Including Old Books in Your Preps, Part 3, by Marica Bernstein

(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, 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.

And How?

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.)


  1. In searching for old books, I agree that antique stores and thrift stores are great resources but I do know that Goodwill (no longer a true thrift store chain) will research a title before putting it on the shelf. If it has any value, it’ll go directly to their mail order / online site for a higher cost.

    TIP: To get rid of musty odors in books (or other items), place the book in a plastic shopping or trash bag with the end slightly open for air to circulate, and place it flat in your freezer for a few days (or longer). It does NOT damage the book and the freezer’s lack of humidity will draw the odor out of the paper. IT WORK’S GREAT! I’ve done it dozen’s of times with no damage ever. Sometimes, it’ll only take a few days, one book I had took about 3 weeks or more.
    I also did this on a high end nylon cordura fanny pack that got wet and somehow left in the car trunk for a long time… phewww. Stinky! It took one month in the freezer. I checked it weekly with a sniff test and would put it back in until the smell was gone. Finally worked

  2. I always meant to buy a physical set of the Harvard Classics but it is available for download on Its also available on Kindle.

    I see single volumes on Abe Books for about $3 a piece. There are entire sets on Amazon that range from about $200 to $750.

    “The Harvard Classics, originally known as Dr. Eliot’s Five Foot Shelf, is a 51-volume anthology of classic works from world literature, compiled and edited by Harvard University president Charles W. Eliot and first published in 1909. The most comprehensive and well-researched anthology of all time comprises both the 50-volume “5-foot shelf of books” and the the 20-volume Shelf of Fiction. Together they cover every major literary figure, philosopher, religion, folklore and historical subject through the twentieth century.n 1910, Dr. Charles W. Eliot, then President of Harvard University, put together an extraordinary library of “all the books needed for a real education.”

    “Dr.Charles W.Eliot, the former Harvard president who edited the series, maintained that if one read just 15 minutes a day from the 51 volumes he assembled, it would constitute “a good substitute for a liberal education to anyone who would read them with devotion.”

    Not an essential for survival, but if you have the money and the space for them you might consider looking into the Loeb Classical Library, which features english / latin or greek translations of ancient texts. I always think my book collection may become the nucleus of a future library. You might be doing your part to pass western civilization to future generations. New they run about 28.00, used as low as about $5.00.

    For introducing kids to the classics, you might consider getting the “Classics Illustrated” comic books. Many of them are very well illustrated. Not sure how many titles there are, I’m guessing 50? You’ll find books like Robinson Crusoe, Treasure Island, The Odyssey, Ben Hur, etc. etc. Used, they may run about $2 to $5.

    1. I picked up a set of these back in my teens. I was always a bit of a bookworm.30 years later I still read them. They is an impressive amount of information that you just don’t see in todays system.

  3. Regarding Why – Simply for reference and information contained therein! Old books are an indication of “human progress”, such as it is. Read an old book and then read a more modern book. Notice the wording and phrases used to portray or tell the story and how it changes and evolves over time. Same as the present obsession with the destruction of historical objects.
    I have in my collection books, a complete set of Robert Louis Stevenson books, copyright around 1916 I believe, Rudyard Kipling, with the Nazi swastika on them. I understand he was at one time a Nazi sympathizer. All found at a yard sale. As well as a book on Indian legends written about 1898 and a Hardy Boys novel copyright 1923. Reading old books and then new it’s easy to see how far down the path to social destruction we have come and how society at large has devolved into the hatefest it has present day.

  4. For two years before retiring to my current location, I would stop in once a week at the Dollar Book Store on my way home. I was able to bring hundreds of books with me to the Redoubt for future use. I have multiple books on emergency medicine, canning, building and home repair skills, machinery maintenance, jokes and word puzzles, gardening, Constitutional law, American history, world atlases, history of western civilization, children’s school books for various ages, gun-smithing, home remedies, so much more. I recently scored a nice set of Our Wonderful World encyclopedias for $5 at a neighbor’s estate sale. My elderly dad gave me his set of Great Books of the Western World, a genuine literary and philosophical treasure.

