The Ultimate Guide to Thrift Book Shopping: 30 Tips for Book Lovers

The problem with falling in love with reading and books in general is that once you understand the power and pleasure it brings, you always want more. Minimalists aside, many booklovers thrive in a tsundoku-esque environment: you have books everywhere and they keep you excited and inspired.

Then someone comes along, looks at all the books on your shelves and says: “You know you could have bought – insert item – instead with all that money, right?”

Which sometimes it’s true. Book buying can become overwhelming and get a bit out of hand. It’s hard to resist a romantic walk into a bookstore. Because walking into a bookstore is always a romantic moment for a book lover. It is for me at least.

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I can safely say that at least half of the books I own were bought used. It’s one of my favourite ways to shop and discover new titles. You can see some of my recent finds on the photos illustrating this article, which include new additions to my ever-growing Agatha Christie vintage editions collection, a couple of brand new hardcovers I had been dying to get my hands on, and new titles by authors I have loved in the past and been recommended before.

With that in mind, I have compiled a list of a few tips and tricks for thrift book shopping; so you can indulge in your love for books while saving a few bucks:

  1. Get familiar with your area: Do some in-depth research on the varying locations in your area. Look for both general thrift stores and used bookstores! Keep a list of them and read reviews on the stores. Garage sales are also another good one to check out, they usually take place on weekends in warmer months. Craigslist sometimes has some nice book bundles, but just be safe when meeting strangers!
  2. Take your time: Book hunting is not something to be rushed. Like thrifting for clothes, each day is a surprise and you are more likely to miss out on a hidden gem if you are just quickly scanning the shelves.
  3. Wear something comfortable: Beyond just your outfit, avoid carrying overly heavy purses and backpacks. Comfortable shoes are a must! Do I even really need to say it? I recommend a comfortable and almost empty backpack, especially if you’ll be taking public transit or walking a long distance after shopping. This way the weight of your books won’t make you feel uncomfortable on the trek home.
  4. For the faint of heart, hand sanitizer: Sanitizing wipes are also a great option. Let’s face it, some people enjoy the feeling of a spanking new copy and may feel uncomfortable within the dusty shelves of a used bookstore or thrift store.  Beyond that, even when the books are in good condition, the environment itself can be a bit dusty. It doesn’t hurt to be safe.
  5. Know what you have: This may sound crazy, but when you’re the type of book lover that has surpassed the hundreds of books in your collection, keeping track of what you have can be super helpful. An easy way to do this is to either download listing apps that offer offline accessibility so you don’t go over your data or compiling an excel file on Google Docs that you can access from your phone. Goodreads would also be a great option if you compile a “shelf” for books you own.
  6. When in doubt, stick to a budget: If you are really trying to save, be realistic about how much you want to spend and stick to it. Sometimes you’ll see books you “kind of want to read” and end up buying them for no reason. If budgeting is your priority, focus on the books you just can’t see yourself parting ways with.
  7. Keep an eye out for hidden gems: Look into publication dates, special editions, scribbles inside on the margins, forgotten bookmarks and notes. They add a touch of magic to the book but it really depends on whether you enjoy a worn and loved copy or not. I’ve even found beautifully pressed flowers inside a used book once! Beware of pressed bugs…it happens.
  8. Bring a light snack and some water: Do I need to say more? Oh, yes. Bring napkins. No one wants your stinky grubby fingers touching the books if you’re snacking along the way.
  9. Buying book series: If you know you’re on the hunt for books within a series or by a specific author, it may be helpful to come in ready with the list and check off what you already own, etc. I usually do this on my phone, but printed/written lists are just as helpful. You don’t want to risk buying the wrong copy just in case the order of the series isn’t clear on the covers, especially for very long series. For example, it could be a waste of money to buy book number 8 in a long series if you have just finished book 2. Unless they are hard to find, but that is up to your discretion.
  10. Get to know your vendors: If you enjoyed your experience and see yourself coming back for more, you should probably make some friends. Chances are if they know what you like and what you look for, they will keep and eye out for you. This isn’t the case everywhere but worst-case scenario you’ll make friends with fellow book lovers. It never hurts to be polite and kind to your book sellers!20170524_005114-01
  11. Don’t get too caught up on finding specific books: That’s part of the charm, you never know what you may find. Don’t be upset if you can’t find a specific title or edition you want. Some days you win, some days you don’t.
  12. Look into exchange/donation programs: Some stores will either give you some store credit or points to collect towards discounts in future purchases when you donate books. This may be a great way to look into your bookshelves and see what you’ll realistically never get to or have lost interest in. You’ll be giving other people a chance to read those books and save even more in your future purchases!
  13. Try new authors and genres: Take advantage of the lower price point and take some risks. If you have been meaning to try a new genre or author, this is a great opportunity to do so without breaking the bank.
  14. For the fanatics, consistence is key: If you devour books like no one else or if you’re re-building your personal library from scratch (maybe you’ve moved? had a fire? got robbed? I don’t know!), keep in mind that hitting up these locations frequently and consistently is key, especially in larger thrift stores such as Goodwill or Value Village. Stock is never the same, and the real gems come in and go at the blink of an eye.
