Buying and Selling Secondhand Books

As a book lover from my earliest days, selling books was a natural fit for me. But when I started I was a babe in the woods!

First, I knew bupkis about book values. I had the vaguest knowledge that bestsellers printed (and reprinted) in the hundreds of thousands were essentially valueless for resellers and that first editions and signed books generally had more value. And that was it!

And secondly, I didn’t realize how ruthless book buyers/sellers could be. I first started building my book inventory by attending our city’s wildly popular monthly book sales. Years ago if you wanted to be able to shop during the first two hours (for best selection) you had to get there early to get a number. And there were folks who always, ALWAYS, managed to be in the front of the line.

Photo courtesy of FOPAL.

Some of these buyers used to hoard books and make secret stashes at the sale as they continued to shop. One time a kerfuffle ensued when a hoarder spotted someone rifling through his stash. But how was the other guy to know? It was a pile of unattended books! Finally the library volunteers put the kibosh on that practice and you had to lug the books you wanted to buy with you at all times. (Which is what most of us did anyway.) They also limited the number of books people could buy at one time (I think it was 20) but you were welcome to go to the back of the line and come in again. It made the sale a bit fairer.

Years ago a volunteer took candid photos of shoppers in action and I found one of me! We are all so intent!
Photo courtesy of FOPAL.

Estate sales can get crazy with aggressive book buyers too. I’ve been “blocked” before when trying to search a book shelf. I’ll get some old fart who purposefully moves in front of me when he realizes I’m trying to look too. My “excuse me’s” fall on deaf ears. Humph! But it’s not worth causing a ruckus.

Well I realized early on that I was never going to become a “serious” book buyer/seller, so the pressure was off. I would learn what I could and make it fun for myself by focusing on finding quirky, unique vintage books that appealed to me.

Some will consider this rather stupid of me, but I don’t scan books and I rarely look them up before buying. I go on intuition. And most of the books I select do okay, and by that I mean could resell them for $15 or more. A few have done quite well. One children’s book sold for over $200. Many others have sold in the $25 to $40 range and when you only pay $1 or $2, that’s not a bad return. I haven’t found any books worth $$$$ but I do make money from my book sales and enjoy looking for them. (And bonus they are easy to store and ship.)

What Sells for Me

  • Religious books. Old Bibles, prayer books, hymnals, etc.
A German prayer book.
  • Typography books. I love a good font book and others do too!
Love the Metro font.
  • Quirky vintage cookbooks. While most of us are not using physical cookbooks anymore and you’ll see a plethora of them in thrift stores, quirky ones do sell. My most recent was a 1962 edition of “Breakfast in Bed.” I paid $5 at a yard sale and it sold for $28. Another 1962 book “The Pleasures of Italian Cooking” by Romeo Salta was signed and sold for $40. (I paid $1.)
  • Older children’s books, particularly with quaint illustrations.
  • Vintage atlases.
  • Older art books.
  • Vintage medical books with illustrations. I got this 1942 medical book with over 200 illustrations for free at a post-library giveaway! It sold for $40.
  • Leather-bound books.
  • Anything weird and unusual, ideally with a limited print run. I’ve sold several books on the clans and tartans of Scotland! And I love old typewriter manuals.

Condition is Important

Questions to answer: Does it have writing or highlighting in it? Is it free of stains or foxing? Are any pages folded or ripped? Does it smell musty? Does it have spine or cover damage? Is there a dust jacket and in what condition? (If the book originally came with a dust jacket and it’s now missing, that can greatly affect the book’s value.) You need to be scrupulous in detailing any defects. (Book condition is graded by categories of: new, fine, very good, good, fair and poor. There’s a good description of each category on Abe Books.)

Figuring Out Pricing

I keep it simple. I do a quick search using BookFinder.com to see how many copies of the book are for sale and at what price. I plug in all the details to keep the search the most relevant, including year published. (I don’t want my 1940 first edition mixed in with reprints done in the 1980s.)

Of the books for sale I do a quick condition scan. For example if a book is listed at only “acceptable” and mine is “very good” I know I can charge more. I may also do a Google search to see what copies show up first and check Worthpoint for sold comps.

It’s not an exact science!

Darn Competitive

Frankly the secondhand book market is darn competitive–both at the buying and selling ends–and Etsy is not the best selling platform for books. All that said, I find that adding them to my Etsy store is still worth it. And bonus, folks will see photos of the actual book for sale, which doesn’t happen on Amazon or Abe Books.

Happy book hunting,

Karen

P.S. For sheer enjoyment you’ll want to read Shawn Bythell’s books. He owns a secondhand book store in Wigtown, Scotland, and also sells online. His adventures (and mishaps) running his store with its wide and varied clientele and his rambles sourcing books will brighten your day. Start with “The Diary of a Bookseller.”

8 comments

  1. Love this post! I adore books too and have sold some in the past. But I find I enjoy collecting them more!
    Also, I can’t believe how popular those big book sales are! We went to one last year and there were so many people and so much traffic that we had to park in a nearby parking garage. They had volunteers directing traffic and the shoppers were creating big piles and furiously looking up prices online. It was exciting, fascinating and exhausting! Got some good stuff though. 🙂

    Like

    1. Patricia, I just knew you would be a book lover too!! I would have a much bigger library if I could. I keep getting more books and have to let others go.

      Yes, those book sales can be insane. I realized I am in it for the love of books and not just what I can sell them for.

      What kind of books did you find?

      Hugs,
      Karen

      Liked by 1 person

      1. They had every kind of book and genre imaginable. I gravitate toward old books, of course, and found some awesome local books. Also vintage children’s books and cookbooks.
        I found an early edition of Bambi. I love old high school yearbooks and they also had records–though all the good stuff was gone by the time I got there. They didn’t have it this year and I was very disappointed. Hope they do it next year. I can’t help it–I’m a bit obsessed!

        I spent some time filling my booth this morning and then checking out a local antique and thrift shop. The thrift shop was packed! No finds, but I was mostly just curious. I’m going to start posting on my Moonglow Treasures site. It’s been fun unpacking all my stuff and setting it up. 🙂

        Hope you’re having a great weekend.
        Hugs,
        Patricia

        Liked by 1 person

  2. I love books too! When I lived in CA my library system was large (Contra Costa County) and every late summer they’d have the weeded books in a parking lot behind the administration for free. Hundreds of boxes, in areas of fiction, non-fiction, and children’s. It would be a mob, but… teachers were allowed the week before the public, and I was a home school teacher which counted! I didn’t need the library for my own reading for a year! They added more books every few days for weeks. Now, I live in a pretty book-less area. Oh, Barnes and Noble, and one used bookstore, a religious one in the mall. I miss my old local Half-Price Books SO much.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Wow Lisa. Getting to go early to the book giveaway sounds like a dream!

      We used to have a wonderful secondhand book store a mile from my house and they finally had to close due to a slow economy. Still miss it!

      Karen

      Like

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