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    Book Buying: It’s That Time of Year Again

    August 3, 2010 by Brandy Vencel

    As much as I despise spending money, I adore buying books, even if I’m doing it in front of a computer screen from the comfort of my own home office. Purchasing a book is like having a promise made to our family–a promise of increased wisdom, of time spent reading aloud together, of adventure and magic.

    And so on.

    Were you a reader as a child? I was. I still remember the anticipation of opening a new (to me) book. I also remember the marked difference between a paperback book and its hardbound cousins. When I opened a hardback–especially if it was old and full of vintage illustrations–it felt like I was entering a fairyland of possibility.

    All of this is why, this year, I went about my school shopping a little bit differently than I have in previous years.

    Usually, I simply print out Ambleside’s list for the year, note any substitutions (none this year, thankyouverymuch), and search for the cheapest prices. This alone is not a simple process, and generally involves me with three or four tabs on my browser–Amazon, Half, and PBS are my favorites. I compare prices and editions. I compare used prices to new prices, while keeping an eye on the condition of the used volumes. And in the end I note what I believe to be the best buy in a spreadsheet which I create for this purpose every July.

    When the spreadsheet is complete, I organize it by website and make a purchase at each site on my list.

    This past year, however, I seem to have picked up a new skill. Somehow, I’m not really sure how, I learned to shop for old books. I don’t mean ugly old books. I mean real old books–the beautiful kind, embossed with gold, that speak to us of former days and call to us in a way that a brand new cheaply printed paperback–one that begins to fall apart upon its first opening because it is not intended to last through generations–cannot.

    It’s that “made-to-last” quality which became a new consideration. Some of the volumes I purchased for our first year of lessons have already acquired a frighteningly tattered appearance, and they are books which each of my students will be using for multiple years. Suddenly, those “more expensive” hardbacks are looking inviting, especially if they come from a publisher whose quality I know I can trust.

    Another perk with old books is that children instinctively care for them. I have seen careless children handle my old books with reverence–especially when I say, “Do you know that this book is a hundred and thirty years old?” Their eyes grow wide; anything over a century seems an eternity “because God,” as my five-year-old says, “just made me.” Some children hold an old book and realize that it is something which many hands have handled over the years, hands which are now dust. They realize that it is the book which remains when we are gone.

    An old book forces the reader into the stream of history in a way crisp paperback reprints do not.

    Not that I’m against crisp paperbacks. Aesthetics, though, demand an antique hardback in good condition whenever it is a viable option, do they not?

    But something else factored into my purchases this year: the low prices on good copies of ancient hardbacks. I found a copy of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass: Complete in One Volume from the 1930s in good condition for less than ten dollars including shipping–the same cost of a new paperback that will be falling apart in a year. I actually imported my copy of Charlotte Yonge’s  Unknown to History: A Story of the Captivity of Mary Queen of Scots from the U.K. because, even with shipping, it was ten dollars cheaper than the paperback copy I found, and it is, again, a hardbound copy, published by MacMillan (very respectable) in 1924.

    I even picked up a couple first editions from a London bookseller who shipped them to me for free.

    Don’t get me wrong. I am not a rich woman. When given the choice between a ten dollar paperback and a thirty dollar collectible, I’m going with the paperback unless it’s a special occasion. The mistake I’ve made in the past, however, is not checking the prices on the collectibles. I just assumed that old books cost a lot of money, that if I wanted a beautiful library, I was going to be expected to pay money I didn’t have.

    This, however, has not proven to be the case. The vast majority of the time, I find that the old hardbacks–in decent condition, even–are listed at comparable or even superior prices than the new paperbacks.

    This thrills me to no end. You know why? Because I’m not just buying books for Ambleside. Rather, I am building a family library. I want our collection to be an heirloom, to be a treasure chest for our grandchildren. Our bookshelves line the entry hallway to our home, and when folks come into our home, I hope they leave with a desire to read truly good books.

    Old books beckon to my heart. They always have. I will forever hold a picture in my heart of, for instance, the copy of Milton’s Paradise Lost from my hometown’s little library, something I read one summer in high school. I don’t remember the text at all, but I remember the cover, the feel of the weight of the book in my hands, the emotion as I read an exact copy that many others had read before I found it, buried and forgotten upon an old library’s old shelves.

    Good books ought to be weighty, don’t you think?

    To those of you who have been shopping Amazon though my sidebar, I thank you. You have helped buy my children’s school books once again. This year, though, if you are at all inclined, might I tempt you to shop the used section? Be careful, of course. Make sure the condition is “good” or “very good” and read the descriptions carefully. But who knows? You just might save a couple bucks, while placing in your child’s hands a beautifully hardbound, embossed first edition of Daugherty’s The Landing of the Pilgrims.

    I sure did.

    Other Places to Shop for Beautiful Antique Copies:
    Abe Books
    Lanier’s Books

    Disclaimer: It is out of pure goodwill that I offer these three suggestions.

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  • Reply Brandy Afterthoughts August 12, 2010 at 9:16 pm


    I would LOVE a gorgeous old copy of the Bird Book! I’d like to know the details of your edition. I don’t know about you, but I am just amazed at how reasonably priced old books can be. I got a first edition (1901!) of Children of the New Forest (for Year 3) yesterday for less than $5 including shipping. So much better than buying it new. 🙂


    Thanks for your kind comment. And, more importantly: welcome to Ambleside! I hope you richly enjoy your first year of it. 🙂

  • Reply Monica August 12, 2010 at 5:16 pm

    Hi Brandy,

    First, I just want to thank you for blessing me IMMENSELY with your blog! I have just recently discovered it and just wish I could sit and read it from the beginning! I am new to CM and AO this year with my two kiddos (10 and 7) and we are all so excited to begin this adventure!
    All this to to tell you how much I also love discovering rich, old books myself. I browse through our library’s little store, garage sales, curriculum sales and I just get plain giddy when I find a book that I have been either looking for or looks like it could be “living”!!
    Sorry for my run-ons and such. I am just not a great writer! But you are!!!!!!!
    I don’t know if you show the spreadsheet that you mention has your plans but if you do, would you be willing to email me a sample? I am going to print out your Circle Time and implement it this year as well.
    Thank you again!

  • Reply Kimbrah August 9, 2010 at 2:24 pm

    It’s so funny that you posted on this. The same thing occured to me this year after we checked out an absolutely GORGEOUS old copy of the Burgess Bird Book for Children from the library. When it was finally time for the book to go back I decided that we had to have a copy for ourselves just like it. I was able to find one on Amazon which cost much less than any of the newer copies. The boys do treat it with reverence. Thanks for posting about this and giving me more sources to find beautiful books! 🙂

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