Making the Most of a Used Book Sale

Last week I went to two different library book sales. The first was a quiet affair in the rotunda of my university’s library. I walked away with three books, the best find being a collection of Irish fairy and folk tales by Yeats.

The second one was a little more intense. I was walking out of the house to go to the county book sale when I realized I would probably need something to carry my purchases in. Without really thinking, I grabbed a reusable cloth shopping bag and hit the road. I arrived at the book sale only an hour after it opened, and I had to hunt for a parking space. When I got out of the car I saw people with wheeled crates, cardboard boxes, and even one forward-thinking person with a rolling suitcase. I felt completely unprepared–all I had was one measly shopping bag and a twenty dollar bill!



I had forgotten just how many books were up for grabs at this sale, and I was honestly stunned at the number of people there on a Friday morning. If anyone tells you print books are a lost cause, show them the picture above! After shopping for about an hour, I had more than filled my bag, spent my budget, and realized that used book sales can be pretty overwhelming if you don’t come in with a strategy.

And so, without further introduction, here are my top tips for winning the used book sale.

Tip #1: Set a Budget

When I walk into a library book sale, or even a Goodwill store, the prices alone are enough to make me want to abandon all thoughts of budgeting and fill up my rolling suitcase indiscriminately. However, in order to stop myself from going crazy, last week I set myself a $20 budget. Because, let’s be honest, most of my books are in storage right now, and I know that I don’t have room for crates and crates of used books.

This rule still applies if you’re at a good secondhand bookstore looking for old editions or vintage copies. Sometimes buying a first edition of a book you love might be worth the money, but always set yourself a limit so you don’t go overboard. And don’t think that the library book sale is only for worn out bestsellers and outdated textbooks! You can find surprisingly well-preserved editions of classic books, but more on that later.

Tip #2: Set a Time Limit

I told myself that I would not get sucked into book sale for more than an hour and a half. Though I easily could have walked up and down the rows of tables forever, I knew that I would spend more than my $20 and probably need to borrow a cardboard box from someone. Plus, the longer I’m there, the more I’m able to justify spending $1 for a book I don’t really need.

Tip #3: Know What You Want

This is the most difficult tip to follow, because often you don’t know what you are looking for, and sometimes a book sale won’t deliver exactly what you want. I tend to break my used book purchases down into three categories:

  • New (to me) books that I have been wanting to read.
  • Books I only own on my Kindle but want to add to my physical library as well.
  • Old/vintage/interesting editions of books I already own.

At this particular sale I managed to find books in all three categories. I got some relatively new fiction as well as some classics I’ve been wanting to read, like The Pillars of the Earth, Cold Mountain, East of Eden, and Love in the Time of Cholera.

I also managed to find some physical copies of e-books I own for just a dollar. I bought The Help, and The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society so they can sit on my shelf with the rest of my books.

As far as old books go, the best find of the day was a 1946 edition of Alice in Wonderland with full color illustrations. It’s 70 years old and still in really great shape. I’ll post some pictures of it later for you to check out!


Tip #4: Expect the Unexpected

Even though I sometimes have a plan going into a used book store, it’s always cool to see what interesting things I stumble upon. I found a really cool dictionary of Shakespeare’s characters that will be helpful when I teach. I also found a companion reference to C.S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia. It has glossaries, character lists, lists of scriptural references–basically anything about Narnia you might want to know. For $3.50, I think those were two worthwhile unexpected finds.

All told, I spent $16.50 at the county book sale, and I walked away with 15 books. I spent $3 at my university’s book sale, and added three more books to the pile. I’d say 18 books for $19.50 isn’t too bad for one week! I don’t think buying 18 books in one week should become a habit, but it’s fun every once in a while. What are your strategies for shopping used book sales? I’d love to hear in the comments below!

Keep Shopping and Keep Reading!




  1. This is really helpful, Sarah! Thanks for sharing! 🙂


  2. […] few weeks ago I went to two different library book sales, and by far the greatest deal I found was this special edition of Alice in Wonderland. I paid a […]


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