(Continued from Part 2.)
Now, I’d like to address the who, what, when, where, why, and how of building a prepper library of old books. First…
You. A prepper or survivalist who is convinced that your shelter-in-place needs a library of old books preserving Western Culture, but who don’t know how to begin.
Books serving as ornaments, tools, and friends now, and especially when the lights go out, my term for everything from short- and long-term power outages, to TEOTWAWKI; “hard times” as JWR calls them.
What is an “old” book? In this context, old does not necessarily mean the book’s literal age, or its first edition date. Lonesome Dove (1985) and Southern Fried Football (2008) are “old” because the characters and stories in each are representative of Western Culture. Caveat: You will come across old books guilty of every ‘-ism’ imaginable. The Science of Eugenics(1930) comes to mind. It’s your library, it’s your call whether to include “objectionable” books. My take is that they were written, published, sold, and read in a particular place and time. I may not like it today, but that’s the truth. They are reminders of every successive generation’s hubris. See also, 120 Banned Books: Censorship History of World Literature (2005).
Now. But before you breakout the zero balance credit card and get online (don’t do this), get organized. You’ll need to catalog your books. I use the program Evernote (free basic version, upgrades available). I’m not plugging Evernote, but I like it because it has a number of features that lend themselves to the way I catalog. (Ask in comments if you’d like to know more.) Search for other home library catalog programs, or get an old school card catalog, for when the lights go out. Find something that works for you and catalog the books you already have.
One benefit of doing this before you shop is that you will notice gaps in what you have, and can prioritize filling them. For example, if you appreciate the value of preserving American history as it is recounted in old texts, but your only history book is the one you bought for class in 2000, you can focus on old history books.
Now the fun begins! I cautioned against jumping online, especially at the beginning of library building. There are skills involved in learning to spy an old book of possible value to you hidden among ones in which you have no interest. Others are involved in quickly assessing a particular book of interest. (More on these below.) Physical places that sell books you can put your hands on are where you begin learning these skills.
In my experience, the biggest bang for your library-building-buck are (in order): donation centers; junk/thrift stores (including flea malls); friends of library book sales; yard sales; used book stores; chain bookstores; honest-to-goodness antique stores; and through people. There are benefits and drawbacks to each.
Goodwill Book Stores and local charity stores. These are excellent places to begin your hunt. Typically they have only two or three price points: hardback $1, or 3 for $5, etc. They are in the business of turning over their inventory and they do that by pricing the least desired items the lowest. Nobody buys old books except you and I, so we benefit. When we moved to the farm, I shopped the local charity store once a week for about two years before I’d uncovered every book I wanted. In addition, because this store is located in a college town, many families donate whole libraries when a professor passes on. Score on old textbooks. The downside is that some people donate junk, and the shelves are often not well maintained, so you may have to wade through stuff. Goodwill Book Stores are the exception, they are usually well maintained, but the books are often individually priced and cost more.
Most donation centers will have some organizational scheme to their shelves, and most books are easily classified at the top level (science-biology). But donation centers are often understaffed. The nice older ladies and gentlemen who volunteer are not going to spend significant time perusing each book in the 10 boxes they need to get shelved. Plowman’s Folly (1943) is not, in fact, fiction. It begins by asserting that, “no one has ever advanced a scientific reason for plowing” (p.3; recall dustbowls began in 1934). Even if you’re not interested in a particular classification, it’s worth it to skim through looking for misplaced books
Junk/thrift stores and flea malls. These vary by locale. Some local areas have better junk stores than others, and some junk stores think they are better junk stores than others because of their clientele. That affects pricing. They are still my second choice.
Unlike donation centers with fixed pricing, junk stores and flea malls can sometimes have outlandish prices. This is in part due to merchandise assortment– books are not the main sellers. It’s also due to lack of knowledge among storekeepers and booth owners. Frequently books’ ages are correlated with price: the older it is, the higher the tag. This doesn’t take into consideration the shocking fact that when published, some books sold more copies than others. You will find John Galsworthy’s The Forsythe Saga (1918) everywhere. It was a best seller for years. Rather than the dollar it’s worth, it will be priced 20 times that, non-negotiable– it’s 101 years old! Next year it’s going to turn 102, in that exact same spot in the booth.
The flip side is that a book you come to know is important to, say American political history such as The Making of the President 1960viii (1961), will to the booth owner be utterly worthless.
Tip: There is a sub-category of junk store I’ve come across in the South, the cavernous warehouse of books and related junk. They are awesome, but a word of advice: wear long pants and long sleeves. There are spiders everywhere.
Friends of Library (FOL) book sales. Depending on how they are structured, these can be a bonanza. Some FOLs have a year-round open room. Some have a monthly or yearly sale. Some have both. Most all take donations, so are not just books weeded from the library shelves. Larger libraries frequently take smaller libraries’ excesses. The pricing is usually a mix of individually priced books, and shelves or tables at fixed price points. Like donation centers, FOLs are in the business of moving books out the door and so open to negotiating.
If you are in the market for a set of encyclopedias of any sort (old/new, alphabetical/topical, children’s) FOL sales are the place to look. Libraries do not want old encyclopedias. The FOL do not want them. No one wants them but you. (I have enough, thanks.) Check to be sure the set is a complete. I’ve never paid more than $10. Keep in mind that the 2010 edition of Encyclopedia Britannica is the last print edition.
