM before you go to the sale.

  3. Kristin says:

    At my local library’s twice yearly book sale, they have children’s books 10/$1, so needless to say my house is STUFFED with children’s books! I have been trying to read thru them all with my older son and get rid of any I truly don’t want to read again so I can make room for more! It’s so hard making book decisions for a 4 and 2 year old! How do I know what they will want to read down the road? (Though I am getting rid of the annoying ones since I’ll be the primary reader for a few years still!)

    • Karen says:

      My best resource when my kids were young was the children’s librarians. I’d ask them for recommendations. There were some I was skeptical about, but my kids LOVED them.
      Children’s librarians are a huge, unused resource!

  4. Liesl says:

    Is there a website for used book sales ? I live in the DC area so it can just be overwhelming to find out what’s going on where and when!

  5. Jennifer says:

    I have a lot of unread books but that has never stopped me from buying more. I take pictures of books I currently own if i am trying to finish out a series or an author’s books. This way I cut down on some duplication. I also have a tote bag on wheels that i take with me to our annual used book sale. I park it out of the way so i am not hitting people with it. I second the thing about it is a cheap way to find new authors. I try to always buy a book that i wouldn’t normally read.

  6. I went to one last week and they are just so fun! By me there are also a whole bunch of community garage sales — run as fundraisers by schools or churches, they sell all sorts of stuff, but typically have a pretty robust book selection since so many families contribute. I usually try to go with just a few authors to look for in the adult fiction and then spend most of my time poring over the kids books. I keep an eye out for Newbery books I don’t have yet, favorite authors/illustrators, poetry collections, and illustrated editions of classics, etc. I love when a random book I’ve never heard of catches my eye and I’ve really found some gems that way! Even though the books are cheap and the money goes to a good cause, I try to not pick up books in really poor condition unless I happen to know it’s a really hard to find title — chances are I’ll find a copy in better shape and a future sale — or even just on another table!

  7. Gretchen says:

    For the past 11 years I have attended the American Association of University Women Used Book Sale held annually at the Agricultural Arena at Penn State University in University Park, PA. I usually go only the first day (it lasts four days!) in the afternoon to get the best selection, but to avoid the massive crowd in the morning. Even then I have to wait in line to get inside! My usual strategy is to check out the children’s tables first with my two older kids. Then it is on to the fiction tables (and if I am feeling extra ambitious, I peruse the boxes under the tables). Next, I scan the mystery, literature, history, current affairs, and self-help tables until I am exhausted. I avoid some tables because I have no interest in those topics/genres (e.g., science and technology and cookbooks). I make sure that I have plenty of cash because the volunteers do not take checks or credit cards. Depending on the type of book, the cost per book is 50 cents to 5 dollars, and they are all in perfect condition. And I don’t care how much I spend because all of the proceeds support scholarship and other educational programs for women. I have a rough list of authors and/or titles that I would like to get, but I am open to trying unknown books and authors if the book cover and inside description pique my interest in some way. Sure, I have read some real duds as a result, but have also found some books that I have loved.

    • Kristine says:

      Gretchen, the AAUW Used Book Sale in State College is my FAVORITE! Thanks for making me smile while recalling it! This past year I bit the bullet and got in line early in the morning on the first day of the sale, and it was TOTALLY worth it! I came home so happy, with my bags full of books. What I love about used book sales is that I am willing to take a chance not only on titles, but on authors, and I often come out with several books by an author whom I’ve never read before! But like you said, it doesn’t matter if the titles or authors are winners or not for me personally, because I know I am supporting a wonderful cause.

      • Gretchen says:

        I can’t be one of those early birds because (1) I take my two older kids with me and no self-respecting kid will be up that early to wait in line; and (2) my parents drive all the way from Pittsburgh that morning for the sale. 🙂 It is truly one of my favorite days of the year!

