Book Buying at Library Book Sales; Some Rules

Book Buying at Library Book Sales; Some Rules

Originally posted in June of 2017, and only mildly amended. For pandemic reasons, and reasons of moving across the country twice, I haven't been to a library book sale for a few years. I believe most of my points here would still hold true today.

One thing to get out of the way – I don’t use a scanner when I’m at a library book sale, or thrift stores, or estates. It’s not worth my time, and more importantly it’s just not fun! In my experience the internet connections are pretty iffy, anyway. This method of book-flipping is not for me. Flipping books like that is so soulless and you miss out on what makes books enjoyable. If you do use one, just respect those people who are there because they want to actually read the books they buy.

I am an ardent fan of the library book sale, and I’ve learned a lot in the years I’ve been going to them. My rules as listed below are fairly subjective, crafted over time, and molded to suit my particular situation and tastes… right now I don’t have room for a whole slew of newly acquired books, and I take transit. So my absolute limit is two cloth grocery bags. And I do not have unlimited funds, even for library book sale books…

A couple things: only a few sections interest me, so 2/3 to 3/4 of the books I don’t bother looking at. I might glance at the children’s and young adult, definitely the graphic novels (and single issue comics, if they have any), and then the Sci-Fi / Fantasy section, the Popular Fiction, the Literature & Poetry, take a peek at Biography and the Art and Craft books. Maybe glance at History, and quick perusal of the audio books and DVDs, even though I hardly ever buy them. If they have an Antique and Rare section I'll absolutely take a peek.

So here are some of the things I consider. Your mileage may vary compared to mine. Firstly, let's get it out of the way:


  • Counterintuitive maybe, but I eschew ex-library books! Get them gone! Ugly stickers, stamps, mylar, and tape stains; no thanks. But ok – like most of these rules, if the book is really something I want to read, I might make an exception. I used to make exceptions all the damn time mostly to try to complete sets. But I’ve learned to be more discerning. This rule won’t hinder your search as much as you might think – a vast amount of these books have been donated by private citizens and are perfectly clean and unmarked.
  • Avoid moisture, staining, and mold at all costs! But the worst you’re likely to find are books with some wavy, unstained pages due to moisture. Anything more than that and the library should already have tossed it. Likewise, nothing in poor condition – tears, missing pages, cracked hinges or cover boards detached from the text-block, or heavily marked.
  • I try not to buy copies of books I already own, unless the edition and/or condition is significantly better (or signed). Or if it’s just that damned good of a book. I have succumbed many, many times.
  • Book Club Editions (BCEs).
  • Ugly books. Not condition-wise, just design-wise. I swear there’s a ton of brilliant sci-fi I never touched just because the covers are so god-awful. I can be pretty sensitive to typography and layout, too.
  • Too many hardcovers. Not just because they’re ever-so-slightly more expensive (say, $3 instead of $2 for softcovers) but also because they’re big and heavy, and I am gonna have to lug everything back home. And then store them. And I have negative amounts of shelf space already.
  • Mass market paperbacks, unless it’s a book I’ve been craving and am willing to buy a disposable copy of to satisfy my hunger in the immediate future. ‘Course, as I’ve learned and blogged about before, there are a feeeewwwww mass markets worth collecting.
  • Books with interesting titles, but that unexpectedly have “a novel” printed on the front. Nothing against fiction, it’s just that SO OFTEN I pick these books up thinking they’re something completely different, but no. It’s just some stupid novel by someone I’ve never heard of. Pssh.
  • Similarly, anything with something like “an Inspector Thisandthat novel”. You just know there’s 37 books in that series (currently), and that this is book #13.
  • A book which, on reflection, I am really never going to read or make use of, even if I do and will always find the topic fascinating. This is a tough one, and the decision usually hinges on how much room I have left in my bag. Maybe also if I had a ton more space to store my books…
  • Books in the public domain that can be found for free online. I have a Kindle, and I make use of it. Some classics absolutely deserve to be read from a nice hard copy, but some older books just deserve to be read regardless of device. Save your money and your shelf space, and get the ebook.
  • Biographies or books about authors I know to be interesting, but whom I’ve never read. James Joyce, I’m looking at you. Proust, you too. Maybe someday…
  • Giant art books, unless I have a specific book-craft in mind. Like wallpapering a room.