FOL book sales are also great places to find popular books that are slightly out of vogue– cookbooks, political punditry, fiction and so forth. The coffee table books are usually in very good shape and make excellent gifts, even for those unconcerned with the lights going out. Also, I’ve never been to a FOL sale that didn’t have a great selection of children’s books.
Some FOLs, however, impose an age limit on donations and so have only newer books.
Yard sales. Sometimes you get lucky. Remember, nobody wants old books but you and I. Don’t be first, be last when folks just want to get rid of them
Used bookstores. There are two sorts of used bookstore owners, those who know what they are talking about, and those who do not. Those who know are a delight. They are happy to chat and answer questions. Books are sometimes a little pricey, but they often negotiate package deals. If the book’s price is penciled inside the cover, be sure to ask about it. It may have been left over from a store that went out of business, and whose inventory the owner purchased. Many aren’t overly interested in moving their inventories quickly but, unlike flea mall booth owners, they live in the real world.
Tip: Used bookstores with knowledgeable owners are great places to find missing volumes of multi-volume works like the eleven volume The Story of Civilizationix (1935-1975). They may not break up a complete set, but they’re happy to unload a random volume.
Used bookstore owners who do not know what they are talking about are a hoot. One once told me most hardbacks are $5 but some are not, just ask. I did. After a few minutes of clickety clacking the owner said $7. The book was not worth $7 but I like to support little bookstores. A few minutes later, she said it was $10. And then $15. Clickety clack means she is surveying the Internet. Clickety clack means she 1) doesn’t know what she’s talking about, 2) doesn’t know about bookfinder.com, and 3) lacks basic understanding of supply and demand. If a book is available at a given price– still on the virtual shelf– it means it has not sold at that price. I’ve never been back.
On the other hand, used bookstores run by unknowledgeable folks can work in your favor. There will be many a book you would dearly love to include in your library regardless of what sort of condition it’s in, so long as it has all of its pages (I have a few that don’t and I don’t care). “Yes, but it’s in such bad shape,” you say when she says $5. Sometimes this approach works.
A lot of used bookstores with not-so-knowledgeable owners simply group books by price– the $1 table, $5 table, etc.– this makes searching more difficult but less surprising.
Tip: A sub-category of used bookstores sell comic books, vinyl, etc. which the owners know a lot about. They also have, but don’t care about, the books you and I want. They are usually anxious to free up space for more comics.
Tip: Beware of used bookstores in tourist areas. They are fun to shop, and you can get lucky, but mostly you walk out thinking that if you could sell your entire library in New Orleans, you’d be a millionaire. No sober person is going to pay $50 for Julia Childs’ The Art of French Cooking.
Chain bookstores. These are always worth a look. There are probably contemporary authors and commentators whose writings you enjoy. Their older works will eventually wind up on the sale shelf. If you’re interested in newly printed editions of the classics, they can be had inexpensively.
Honest-to-goodness antique stores. The upside is the books are typically in good condition and receive more care than junk stores or used bookstores. The downside is books are not their specialty– they are being sold strictly as ornaments– and so prices tend to be on the high side. But you never know what you might find, and it doesn’t hurt to ask.
Tip: When you travel, be sure to check out as many of these sources as you can, keeping an eye out for books on the region’s culture, history, and cooking.
Tip: Some places use a sticker or other means to indicate date of receipt. Use this to your advantage in negotiating.
People. Some of my best books-as-friends were given to me by daughters and sons-in-law. When you become an old book collector, you make your family’s life easier. “What should we get Mom?” turns into two boxes of old books under the tree containing such gems as The Encyclopedia of Philosophy Volumes 1-8x (1972; no longer published in hard copy), and seven volumes of Our Wonder World.xi
Folks who you know can be old book sources. Your pastor’s study, lawyer’s office, or mechanic’s shop are full of old books. As he (or she) nears retirement gently express your willingness to buy and care for any books in his library that would otherwise be donated. I have a penchant for old medical books. When learning that a department at the medical school was moving, and that the conference room’s hundreds of old books would not be, I asked the chairman if they were for sale. He told me to take as many as I wanted, for free. Score.
Wondering why you should? Please refer to Part 1 of this article.
Building a library of old books is no different than collecting other old stuff. If you’ve shopped for a collection of hand-powered tools or appliances to use when the lights go out, you already have the background skill set, you’ll just be applying it to old books. If not, the following suggestions may be helpful.
There are two approaches to this: informed approach and the blissfully ignorant approach. On the informed approach you familiarize yourself with one or more lists of the great books which constitute an essential foundation in the literature of Western culturexii and their authors, make a list of the kinds of books-as-tools you, as a prepper, think necessary, and perhaps a list of old friends from your younger days you’d like to find. (The Wikipedia entry, “Great books,” includes a list, and links to other lists.) Or you could consult 120 Banned Books.
On the blissfully ignorant approach you gather up your egg money or spare change, head over to your local donation center, junk store or used bookstore and pick a shelf.
(To be concluded tomorrow, in Part 4.)