  8. Martha Kay says:

    From a former used bookstore employee:
    1. Make a running wish list and keep it on your phone.
    2. Children’s board books are a great value, but go fast.
    3. Cookbooks are plentiful, cheap and fun.
    4. Great values on quilting, art and architecture books. However, make sure that the books have all their pages.
    5. Hobby pattern books, but check pages.
    6. Stay away from dirty, yellow, water-stained, smelly and moldy books

    • BarbN says:

      Yes, what Martha said. I have a list app on my phone (I use Ita, which is very basic, there are probably fancier ones but Ita works for me), and one of the lists i keep is “used books” so when I come across a sale or a used bookstore, I can remember what I want- like a better looking copy of Brideshead Revisited or older copies of Josephine Tey or whatever. Also, as Martha said, i’m surprised several people have said they skip the cookbooks- new ones are so expensive and you can find amazing deals. But then, I have a weird love of reading cookbooks, even though i’m only a passable cook.

  9. Julie says:

    I stumbled into my library’s used book sale in May. I had no idea what I was doing, but I managed to find a few things for myself, and my kids. A couple turned out to be “not for us” but, like you mentioned, I can put them in the little free library or donate back for the next book sale.
    When it came around again in August-I felt I was so much more equipped. Having a better understanding of my own preferences, plus some titles fresh from What Should I Read next, I found a few from my favorite authors, and even better options for my kids!
    I completely agree that the cookbook section is safe to skip 😉

  10. Laura says:

    I go to a monthly book sale that our Friends of the Public Library hosts. Once you know where your favorite sections are, it’s a faster process. I keep an inventory of books I own on my LibraryThing app so I can know what I already own. I also buy extra copies of favorites for the little Free Library.

  11. I am a complete sucker for any of the vintage Modern Library books! I simply love the petite size and the feel of the super-thin pages. One of my most cherished possessions is my vintage Modern Library copy of “A Tale of Two Cities” (Charles Dickens). Picked up during my beloved years in NYC amongst the wonderful ongoing sidewalk “used book sales”. When I read it, I feel transported back in time, while it still lives up to its’ brand by fitting beautifully into my side pocket of my bag. They may be vintage . . . but modern always . . .

  12. Renae says:

    My husband’s boss bought a home a few years ago and they ripped out the basement bookcases. My husband brought three of them home and we just need to finish them. We’ve always wanted a library and we have the perfect place for it!! I’m planning to model it after yours, if there are any “these are some things I would do differently,” I would love to know about it. Now, for the book sale thing. There is a sale near us put on by a library foundation, but I don’t know if this is a good deal or not:
    “tickets $40 in advance, $50 day of event; members $35
    100,000 books; 60% donated; 50% hardcover; sorted; not ‘picked over’; no buyer restrictions; $1-$5”

    So you have to buy a ticket and THEN buy books. Doesn’t seem like that’s a “good deal” to me. Especially since it’s not my towns’ library foundation.

    • BarbN says:

      $40 to get in??? Good grief that’s ridiculous. There are two annual charity used book sales in our town and they are both free. Totally agree that’s not worth it. Does anybody go?

  13. Lesley says:

    I love books and sometimes can barely get to my bed for the stacks! Here in the UK there is an organisation called ‘the Masked Bookseller’s’. They are a voluntary organisation who save books from landfill and scrap. The money goes to a charity chosen by each area organiser. I only went for the first time this year. Because the books were heading for scrap some of them are in poor condition but that doesn’t necessarily matter depending on what I’m looking for. I have just upcycled a beautiful old wooden bookcase (got it for free from Freecycle, it was falling apart) and I have papered parts of it with pages from a vintage gardening book which was naturally yellowed at the edges. It looks amazing and I’m really happy with it. I am also framing some pages from a fabulous 75 year old childrens book that really was falling apart at the seams and pages were missing, but individual pages with lovely vintage pictures will save it for posterity. Not conventional for books I know, but it just shows the treasure trove that can be found (as well as loads of books for reading!)

  14. Jocelyn says:

    Have loads of cash. Once I missed a boxset of the Master and Commander series. Oh well. I collect children’s books and especially like Newbery winners and finalists. Having a list on my phone would probably help me but truth is there are very few kids books at sales around here.

  15. Jeannine says:

    Thanks for all the suggestions. I went to my first library book sale recently and loved the fill your tote for $8 deal.. I tried a lot of different books because if it didn’t work I’d really only spent about 50 cents on it. For anyone in Massachusetts in Burlington & Middleton the Used Book Superstore is have a huge used book sale. As we get closer to the weekend the prices get better 30/$10 adult books, even better price for kids books and a huge selection. http://www.usedbooksuperstore.com it might be that the big sale is Burlington ony… definitely worth checking out.