  15. Bring a re-usable shopping bag: Beyond being a lot more environmentally friendly, it will allow you to keep your hands free while shopping if the store does not provide these bags already. When cashing out, you also won’t need to worry about a plastic bag splitting open from all the heavy books and sharp corners. It’s a win-win! A backpack like the one mentioned on tip #3 is also a great option.
  16. Look within the sections you would normally avoid: Hear me out on this one, it’s weird but it’s true. We’ve all done this: you walk into a store, see something you are mildly interested in. Then you change your mind and promise yourself you’ll come back and decide to “hide” the item in a random spot or behind other items. Don’t lie, you’ve done this before. Booklovers do it all the time, especially when thrift shopping! No shelf should be left unlooked at!
  17. Enjoy the savings on recent “blockbuster” books: This is more likely to happen if you go into a large thrift store, where the masses shop not just for books but also for clothing, shoes, etc. This is where you’ll find multiple copies of books such as Life of Pi, Wild, Twilight, Harry Potter, Pride and Prejudice, Nicholas Sparks’ entire collection, A Series of Unfortunate Events, yadayada…you get my point. If you’ve been meaning to read a recent big hit book, this is the best deal you’ll find on it. Not to mention the option to choose which of the many copies you prefer.
  18. Engage with others, just don’t be annoying: If you see someone browsing and looking into a book you’ve read and enjoyed, it’s okay to give them a quick 5 second review. Just don’t use this to pick up people or harass anyone!
  19. Check into special discount days: Some stores offer discounts on specific days of the week or for specific groups of people. Some of them offer discounts on bulk purchases. It never hurts to ask! For example, the Goodwill locations in my area used to offer books at 50% off on Tuesdays every week. That’s extra savings on top of all your savings! Ask if the store offers a membership card for points and special coupons.
  20. Don’t settle if it’s not up to your standards: Just because it’s cheaper than usual, it doesn’t mean the copy of a book you’ve found today is worth your time and money. Unless the book you found is a rare gem or you are dying to read it right this moment, it may be better to let that one go and wait for the next one. This is helpful if you’re picky about writing/notes on the book, doggy ears, overly cracked spines, ripped covers, etc.20170524_005134-01
  21. Bring cash: This is an important one. Some stores don’t accept debit or credit cards. Sometimes the machine is down. Don’t risk being separated from your one/many-true loves after spending so long hunting for them! Come ready just in case. Bringing a specific amount of cash may also help you with budgeting and ensuring you don’t go crazy with all the books.
  22. Students, check for textbooks and required reading: Thrift shopping for books is a great way to find all the classics and required readings you need for your classes. Chances are, your school already has a used bookstore or a section of its bookstore where the used books are. Take advantage of the savings. Also, don’t be afraid to buy the 5th edition for $3 at a thrift store instead of the $100+ for the 8th edition. Most of them tend to have very minimal differences and you can always do a quick comparison with the updated copy from the library, a classmate or even your professors.
  23. Enlist your friends: If you have other bookish friends, enlist their help in finding specific books. You can invite them to join you when you go book thrift shopping but you can also help each other during solo trips. Let each other know what specific books and authors you’ve been looking for so they can keep an eye out for you on their solo trips, and vice-versa. This is very helpful if you have somewhat opposite schedules and end up shopping on different days of the week; remember, the stock in used bookstores is always changing! It doesn’t hurt to have an extra set of eyes looking out for you!
  24. Visit used bookstores in new cities: While travelling, one of my favourite things to do is check out the local book scene. Whether it be larger retailers or used bookstores, it’s always interesting to see what’s out there. I personally also really enjoy looking for my favourite books in different languages, and used bookstores are a great way to stock up on these souvenirs without breaking the bank. Just beware of the excess weight in your luggage on the way home!
  25. Come with a full battery: Your smartphone will come in handy when you need to look up book reviews, Goodreads opinions by friends, more information on the author, or whether the book is part of a series (don’t you hate it when the cover never acknowledges this very important fact?).
  26. Find out when new books are put out for sale: Some stores have a schedule of when they put out new inventory on the shelves. It may be a specific day of the week or it may be every day first thing in the morning. Knowing when it happens may score you some nice finds.
  27. Keep track of your purchases: Write a list on your phone or a notebook of recent used books you’ve bought so you don’t end up with two copies of the same.
  28. Go to upscale neighborhoods: This one may be controversial but a friend gave me this tip and I had an “A-HA” moment. Upscale areas in town may carry a wider variety, newer and more expensive books. Experienced thrift shoppers seek these places for designer and unique items, so you’re bound to score similar options in the book section. Worth a shot!
  29. The early bird catches the worm: Arrive earlier in the day, as most stores will re-stock their shelves before opening or on the night before during closed hours. This way you’ll be one of the first people picking through the shelves that day.
  30. Be respectful of other shoppers: Try your best to follow general good book-buying etiquette and avoid blocking aisles/shelves and put books back in an orderly fashion. I know what you’re thinking, this is a lame and unnecessary tip. You’re right. I wasn’t comfortable ending this list at 29 tips, so here we are. It doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try to be nice, though.

Do you have any tips I may have missed? Anything that surprised you? Let me know down below in the comments! 🙂

Author: Marina

Books and comics enthusiast.

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