I homeschool on the cheap. So I love to equip my homeschool with free or really cheap books many of which I get at used book sales. Since book sale season is quickly approaching, I thought I'd share my expert tips on how to get the best value for your homeschooling dollars at these sales.
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Learn the sale rules and pricing.
Did you know that some sales are cash only? Others do not allow strollers or carts on the first day. Some have special pricing where the books get cheaper every day of the sale. Spend a few minutes learning about the sale (big or small) that you will be attending so you can plan whether you want to come early for the best selection or come late for the huge bags of cheap leftover books.
Make a wish list of the types of books you want and take it with you.
I keep a running list of the authors, titles, and subjects of books that I hope to find. For example, I might list Shakespeare retellings, books by David Macaulay, songbooks, nature books, living history books about the 1800s, Greek myths, fairy tales, Opal Wheeler biographies, or even specific novels, missing volumes in a book series, or picture books that I'm likely to find at a sale.
Be realistic! Usually, the books for sale are many years old, so you are likely to find mass published classics, but unlikely to find recent bestsellers.
Also, prioritize your list. Your time, budget, and space to store books is limited. Plus, other buyers are going to be snatching up books left and right. Spend a moment thinking about what books are going to be most important for you to find and look for them first. Mass-market paperback novels will likely have several copies available. Go for the hardcover books you need for your lesson plans first!
Make a plan for shopping with children.
If book sales are a key part of your homeschooling shopping plan, then think carefully about how you are going to shop with your children.
When I attend my favorite huge warehouse book sale, I only bring a baby if I can wear them in a carrier because it is very crowded and I know that I will want to spend 2 hours there.
At a smaller sale, I will bring my children with me, but I operate very differently. I plan to stay for only 30-60 minutes but I am prepared to leave as soon as necessary if they become overwhelmed by the people or chaos. My kids love books and never get to buy ones except at sales or thrift stores, so they are very motivated to sit and look at a book near me with the promise that they can take it home.
Bring your own bags or crates.
Serious book sale shoppers always bring their own rolling carts! That is if the sale rules allow them. I got my first rolling cart for Christmas this year, mainly to use at the farmers market, but I can't wait to use it at a book sale next week for the first time. Books are heavy!
Before getting this cart, I always shopped with sturdy canvas bags and a big 31 rectangular tote. Often cardboard boxes are available at the sales as well. But think carefully about how you are going to carry your stuff and usher your children to the car.
If you accidentally buy more than you can carry to your car, the book sale people will let you make more than one trip. I've seen it many times!
Open every book (especially the old ones) before you buy them.
Sometimes, you find a title that makes your heart skip a beat. It is exactly what you've been hoping for. This is how I feel when I find a new Howard Pyle book to add to my collection . . . or something by the D'Aulaires or Aliki or some rare nature lore book I've only read about.
The thrill of book hunting is what keeps me coming back for more! But I have wasted my precious homeschooling dollars over books that were in very poor condition, usually because I got too excited to think clearly.
So, open every book and quickly rifle through the pages, checking that the binding is intact and all pages seem to be there. If the book looks old, give it a sniff. Some books are too smelly or moldy to keep around.
If there is more than one copy, choose the one in the best condition. Personally, I would prefer an old hardcover ex-library edition with an intact binding even if it has library stamps and some discoloration over a mass market paperback, but you may feel differently. In my experience, small paperbacks, like those published by Scholastic, do not last through many readings. If you intend to use the book for multiple children, choose hardcover or trade paperback.
Only buy books that you need, want, and can afford.
It is easy to lose your head in the excitement of the sale. Honestly, I expect that I may buy a few books (for about $1 each) that I will decide not to include in our permanent library, either because I missed physical condition issues or because the book wasn't what I had originally thought in the heat of the moment.
It helps me to have a financial budget as well as a physical budget in mind. For example, I will only spend $30. Or I will not get more books than I can fit in this bag.
I also keep certain "rules" for myself in mind. I will not buy a mass market paperback UNLESS I have immediate plans to read it to my children or it is a special selection for a particular child's Christmas stocking. I do not buy books that I know our local library owns UNLESS I plan to use them as part of our school plans. I will not spend more than $2 for a book UNLESS I plan to use it as part of our school plans or morning time.
I won't pay more than $10 unless it is something truly special. Once, I found Bright April and Copper Toed Boots in excellent condition in the collector's corner of my favorite sale and I'm so glad I spent a little bit extra! But unless it is Marguerite De Angeli, or some other favorite author and as well as a rare find in very good condition, I'm not going to blow my budget for the day!
If you have a smartphone, you can check for the online price of potential splurges. For better and worse, I don't use a smartphone, so I have to just go with my instincts. But I think it is more fun that way!
Enjoy your finds and learn from any "mistakes."
As soon as I get home, I take everything out to sort and put away. Some books are held back for gifts and others are set aside for lessons and morning time. The rest we enjoy right away!
If you discover that you accidentally bought a book you already own or one that is falling apart, learn from your mistake and either recycle it or pass it one to another family who would benefit.
Sometimes, you can even find some other special use for a book that is too old for reading. This Christmas, I used the pages of The Blue Fairy Book that fell apart while I read it to make beautiful, unique "fairy tale" note cards as gifts for my mom and sister. And I developed my rule to stop buying old mass market paperbacks!
Here you can find my list of 15 Living Book Authors to Buy at Used Book Sales and see my recent $5 Book Sale Haul.
You may also want to check out my post on Charlotte Mason Homeschooling with Free Books (or at least really cheap ones) that shows how used book sales fit into my overall homeschool planning!