  • Believe it or not, you can sometimes find signed editions (of good books, and also very mediocre books no one’s heard of). Personally, I’ve found a signed copy of Douglas Adams’s book Mostly Harmless and Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch. I found one old book stamped “Property of Mortimer J. Adler”. Another book on Shakespeare signed by the author and inscribed to a fellow Shakespeare scholar. Wright On! by Don Wright (editorial cartoonist since the ’50s), and a Gahan Wilson collection (longtime Playboy cartoonist), with the previous owner’s name written in the front: M. Keefe. Undoubtedly this is Mike Keefe, long-running editorial cartoonist for the Denver Post. The prospect of a signed copy is one reason I’ll look at copies of books I already own. Blithely, sometimes I even check Harry Potters, but I’m never gonna find one signed by J.K. Rowling.
  • I like trade paperbacks. They aren’t heavy the way that hardcovers are, but they aren’t of a disposable quality like mass markets are, either. They’re neat, readable, and pretty. No worries about dust jackets, either!
  • Quality condition! And design. There are certainly those times I’ll pay the $2 for a pretty book with an intriguing title in great condition. Serendipity can pay off with unexpected reading pleasure.
  • Graphic novels! They’re fun, slim, quick reads that don’t require much commitment or shelf space. They are definitely worth taking a chance on. Granted, the ones you find are usually volume 3 or 4 or 7. With graphic novels I don’t mind so much.
  • First editions. …of books worthwhile of buying the first edition. Much of the time it can be hard to tell, but the first thing to do is check the copyright page to see if it states “First Edition” and whether it has any printing dates. I have taken a chance on a few seemingly first/very early editions, and sometimes they’re facsimiles (if it doesn’t explicitly state this on the dust jacket or title page, you can usually tell by how clean and neat the book is). Watch out for the Book Club Editions, too – they may look almost exactly like the proper edition, but their value isn’t anything close (but depending on the desirability of the proper book, BCEs can have modest value). The only reason I bought a copy of Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead was because it looked like a very early edition (1943 being the only date), and it was, but ultimately not worth much, and not a "true" first edition/first state.


  • Be a teacher! I can’t guarantee every library book sale will have a teacher discount, but if they do they might offer a hefty discount on top of the already cut-rate deals. And if you aren’t a teacher, convince one of your teacher friends to come with you. Teachers make good friends, so if you don't already have one, you would do well to find yourself one!
  • Look at the schedule. At least in the Denver Library, I believe that if you’re a certain sort of member you can go to the member’s only preview day before the sale opens to the general public. It’s a good way to support your library, too. The danger of going on the last day is that all the good stuff has already been taken, but everything could be 50% off – DPL doesn’t do this, but Jefferson County usually does (if you’re in the general Denver area).
  • Etiquette [2023 note: always important but especially in these germophobic/not-quite-post-pandemic times] these events are popular. It may not always be easy to navigate around people, and the aisles can be tight. Be polite. Wear deodorant. If a box is in an odd place, or at someone’s feet, that might be their box so ask before snagging their books – if you have more books than you can carry, there are usually stations with volunteers, where you can put your bags/boxes and come back to them later. Put books back in the sections you found them. Don’t fight over that nice edition of The Da Vinci Code, there are more where those came from; in fact, don’t fight over any book. If you happen to overhear people talking about the books they’re looking for, and you’ve seen them, inform the person. You will have their everlasting devotion… well. But they will be super appreciative!

Again, all of these guidelines are subjective. Buy the books you want and feel no guilt.

The rule to rule all rules is just…. enjoy! You never know what you might find.

photo: Infinite Tunnel of Books installation at the Prague Library.

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