How to Declutter, Upcycle, and Repurpose Your Old Books
Pamela Rafalow Grossman—Where Does This Belong?
Books are among the hardest things to get rid of. You want just about all of the many books you own—that’s why you own them, right? But there’s no denying that books take up a lot of space, and unless you’re lucky enough to have your own dedicated home library, you can only collect so many. Thankfully, if your bookshelves are sagging with the weight of your collection and it is time to let go, there are plenty of options—from amazing charities to weekend upcycle projects—to save those precious words from the landfill.
Most organization pros recommend starting any decluttering project with “keep” and “go” piles for a reason: Going through what you own with a critical eye makes it easier (and faster) to pare down. First, search for multiple copies of books in your collection—including the digital versions. Put the copy you’re less attached to in the “go” pile.
Next, organize your nonfiction books by topic to see where you have overlap. Ask yourself honestly: Are you going to read all your books on this topic? If the answer is no, pick your favorite one or two to keep, rather than holding on to four or five.
Finally, pass that critical eye over your fiction books. We know, we know: You’re going to read all of these one day. But if those books have been collecting dust for years, you’ll probably get more use out of the extra space. And remember: The library is your friend. Getting rid of a book does not mean you’ll never see it again. For the books you’re not sure you have to own, remember: The library is there for you.
You can resell your books in good condition. Amazon charges a $39.99 monthly subscription fee for professional selling accounts, but you can always use the individual seller account, which is free to use, but incurs a $0.99 fee per sale. Amazon allows users to trade in books for a store credit. Other sites like Bookscouter.com and AbeBooks.com are also worth exploring.
If a used book store near you buys titles, you can support a local business while pocketing a few bucks, too. But there are lots of creative, non-monetary ways to send your books on to a new life.
Help build your hyper-local community library
One of the easiest ways to rehome books is to donate them.
One such option is "little free libraries.” These lovely “houses” (about the size of a large bird house) provide sweet spaces for books to be taken and left freely. The website will get you started, with a map showing the LFL nearest you (there are now about 80,000 worldwide), guidelines on how to start your own, and even upcoming events within the LFL community. This year marks the 10th anniversary of the first LFL—so look out for bookish celebrations throughout 2019.
Brighten someone’s day
If there’s no LFL in your area, you can share your collection in other ways. I sometimes leave books in coffee shops, for example—where someone might especially hope to find one. I add a note saying “Enjoy,” so finders know the book’s up for taking. A related tip: The same goes for current magazines. Leave some behind at a café and you just might improve someone’s lunchtime. This goes double for doctors’ waiting rooms and the Department of Motor Vehicles.
If you want to register your books at BookCrossing.com, you can track its journey in the world via journal entries that other, fellow BookCrossers leave. The site lets you register your book; then you can track it as it’s picked up and given again and again. To date, the company says nearly 2 million people worldwide use the service to rehome books.
Build someone else’s library
You can also put those books to work doing good in the world. Lots of charities collect books for specific groups in need. For example, Books for Africa gathers books at its sorting site in Atlanta and ships them to rural African regions. There, they will fill the shelves of school libraries, adult-literacy centers, orphanages, and more, and help to address a severe book shortage in less-traveled areas. The organization prefers popular fiction and nonfiction, plus recent textbooks and reference books; see the website for other specifics of what they’re looking for.
The New York-based organization Books Through Bars sends donated books to incarcerated people nationwide. Check out similar programs in other states as well. As with any charity for a defined population, you should check the organization’s guidelines to see what kinds of books they most want. But even the quickest look at the “Letters” section of the Books Through Bars website will show you the profound importance a donation can have.
Local homeless shelters and hospital libraries will likely welcome your books as well. Contact them in advance to see what’s on their wish list.
Since there will always be new books you want, it makes sense to welcome them by getting rid of other books at the same time. That’s where online book swapping comes in. With PaperBack Swap, you list books you have available to send; when a site member requests one, you mail it to them and then can pick a book from the site’s huge list of offerings. BookMooch operates similarly, but with a point system, with users banking points from swapping their books to spend on other books from the site.
Sometimes bad things happen to good books: The baby rips pages; a coffee spill renders them illegible. If a book is ruined, you can still keep it out of the recycling bin by reincarnating it as a craft piece.
And the great news is you don’t have to be Martha Stewart to make something beautiful out of your old books. You can, for example, collage book pages onto a canvas to create a piece of art. You can decorate your book-canvas further once you’ve made it, but it also looks pretty cool unadorned.
Or if you want to find the words in your old books literally illuminating, you can decoupage passages from a book onto a candle votive. Use complete sentences from the book or arrange words to make your own message. Bonus: The creator of this project says it takes about five minutes.
If you’re feeling a little more handy, you can make a shelf out of a book. Put anything you want on the shelf, but “more books” seems a natural option.
With a little ingenuity, none of our beloved books ever need to end up in a landfill.