My book sale phinds and phooeys

My book sale phinds and phooeys November 3, 2014

I used to try to make extra money selling used books online. I would go to library book sales and try to spot rare and unusual volumes that people would be willing to pay a fortune for. Using only my intuition, I paid $1 for a probable first edition of a biography of Charles de Gaulle, which I turned around and sold for $80. Wildly encouraged, I used that same intuition to buy another fifty or sixty likely-looking books, also for a dollar each. And every single one of them, nobody wants because nobody needs. Thus ended my bookseller’s career.

People do actually make money buying and selling used books online, but you have to really love every single thing about books — and, less romantically but more practically, you probably also need to have a handheld ISBN scanner, which will instantly tell you if you’ve found a rare gem or a turkey before you decide whether to buy it.

As with so many other things, the money value of a book is more about how rare it is than how good it is. And so people who sell books because they love reading may find themselves scooping up junk because they know it will turn a profit, which is kind of a heartbreaker.

Anyway, now we have the luxury of just buying books that we want to read ourselves. This time, we filled four shopping bags. Here’s what stands out this time around:

Book there were inexplicably three zillion copies of:

Girl with a Pearl Earring.

book cover girl with a pearl earring

Really nicely written, overall. I have no idea how faithful it is to the actual biography of Vermeer, but it was a good, sad story, if a bit heavy handed at times. After reading it, I checked out the author’s earlier work, The Virgin Blue, and found it very much an earlier novel, and unbearably message-y. Should I keep reading, anyone? She’s done five more novels.

The Thorn Birds. This I read, I don’t know why. It is one of the worst novels I have ever encountered. If that one guy said, “I’m not a man, I’m a priest!” one more time, I was going to tear out the page and eat it in a rage. It’s so painful to read something by someone who clearly has talent, but who is overwhelmed, chapter after chapter, by fawning prejudice and a weakness for the easy way out. She opted for goo every time, until her characters were just little stubs of puppets struggling under a greasy load of caricature.

Stephen King everywhere. Holy mackerel, can we say overrated? I read several of his books in high school, and you know what he is? Competent. Hooray! Let us crown him with many crowns!


Book I put my foot down about this time: books that make noise. I long ago gave up the battle against toys that make noise, but I’m holding the line when it comes to books; and yes, five-year-old, that includes books whose batteries are dying and so they only make a small amount of noise.

The kids didn’t even ask for books that summarize Disney movies.

I also said no to a Care Bear puzzle that smelled like cats.

I did, however, green light a Harry Potter trivia game

hp trivia game

which miraculously had all the pieces. They’ve played it at least five or six times, so it must be pretty good. Apparently it has a few inaccuracies, which only adds to the drama.


Things I buy every single time I see them:

The Family of Man (got two hardcover copies this time!)

book cover the family of man

Wrote about this wonderful collection of  photographs and quotations here. I can’t pick it up without losing at least fifteen minutes. If you can find a clean copy, this would make a really nice wedding present. If you wanted to explain to an alien from Mars what human life is like, you could just show him this book.


Things I buy in hopes that I can leave them around the house and they will be so nice and bright that someone will learn something for once around here:

The Colour Library of Art: GOYA. 49 plates in full color? Yes please.

Byzantium: City of Gold, City of Faith by Paul Hetherington and Werner Forman. Gold! Candles! Mosaics!  O Byzantium!

book cover byzantium


Replacement books that no one will be thrilled to see because we already have a few copies, but these ones have ALL THE PAGES:
Great Brain books. So weird and funny.

Lloyd Alexander’s  Chronicles of Prydain. Actually, I haven’t found any kid who especially likes these books, but there are still plenty more kids, so I keep buying them.

Henry Huggins and other Beverly Cleary books. I am always on the lookout for Otis Spofford, Ellen Tebbits, and Emily’s Runaway Imagination. These aren’t as common as the Henry and Ramona and Beezus books, but they capture the puzzles and comforts of childhood just as honestly.

Homer Price books

homer price


Defiant purchase:

Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon.

book cover song of solomon

I like Toni Morrison, but I have less patience than I used to for books that just flit around here and there and make you figure out what happened when. I could also do without the recurring made-up phrases. You know who could get away with that? Homer. But “Baby Suggs, Holy,” is just not the same, and I do not need to hear it twenty-three times. But,I still like Toni Morrison, in small doses.


Trash books I considered buying just to remove them from circulation, but cheaped out because it wasn’t fill-a-bag day:

Dan Brown nonsense. I read The Da Vinci Code out of curiosity, and at first enjoyed it because of the astonishing things I was reading. I have worked with editors before, and I was just endlessly entertained trying to imagine who could actually do this for a living and yet let these passages see the light of day. But after a while, it just got depressing, and I ended up feeling like my brain had been worked over on some kind of exceedingly silly lathe.

