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[THRIFT STORES]

Your local Goodwill or Volunteers of America have lots of books donated to them. Of course, some stores have more than others, and more variety. The last time I checked my local Volunteers, all they had were old copies of Cosmo, BASIC programming books from the 80s and Harlequin romance novels. But then I went to Goodwill and found a stack of nice hardback classics and fantasy novels for a dollar apiece.

You never know what you’ll find at a thrift store. But you can count on what you do find being really, really cheap. And hey, sometimes I just want a Reader’s Digest condensed book!

[FLEA MARKETS]

Flea markets aren’t just about antiques. Big flea markets can be found in most major cities, and they usually have a few used bookstalls. The books there can range from rare, expensive first editions to loads of last year’s paperback bestsellers. Others will focus on certain kinds of books; at a flea market last year I bought several old children’s books from a dealer who specialized in juvenile lit.

Flea markets are all about the thrill of the hunt. If you have plenty of time to browse, and a good head for bargaining, flea markets are fun.

[QUALITY USED BOOKSTORES]

Duh, you say. Of course used bookstores are cheaper than corporate giants. Well, sometimes. Not all used bookstores are created equal, and some are more organized than others. Most towns, especially college towns, have a basement somewhere packed with everything from old math textbooks to comic books to Grisham potboilers. And most downtown areas have at least one or two highly specialized, rare book dealers.

But if you’re looking for quality and good prices, excellent bookstores are harder to find. Small bookstores just can’t compete in the price wars. Most local bookstores find a niche market, and stick with one genre. If you’re looking for a brand new hardback, get it from Amazon.com or their used book network, zshops.

So as far as used bookstores are concerned, my money goes with Half Price Books. They’re a chain spread through the Midwest and West Coast, and if you live near one you should get acquainted. Half Price has the bulk rate advantage of a chain store, and the ethos and community involvement of a local shop. They’ve got a pretty comprehensive selection of new hardbacks, which average about seven bucks, and tons of paperbacks, which are all half off list price. I’m addicted to the clearance section—shelves of books at 25 or 50 cents a pop. You can take a chance on an unknown for a quarter.

A used bookstore with depth and decent prices can be a recreational destination. It’s worth the time to search out a good one that has the depth to support a couple hours of browsing, and prices that will allow you to take risks on stuff you haven’t read yet. Check out the local artsy paper or ask around.

[ACADEMIC LIBRARIES]

Yes, your college library is a musty, dusty box, with stacks of books that haven’t been opened since 1969. You avoid the narrow aisles and dank cubicles until the last possible minute before a paper must be researched.

But what you may not know is that virtually every college library also has contemporary fiction, spiritual classics and other good reading hidden in the labyrinth of industrial shelving. If there’s a book you’ve been looking for, give your college system a try.

Another thing you may not know is that nearly every major university library is linked to other libraries within state or even national networks. This expands your borrowing privileges to dozens of other systems and their diversified resources. For example, when I was at a major Midwestern university, I discovered that their library network extended to several prominent Christian colleges. A whole new vista of Christian classics and contemporaries suddenly opened up!

And if you’re not in college, it’s okay. Most university libraries extend guest borrowing privileges to local teachers, alumni, community activists – basically anyone who really wants a card. The best part: it’s free.

[LIBRARY DISCARDS]

Some of the highest quality books I have are library discards. Your local metro library system probably has a table somewhere of discards, books they’re selling cheap. They might be getting rid of them because no one has checked them out since before you were born, or because there’s a newer edition in the system. Library books have special binding that makes them extra sturdy, so even if they’re a little beat up there’s still a lot of wear left in them. Plus, by buying discards you’re supporting your local library, which is always a good thing.

[UTTERLY RANDOM, UTTERLY FREE]

Booklend is, in his own words, “the creation of a man with a postage meter, a roomful of books, and an urge to share.” You pick ‘em, he ships ‘em. Take as long as you want to read the book, and send it back. He even pays return postage. If you’re in to sc-fi, Baen makes a number of their paperbacks available for free online. And if you’re ever in the Baltimore area, drop by Bookthing. They apparently give books away. For free. Finally, don’t forget the vast repository of out-of-copyright Online Books.

Happy book hunting. Just don’t forget to read.

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