  16. Louise says:

    We have an annual book fair locally which has about 100,000 books for $1-4 each. My advice is Go For It! Buy anything that takes your fancy. I have discovered wonderful new authors and books by buying impulsively. Anything I don’t like gets donated to a charity shop for someone else to try. When I went this year I was talking to an organiser and he said a few years ago people were telling them the days of book fairs were limited, due to Kindle etc. But it has gotten bigger and more popular every year. I love going and being surrounded by hundreds of equally over-excited book lovers! (Until they’re getting in my way while browsing ?). Reading is the best!!

  17. I love, love, LOVE my town’s library book sale…and even though I grew up here, I cannot believe I had never been until this spring. It’s held in the old officer’s club on the (now defunct) naval base on the end of the island, and it is glorious. This spring, I only found out it was going on the last day, and still managed to come home with two bags full of books — you better believe the fall book sale is already on my calendar!

  18. Lee says:

    Thanks for the post. All of these are actually great tips! My library has a used book sale every couple months and on the last day, they usually have their “bag” sale where you stuff as many books as you want/can into one of those paper grocery bags (or similar size reusable bag) and only pay $5 for the entire bag…and you can get as many bags as you wish. I go every time and usually get minimum 2 bags filled to the brim with books (though one time I actually ended up with 3 bags — I think that was the most I was able to do in the 2 hours that the sale lasted). My library’s used book sale is one of the “events” I look forward to the most! 🙂

  19. Margaret says:

    Big books! I use my library regularly but some books (door stop biographies of Grant come to mind) take longer than two weeks. I always keep my eyes out for these books at my library’s sale.

  20. Jackie says:

    I found a real treasure at one of the book sales at Locust Grove. It was my favorite book while in elementary school, and I would check it out over and over again at the school library. My eyes popped when I saw the book, there it was, White Squaw with the same illustration on the front of Jenny Wiley, same hardback feel. What a wonderful surprise. You never know what you will find at a used book sale.

  21. Alanna Hendon says:

    My most prized possession came from the used book sale in AL, our main branch had when they remodeled. I was a college student and went with my dad and brother and bought childrens books for my classroom library. When we got to the car and compared treasures my dad said “This is your favorite, isn’t it?” And handed me an old copy of To Kill a Mockingbird. “Open it” he said. It was signed. He paid .50.
    MMD where is the Louisville sale please?

  22. Jean says:

    As a worker and a shopper at my FOL semi-annual sales, amen to those who said BRING CASH! We always disappoint someone who assumes we’ll take a card (because fees, people!) but we will hold their selections until closing to go to an ATM machine and come back. We take checks, but it takes a lot of time to get the information required and check them against our BAD CHECK list, so you’ll check out faster with cash, especially at the “Cash only” stations.
    I’m feeling like cookbooks are really getting bashed here, so maybe your readers don’t cook or like me, already have a baker’s rack full of cookbooks. But I have found the booksale invaluable for specific cuisines or topics like canning. You won’t be forced to leave with a copy of “In the kitchen with Rosie”!

  23. My Bookcrawler account is my friend at book sales. It’s on my phone and I can quickly determine if I have the title in question. I took the time to list my home library one summer and add new titles as they come into the house, bringing my current list to about 4000 titles ( don’t judge me ?).

  24. Janice says:

    I love a good library book sale! I look for the mysteries first & then I just wander. Estate sales sometimes feature a sale of books.

  25. I scanned all my books at home with Libib (or something similar) so that when I’m perusing the book sale table and wonder, “Hm, do I own that?” I can just search in my library virtually! While it’s not horrible to buy a book I already have, especially if it’s a book I love (now I have one to give away!), it takes out some of the guesswork. 🙂

    Tip #2: always bring cash, just in case!

  26. Valerie S. says:

    Don’t bring your purse/handbag. Slip some cash (simple way to control spending) and your cell phone in your pocket and leave both hands free to peruse the shelves and lug around totes filled with beautiful book bargains.

  27. Jessica says:

    Have you heard of the VNSA sale? It’s one of the biggest used book sales in the country and happens every year in February in Phoenix. It’s so popular that people will get there at 4 or 5am to line up, because they can only let a certain number of people in at a time. My sister has been going for years, and this was my first year. Her advice? Go to the children’s section first–it sells out the fastest. The classics section always has lots to choose from, and moves slower.