Judy Blume nonsense. It’s recently come to my attention that Judy Blume has “written” “novels” for “adults.” I picked one up at the dump one time and read the first few pages.

book cover wifey

It was like, “One day, the house wife was housewifing around, because her loutish and impotent husband forced to make sandwiches, which were made out of wheat bread, mayonnaise, turkey, and iceburg lettuce, which she preferred over romaine lettuce, even though she knew it was somewhat less nutritious. Then a mysterious stranger came by on a motorcycle and masturbated at her. THEN EVERYTHING CHANGED.” Geez louise. There oughta be a law.

And of course The Golden Compass, which I wrote about in Things that have no right to exist.

I took comfort from the fact that it was day two of the sale and there will still plenty of copies lying around, so maybe they will just send themselves to the garbage without any effort from me and my social conscience.

Take-a-chance books:

What It Feels Like to Be a Building

book cover what it feels like to be a building

I haven’t read this one yet, but it looks like a neat concept. Here’s a review:

Have you ever felt squashed? Squeezed? Pulled? Tugged? If so, then you know what it feels like to be a building! Here, with playful drawings and humorous text, award-winning author Forrest Wilson uses human figures (plus some dogs and rams) to show that architecture and people have more in common than you might have believed. This book will delight everyone who is fascinated with the buildings around us.


CDs of The Screwtape Letters and The Great Divorce

cd cover great divorce

For like $2 each! Foolproof plan: play these for the older kids at night while we fold laundry. This has got to be better than our current system, which is to never ever ever fold laundry.


The most-read book of the lot so far:

A Birthday for Frances

Pure pleasure.

birthday for francis

Frances is probably the realest little kid in all of children’s literature. There is no more exquisite passage portraying the triumph of man’s higher nature over his own passions, than this short work depicting a young badger’s struggle to relinquish the Chompo bar that she bought for her undeserving little sister Gloria’s birthday party.


Guilt purchases:

None! Yay me! No “I really ought to finally read this,” “my kids ought to know this”, “we ought to have one of these around the house,” “it’s really time I learned how to quilt,” etc. I already stock my brain with stuff like that — no need to clog up the living room, too.

How about you? Any good book sale finds?

Oh, and as long as we’re talking about books, I forgot to take my ebook of sale, so you can still get The Sinner’s Guide to NFP ebook for $2.99!  I’ll leave it up for another day, and then it will go back to full price.


Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!

What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Slightly different, but similar: I ask for 1/2 Price Books gift cards for b-days and such because, well, I’m old and have all the crap I need – except who ever has too many books?

    Good for the kids/adds a touch of cu-lass: I’m I sucker for big coffee table books on art and history with nice piuctures, especially when they’re really cheap. It’s nice knowing that if you need some pictures of Chartres or the Bayeux Tapestry or some such to illustrate some point or other, it’s right there! (And don’t pester me about this new-fangled internet thing – books are better!)

    Copies to give away: I almost said ‘lend’, but who is fooling whom? Whenever I see Canticle for Leibowitz, or Till We Have Faces (Lewis’s best book – no, really) and half-dozen other books, I buy them and ‘lend’ them to people. The Metaphysical Club is semi on this list, but somebody I lent it to actually gave it back, if you can imagine, so now I’ve actually got an extra copy. My world trembled…

    Sci Fi by brilliant Catholics: Mike Flynn, John C Wright, and Gene Wolfe. The sad part: these rarely make it to Half-Priced Books. Related: Sci Fi classics I inexplicably don’t already own.

    Assorted science and history books: I’ve got a sort of running list in my head. There are books on Salt and Heat that sound right up my alley; did you know those Europeans produced A LOT of history? How can anybody keep up? And then there’s the rest of the world….

    As far as taking things out of circulation, no, I don’t generally do that. My wife does, in the most peculiar way: people leave ‘devotional’ literature at the local parish’s Perpetual Adoration chapel. Bad devotional literature – we’re talking straight-up heretical, not simply in poor taste (a standard that would eliminate almost all such stuff) – those tend to go away when my wife spots them. I told her once that I’d looked at a Lives of Saints that included several non-Catholics and out and out anti-catholics (why do people do that?) and she I should just toss it – it has no reason to exist, but I couldn’t do it.

    Oh, except Berenstein Bears – those go straight into the trash.

    • Nan

      I was squicked out at something left at my parish and was told that it’s absolutely fine to disappear things when you know they don’t belong. So I do.