    One other place you can find books is Craigslist. I checked my local CL just now and there is an entire set of 27 Bob Jones home school textbooks and workbooks for three different grades offered for $75.

    The other night there was a big wind storm here, and our cable TV and internet went down for many hours. It was a reminder to me of how addicted we are to technology and instant communication. In case of a long term grid down scenario, you are going to want some novels in addition to all the technical manuals, so remember to include relaxation reading as part of your plan.

    1. I like the Craig’s list idea. Never would have thought of it. Great Books of the Western World *is* a treasure. It was republished in the ’90s (?) with some works removed. Go figure. What NS said in the last sentence.

      1. I remember my parents buying that original set in the late 1950’s / early 60’s. It was hugely expensive for them, probably the equivalent of a month’s rent, but they considered it an investment. It came with its own demi-bookcase and was proudly displayed in our living room. I now have it in my bookcase and it makes me think of my childhood and early family life.

        Forgot to mention earlier, I bought some dictionaries for English as well as several foreign languages at the dollar store.

        I bought a book on card game rules there, too! I also have half a dozen packs of playing cards squirreled away. Back in the day before TV, adults used to go over to their friends house to play cards all the time. One of my earliest memories is my parents and my aunt and uncle playing canasta and pinochle at the card table, laughing and having a great time. No electricity needed (although we did have it.) I guess I should look for a cribbage board and some poker chips, too….. hmmm….

      2. Regarding Marica & Didi’s comment on Great Book of The Western World, I have read, and collected, the entire set printed by the Franklin Mint. Upon moving, for about the 45th time, I donated the majority to the local High School & Public Library, choosing to keep what I consider the most important, or those that contained info about the making & implementing of the great American experiment in rule by law. The collecting and passing on of knowledge is one of societies greatest attributes, whether that knowledge is agreeable or not. It is the tool that allows anyone to make the best choice for any given situation they may find themselves in……

  5. Once, when visiting family in rural PA we were helping aging parents downsize. We went to the recycling center to drop off cardboard and found a 10 yard covered dumpster there dedicated to recycling used, but unwanted books. These books were destined to go to the shredder. I was like a kid in a candy store. I climbed inside and found all kinds of treasure. I was not the only one, much to the distress of the volunteer worker who was trying to “protect” the valuable soon to be shredded assets for the township. I would have taken the entire dumpster if I could have. Then I had to figure out how to get the books back home on the plane. I love books. Books are among my best friends.

  6. Back in the 1950’s and ‘60’s, fundraising for kids groups (Scouts, Campfire, Church Youth Fellowship) used to include “paper drives.” This entailed carloads of kids, driven around town by parents, going to homes to collect bundles of newspapers and stacks of old books for recycling. I scored an old hardbound copy of “Don Quixote” as well as several other books that were old enough to be antiques back then. Still have them in storage somewhere, along with a few others I picked up over the years. I have hundreds (thousands?) of books stored away. As does my husband. And, of course, we are always on the lookout for more, both new and used. In fact, last year, we found an old book on shoe repair and a few months ago, DH found a hand powered shoe repair sewing machine for sale on Amazon. It is made in China, but if it gets to TEOTWAWKI, something is better than nothing, even if only to be used as a prototype to build another one.

    The new house will have a dedicated library with floor to ceiling bookshelves, at least 1 recliner, a large table with several chairs and a few freestanding bookcases. The architect asked me if we had a lot of books. Duh!

    I have never been able to donate or sell books, although I seem to recall gifting and loaning a very few over the years.

  7. As a lifelong bibliophile, I loved this article. 2 other items I would recommend are Pilgrim’s Progress, a standard work in early America; and Collier’s Junior Classics. That collection at my grandmother’s was a close childhood friend, and I still enjoy reading some of the stories from the volumes I was able to save (sadly, several were lost when my parents moved after retirement).

Comments are closed.