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Oh, My Aching Shelves: Offloading Books

February 6, 2014

Many books

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We all know people who consider discarding books a criminal act, but many of us are desperate to edit our overcrowded shelves. Herewith, the My Little Bird guide to donating, selling, trading or simply giving away hardbacks and soft-covers. In addition to acquiring extra living space, you’ll be keeping books out of the landfill and maybe walking away with a few dollars or a tax write-off.

There are two things to remember before the first books leave your house: Do your homework to learn whether you’ve got a valuable first edition or something that sells for one cent on Amazon.com (really). And always call before you haul, to make sure the recipient actually wants what you’ve got, whether it’s 150 romance novels or your college physics texts.

Let’s be good souls and start with donations.  My favorite non-profit is Books for America, which serves disadvantaged urban and rural populations, from homeless shelters to Indian reservations. It runs a retail shop near Dupont Circle (1417 22nd Street NW
, 202-835-2665) to help finance its programs. Drop-offs are accepted there and at the Virginia distribution center (3829 Pickett Road
, Fairfax, 703-323-0152). If you have more than 50 items and live in the District, Northern Virginia or Bethesda/Chevy Chase, request a pick-up. The website lists what is needed (books, of course, plus DVDs, digital cameras, cellphones and other electronics) and what is not (ancient school texts).

Goodwill Industries lists books among the “five things you should donate this spring” and specifically mentions cookbooks and kids books; contact your local Goodwill store to ensure it accepts books. The Salvation Army also takes them for resale. You can schedule a pickup for a large load, or drop smaller quantities at the nearest SA thrift store.

Some public libraries in Maryland, Virginia and the District take books, which they sell to supplement their budgets.

Another lovely non-profit is the Lantern. Since 1977, Bryn Mawr College alumnae have supported this Georgetown bookstore (3241 P Street NW, 202-333-3222). The shop’s give-away etiquette guide is close to universal so apply it to book donations to all recipients: intact and sturdy; free of dust, mold, food, insect residue, highlighting and margin notes.

The area also boasts several good for-profit used bookstores, but don’t think you’ll get rich off your sale. I recently took six boxes packed with hardcovers and paperbacks to Wonder Book in Gaithersburg (15976 Shady Grove Road, 301-977-9166) and left with a whopping $12 check, which may not have covered my gas. On the other hand, I stumbled upon a neighboring salon/barber shop that takes walk-ins and got a terrific $15 haircut, so it more or less worked out. Check the Wonder Book website for locations in Frederick and Hagerstown.

Second Story Books has a presence near Dupont Circle (2000 P Street NW, 202-659-8884) and in Rockville (12160 Parklawn Drive, 301-770-0477). The Maryland warehouse store has occasional free appraisal days, for up to five items per person; the next is on March 29 from 10 am to 2 pm.

 We are a region of readers, and lucky to have a couple of terrific annual sales held by groups that take donations. To find upcoming events, check Book Sale Finder, which covers the entire country,  state by state.

The Associates of the American Foreign Service Worldwide run one of the best in the area. Each fall, in October, these former diplomats hold a wildly popular Art&BookFair at the State Department. Email bookfair@aafsw.org or call 703-820-5420 for donation and pick-up info.

The Holton-Arms School used book sale in Bethesda is held in late summer on the campus (7303 River Road, 301-365-5300)
, to benefit students and the alumnae association.

Another well-known book event is the used-book sale at Stone Ridge School of the Sacred Heart (9101 Rockville Pike, Bethesda, 301-657-4322, x 372 ). Its upcoming (and final) sale is April 11-14.  March 10 is the last day donations will be accepted.

Eco-friendly groups such as Earth 911 in Fairfax have placed drop-boxes throughout the county, so consult its handy web map, showing where you can deposit unwanted books 24/7.

Lest you give away something worth hundreds, if not thousands of dollars, check with the experts to learn whether you possess valuable volumes. One easy-to-use website is the New York-based Rare Book Buyer.

If you’ve got a large collection, local auction house like Quinn’s Auction Galleries (360 South Washington Street, Falls Church, 703-532-5632) or Sloan’s and Kenyon in Bethesda (7034 Wisconsin Avenue, 301-634-2330) may dispatch an appraiser, and then arrange to take your books for an upcoming sale.

If the books don’t seem especially rare but are big and glossy, check prices on Amazon.com or Alibris.com because sometimes they go for way more than their original retail value and sometimes they’ll bring mere pennies on the dollar.

College texts can be tricky to unload, especially if they are old. Campus bookstores are a good place to start for current materials. The University of Maryland and George Mason University  offer up to 50 percent of the purchase price at semester’s end. There are also freestanding websites, such as Sell Back Your Book.

Just remember, the older the books, the harder to sell.

If all you have is garden-variety popular fiction and non-fiction, hold a yard sale. But remember, most folks won’t pay more than a buck or two for a hardback and 50 cents for a soft-cover book.  You can ask more for coffee-table books, though you may not get your price. Advertise Craigslist’s book section,  or leave them outside, listing them under free stuff.  If you belong to a local Freecycle group, spread the word there as well.

There are other giveaway strategies, the sweetest of which may be the nationwide move to put up a “little free library” in every neighborhood. The “libraries” resemble birdhouses and are stocked with books to take or swap.

My condo building has a table in the basement for recycling books and magazines. Recent offerings ranged from Proust’s “Remembrance of Things Past” to 35 different Dick Francis racetrack mysteries.

My pal Cathryn stacks unwanted books by her front door. No guest can leave her home without one.

Share your best recycling [AnythingPopup id=”2″] strategies. Mother Earth and My Little Bird will thank you.

– Annie Groer



2 thoughts on “Oh, My Aching Shelves: Offloading Books

  1. Bonnie Schloss says:

    Yes, all the libraries around town take book donations but the Friends of the Library, Montgomery County have 3 incredible bookstores. The one in the basement of the Wheaton library is my favorite, it’s huge. If you go to donate, you’ll probably come away with as many books as you left off, if not more. The prices are incredible and anything to benefit the library is great thing, especially for those of us still reading off paper.
    http://www.folmc.org/bookstores/

  2. LouDC says:

    This is wonderfully thorough. I would just add that Hardy Middle School has created a library for students and would very much appreciate hardbound age-appropriate books for their inventory. You can drop them off at the main office with a note “for the library”.

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