  • Lisa S

    I loved the Lloyd Alexander books as a kid. They were the gateway books to LOTR for me. Hope you have good luck with them with any 3rd-to-5th graders.

  • DeirdreMundy

    I have another category of books- Loaner books. Books I love so much, I need extra copies so I can loan them out w/o feeling pain. Diane Wynn Jones falls into this category. So does Pratchett.

    Also, the BEST library booksale I ever found was in Tuscaloosa, AL (we were visiting family)– Hardcover chronicles of Narnia! Pristine first edition Simarillions! Chesterton! Everything by David MacCauley and all super-cheap because they were ‘pagan books’ so no one wanted them. Up here, that stuff never MAKES it to ‘bag for a dollar’ day. So… going to sales outside your geographic area may be a good way to score cool stuff. 🙂

    Oh, I’m always on the lookout for old Historical Fiction (i,e, The Reb and the Redcoats, etc.)—it doesn’t get published as much now, but it’s a great way for the kids to read great stories and learn some history.

  • kathyschiffer

    I once bought my kids an illustrated book titled “What to Do When Your Mom Says ‘Clean Your Room'”. Even I thought it was self-serving; I was sure the kids would see through the ruse and absolutely hate it. You know what they did? They cleaned their rooms, using the Martha Washington Method from left to right. It turned out to be one of the best investments of their childhood.

  • Kate Cousino

    We bought newer, all-the-pages copies of some Great Brain books at the library booksale recently as well. My kids know that I can also be relied upon to buy any and all Tomie dePaula and Robert Munsch picture books we stumble onto. I don’t tend to find much for me, though one time I was able to score several like-new Brother Cadfael mysteries and the first two books of the delightfully lightweight Myth series by Robert Asprin.

  • niknac

    I used to buy used books. They were cheap but I only read some of them and ended up with hundreds of books over the years. I got rid of them all in bulk, made a few bucks. My public library will find me any book I want and lend it to me free for 3 weeks. They will renew for three more. If you are not going to read a book from start to finish in 6 weeks you never are.

    • Percy Gryce

      But, as John Ruskin said in Sesame and Lilies, “if a book is worth reading, it is worth buying.”

  • Lydia

    The library where I used to work sells donated used books to raise funds. My favorite books I’ve gotten that way were probably Where the Girls Are by Susan J. Douglas and The Sense & Sensibility Diaries by Emma Thompson (her screenplay and journal from when she was working on the film). The library at my college had a Free Book table – most of the time there wasn’t anything I was interested in, but I did get Great Expectations and Bleak House for the low, low price of nothing (and left Book of Days by James L. Rubart so as not to be a complete freeloader).
    Less economical was the vintage copy of The Moonstone found at Lit Fest in Chicago this summer, but it was worth it!
    And I’ve never bought something to make sure no one else does (not that I object to the practice), but I did throw my copy of Full Frontal Feminism in the recycling when I didn’t need it for class anymore.

  • Blobee

    I went to one library book sale one time, at the Newberry Library in Chicago. I was so put out because as soon as the masses were unleashed, hordes RAN to the various rooms and corralled armfuls of books off the shelves, unconcerned about titles or topics, and piled them into a corner protected by their accomplice (often a 10 year old child), while they swooped away other shelves and returned to their stack. And then, just like little trolls, while perched on a pile of books, they examined each one for value, and made piles of keepers and not-worth-its.
    Poor me. I had come seeking books written in Latin, as I was trying to learn the language and thought this would be a good place to find a volume or two. But I was 4 seconds behind the horde, and found not a one.
    I was appalled at the greedy selfish behavior, and vowed never to attend a library book sale again. And I never have.

  • CameTheDawn419

    If you don’t want the Prydain books, I would totally take them…;-)

  • Amy

    I read Tracy Chevalier’s Girl with a Pearl Earring and Virgin Blue, which are a little heavy-handed, as you said…but I really liked her Lady and the Unicorn (about the weaving of the tapestries!) much more; can’t remember any bludgeoney message; I took away what love does and does not look like in different people’s lives, and a fun historical immersion. 🙂

  • Mary G.

    Absolutely, positively, the most-oft-read-aloud books in my house have been Frances books. I love A Birthday for Frances; I call just about any candy bar a Chompo bar. Best Friends for Frances is a good one about friendship and forgiveness; Bread and Jam for Frances for my picky eater; and my husband’s favorite: Bedtime for Frances, which DARED articulate the THREAT of a spanking. Perhaps Bennie would like A Baby Sister for Frances? 😉
    Garth Williams’ illustrations are terrific, too.

  • Monica

    What It Feels Like To Be A Building is one of my all-time favorites!