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FEATURE ARTICLE - MARCH/APRIL 2003

Used Books: Share the Wealth

If you want to maximize the usefulness of your favorite books, consider a donation, a swap, or just set them free.

Buying books, new or used, can be hard to resist. When a favorite author has a new book out, the temptation to purchase it at the store on the day of its release instead of putting yourself on a waiting list at the local library can be fierce. Then there’s that seductive box of dusty paper-backs going for ten cents apiece at a neighborhood garage sale. And how many of us can resist the siren call of those three little words: “Used Book Fair?”

So you succumb to temptation, buy a book new or used, read and enjoy it, and then ... it’s just sitting there. It takes up space on your already burgeoning shelves or, if your book addiction is really bad, joins the pile spilling over your nightstand and onto the floor. How can you stop the insanity and take back the floor and shelf space in your home? How can you responsibly dispose of your used books?

There are a number of creative ways to share the wealth when it comes to books. From running a community book swap to joining a growing movement for simply setting them free, you can get your books into other people’s hands—allowing you to save resources, de-clutter your life, and share your love of the written word with others. Some of our options might even help you make new friends.

Sell Books for Cash

If you want to make back a portion of the cash you’ve spent on books, selling your used copies is always an option. Most cities and larger towns have used book-stores, and many of those establishments will pay you cash for at least some of your paperbacks and hardcovers. Of course, you might perpetuate your addiction by simply trading your books for other used books in the store.

To find a used bookstore near you, consult your local yellow pages under “Book Dealers—Used and Rare.”

If you have an older book, especially one by a well-known author, check the copyright page for the words “First Edition.” First editions of classics—and books many feel are destined to become classics—can be worth quite a bit of money. Elisa Fernandez Austin of Pensacola, Florida, once bought an interesting-looking hardcover at a local garage sale. To her surprise, the book turned out to be a first edition that a local rare book dealer told her was worth $500.

To find out approximately how much any first editions in your collection might be worth, you can compare prices at www.bookfinder.com or ask several rare book dealers for their opinions. You can also (ahem) purchase a rare book price guide at your local bookstore or see if your local library carries one.

Another option is to sell your used books online. The popular site eBay.com will allow you to place your books up for online auction—either individually or as a lot. If you’d rather put a fixed price on your books instead of auctioning them, you can sell them individually on Half.com.

Donate to Those in Need

If making money from your used books isn’t your first priority, consider donating them. Local schools, senior centers, hospitals, battered women’s shelters, and charities like GoodWill are often thrilled to take your used books off your hands. Almost all public libraries accept used books to add to their collection or for used book fair fundraisers.

There are also many organizations that distribute used books—particularly text-books and children’s books—worldwide to people in need. The Brother’s Brother Foundation Book and Education Program accepts used children’s books and textbooks on all topics and distributes them to schools and people in need in 23 countries. Contact them before sending books by calling 412/321-3160. The International Book Bank accepts books of all kinds and distributes them to nonprofits overseas. Contact them at 410/636-6895.

Swap Them Out

A great way to build community among your neighbors or co-workers is to hold a book swap. A book swap is basically an event where you and your friends or colleagues bring the books you don’t want and trade with each other. It’s a great time to relax, talk about books, and get rid of the unwanted portions of your book collection.

If you’re at a loss as to how to organize your event, The Literacy Trust, a UK-based nonprofit, offers tips, resources, and success stories at their Web site. Though their Swap-a-Book campaign is aimed at encouraging book swaps in the workplace, you can set up something similar in your home for friends and neighbors.

Book swaps are a great way to strengthen connections with others, says Lisa Young of the Literacy Trust. “Swapping books or recommendations improves existing friendships and can lead to new ones, and swapping between senior and junior staff can lead to a more relaxed, inclusive company culture,” she says.

The Literacy Trust offers these ideas for making your book swap an event to remember:

  • Invite an author or storyteller in at lunchtime to entertain workers.
  • Hold a traditional Scottish ceilidh (dancing optional) where everyone brings a favorite poem, short story, or book excerpt to read aloud.
  • Have a “vote for your favorite author/book” space on a notice board.
  • Pair up volunteers for the book swap at random. Have partners trade books and meet up a month later to discuss them.
  • Explore the possibility of setting up a regular after-hours book club.

Here at Green America, we liked the swap idea so much, we held one ourselves. First, we compiled a list of everyone’s three favorite summer reads and passed it out during the swap. We also put out some snacks, and as we browsed and traded books, we ate and chatted about the reading list. “I loved that list,” says executive director Alisa Gravitz. “It was a fun way to learn about new books, and it also allowed me to see a new side of my friends and colleagues."

Set Them Free

One innovative way to get rid of your used books is to simply set them free in a public place. No, this isn’t a polite euphemism for random waste dumping. What it is is a new practice aimed at sharing your love of the written word with the world—literally.

BookCrossing.com, a self-described “reading group that knows no boundaries,” encourages people to leave books they love in public places for others to read and enjoy. In exchange, they get to track their favorite book’s whereabouts, as well as other people’s responses to it, via the BookCrossing Web site. How it works is this: participants register a book they love with the Web site, which assigns them a BookCrossing ID number. Then, they either download a pre-printed label from the site or handwrite their own and place it inside the book. They then leave the book in a conspicious public place until serendipity strikes and someone picks it up. The recipient will find a note on the label encouraging him/her to visit BookCrossing.com and write a brief online journal reporting the book’s ID number and location, as well as any thoughts about the text itself.

Of course, BookCrossing encourages everyone who finds a book bearing one of
its labels to later re-release the book into the wild for someone else to find, read, and journal about.

“BookCrossing.com gives people a way to share their books without feeling as if they’re losing something,” co-founder Ron Hornbaker told Book magazine. “I think of it as a way of letting something go as a means of keeping it.”

Authors Need Love Too

While swapping books or buying them used might be the best option for your
pocketbook, don’t feel guilty about purchasing the occasional new book. Remem-ber, it’s sales of new books that provide many struggling writers with their bread and butter and allow small, innovative publishers to stay afloat. Art for art’s sake is a great ideal, but it’s economic backing from customers that allows authors to keep producing and publishers to keep printing and distributing their books.

When you do buy a new book, follow these simple steps to make your purchases
as responsible as possible:

  • Buy from small, independent bookstores in your local area. You’ll support your local economy and help that charming neighborhood shop stay open. If they don’t have the book you’re looking for, they’ll be able to order it for you.
  • If you want to shop online, purchase from an independent retailer like Powellsbooks.com, Small-churl-books.com, or 100Fires.com. Or, try BookSense.com, a special online retailer that sells books from a collective of independent stores across the country. By entering your zip code, you’ll ensure that your purchases come from the participating independent store nearest you.
  • If you’re concerned about saving trees, try reading an e-book. E-publishing has taken off in recent months, with many small and major publishers putting bestselling titles in all genres into electronic form. Major online bookstores like Powellsbooks.com offer instantly downloadable e-books in different formats for your PC, laptop, Palm Pilot, or GemStar eBook reader. If you prefer hard copies, encourage publishers to print their books on recycled paper.

    No matter how you choose to pass along your used books, it’s likely that you’ll benefit from the process. So, what are you waiting for? Free your shelves today.

    --Tracy Fernandez Rysavy

More green-living articles from the Green American »

Article Summary


Find new homes for the books you no longer want.


Share your love of reading with others while clearing your life of unwanted clutter.


Build community and save trees and landfill space.

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