  28. Trisha says:

    I’ve learned to start in the bargain section first. At used book sales all of them are fairly inexpensive but usually there’s a section where they’re 50 cents apiece or “fill a bag” for $3 type of thing and there’s often some gems in there. Once I gathered a whole bag full in the non-bargain section only to find several of these books in the bargain area. If you don’t care about the edition, scope out the bargains first. I agree with going to your priority first while you’re energized and excited and to get the books you really want before someone else does!

  29. Susie Paradis says:

    Anne, I’m so excited! I went to a library used book sale today, and my big score was a brand new, collectors edition of “Still Life” by Louise Penny, starring Inspector Gamache, for $2. The reason this is so exciting is that I’ve never read any of them, never even HEARD of them, but I kept reading about them on your blog!! And your followers recommended them in comments—-so I am SO EXCITED to finally be reading one (and the first one, even better)—and I think that I am really going to love Inspector Gamache. Thank you.

  30. I don’t often go to book sales of the kind you described (they just don’t seem to happen often in my area), BUT I am a secondhand bookstore fiend and I can tell you that a lot of the same rules apply in that space.

    Knowing your priorities is SUPER important. Personally, I committed to buying all of the 109 books on my blog’s reading list within a strict budget, and I’ve got almost all of them from secondhand/thrift stores. I’ve also committed to ONLY buying books on my List until I have them all, so they’re my priority wherever I go! I’ve actually found that it’s a lot more fun (for me) to shop for books that way, with a list of specific titles – otherwise I get a bit overwhelmed and want to take them ALL home.

    I would add that you should ALWAYS check (first!) any “newly arrived” or “to be shelved” section (if an employee/volunteer is unpacking a box, try to sneak a peek at what they’re pulling out – politely, of course). You’ll ALWAYS find the best bargains there, before they get picked over by everyone else (and they always seem to “stick out” more to you when they’re not in a sea of other similar titles).

  31. Molly says:

    My husband and I gave out used books for our wedding favors and found them through these kinds of sales! I can’t pretend it was a low time investment favor, but NONE of them were left behind, which made it all worthwhile in the end. We are both avid readers and had worked at the same bookstore for a time during our courtship so we thought it would be perfect to give each of our guests a book we thought they would enjoy. When we got overwhelmed with planning we’d take ourselves to a library or Out of the Closet and shop for books with our guest list in hand. Most were less than a dollar and everyone loved finding their book on the shelf at our reception. Plus it was a great conversation starter since we didn’t have a seating chart.

  32. Cheryle Fisher says:

    I LOVE used book sales! I maintain a list of books in series that I do not own or have not read and take that list with me. I can easily check to see if the book on the table is one I want. Then there are the classics that I always thought I wanted to read and these go in my bag. I have been making a special effort this year to read more of the books that I have bought from previous sales which allows me to donate them to my local Friends of the Library for their sales which go to support the library.

  33. Jennifer J Geisler says:

    I’m another fan of the Niantic, CT. Book Barn! BUT, the sheer number of books can be offputting, forcing me to give up too quickly. My strategy: come with a couple of authors in mind and go DIRECTLY to their books. Two years ago, I longed to reread Elizabeth George’s books in order, so I started with her and purchased every book in lovely hard covers, which I then spent the next couple of months reading. Then I donated them to my local library’s book sale.
    My picky self does not like used books that smell like mildew, so that is a major consideration for me. I don’t want my home books
    to pick up that smell – it’s impossible to get rid of it.

  34. Kathy M. says:

    Anne! Are you saying you are ALSO an HSP? I am an HSP too and have been doing a lot of reading and research on this special part of me. I do have your book “Reading People” but have not yet read it. Soon. Maybe that will give me your insight into the world of HSPs. I love your podcast!

    Re: Used Book Sales – I tend to avoid the local ones b/c I live in fear of buying back books I have donated!

    • Anne says:

      Oh FOR SURE I am! And yes, I have a lot to say about HSPs in Reading People; I hope you find that chapter helpful.

      And that is cracking me up about buying your own books at used book sales!

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