Building a Personal Library on a Budget

So you want a great library but don’t want to have to pay for it. You covet the brand-new books you find in stores like Waldenbooks, Barnes & Noble, and the other major chains, but you can’t afford to buy all the titles you want at brand-new prices.

What can you do? With a few handy tips you can build a better library and stick to your budget.

The first step to building your library on a budget is to look on the bargain tables while you are at Waldenbooks and Barnes & Noble. You’d be surprised at the things that go on sale, often for reasonable prices. The novel you were drooling over two weeks before may well be there – for $5 instead of the original $15. Why is it there now? Not because it has somehow become a different or lesser book. Perhaps it wasn’t selling well (or at all); maybe bookstore staff needed to make room for a “hotter” item; or perhaps the manager just didn’t like it much. Who knows? Who cares? Now it’s a bargain.

But perhaps you don’t want to pay major-chain prices at all, even discounted major-chain prices.

Another resource to help you build your library on a budget is the local thrift store. I think it is no exaggeration to say that, with a little patience, you could find all the classics of Western civilization in these places. I have found copies of The Odyssey, The Aenied, the major works of European and American novelists, and all the Greek and Elizabethan playwrights. You can pretty much compile an excellent collection of Shakespeare’s plays- paperback and mass-produced editions- but the bard’s works all the same. Of course you will have to wade through a lot of dross, but for those with the patience to search them out, there are major works of philosophy, history and social science.

I’ve often wondered why this is – why do so many of the riches of Western (and sometimes Eastern) thought trickle down to these humble shops? My theory is that many of these books are textbooks students were required to buy for their classes. (The University bookstore stickers are a dead giveaway.) If the book can’t be resold to the same store, it finds its way to a thrift store the next time the household makes a donation. Whatever the reason, I have found some wonderful things in Goodwill and Salvation Army stores as I was building my own library.

One drawback of such places, though, is that you never know what you’re going to find. If you’re looking for something specific, you should find out if your town has a 1/2-Price Books. Prices for all books are comparable to the prices you find in the discount rack of major chains or less. And some locations of this chain will also purchase used books, videos and CDs. So as you are building your library, you can sell what you no longer value and stock up on your latest interest.

If you look around you will find all kinds of discount bookstores, with a variety of arrangements. Some give you in-store credits for trade-ins. Some may provide such steep discounts that there’s no point in bringing in trade-ins. And don’t forget about garage sales, or when your local library sells off its older books.

Of course the Internet is an invaluable source as you are building your library on a budget. One of the first websites to really make it big was There you can find almost every book ever written, and usually they have used copies for sale at discount prices. Another great sight for used books of course is Ebay

Although there are places where you can find free books online, (usually the classics that have become public domain) if you’re are building a library you are going to want to have your own hard copy.

Some web sites such as specialize in things you’re not likely to find at the more mainstream sites, including rare and out-of-print books. You can access at

Typically, such sites will advise you of the condition of the book: whether it is brand-new or used, and how used. So you can be assured that although you are building your library on a budget, you are still getting quality merchandise.

The prices, too, run the gamut from brand-new to nearly thrift-store prices (but remember you must also pay shipping and handling). I’ve purchased books in wonderful condition and books that were ready to fall apart. Typically the seller must describe the book’s condition; read this description carefully. For the most part, I’ve come out ahead with Internet buys more often than I’ve been disappointed.

When you are building your library on a budget you need to have a plan. Make a list of the core works you would like to have represented and keep it with you in your wallet or purse. Then when you come across a garage sale, are passing a local thrift store with a few extra dollars, or are surfing the Net you can refer to your list for a guide. This will keep you on track.

Of course you are not going to build your library on a budget in one weekend. That’s called a spending spree. But if you get to know your local and Internet resources, and if you have a plan to follow, you are well on your way to a great collection without breaking the bank.

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