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Book Smart

In this world of excess where all of us end up spending money on things we don’t need, and racking up credit card debt to do it, why not think twice about your luxury purchases? I know when I go on a shopping spree, I always feel better about myself if I come to my senses surrounded by stacks of books instead of a circle of clothes and shoes (there’s really no room left in my closet).

In addition to feeling less guilty because my purchases had some self-improving qualities, I also get to feel a little virtuous about saving money. Do the math. A movie costs my boyfriend and me $14 dollars and lasts less than 2 hours. A new paperback book costs about the same, and can provide a good 12 hours or more of entertainment, for each of us. AND if I can find a good used copy, I can double the value.

So, whether you’re trying to while away the cold winter months here in Iowa (please no record ice or snow this year) or are looking for just the right Christmas gifts for friends and family, consider all of your book buying options.

Used Book Stores

You’ll have to indulge me for a moment, but I really don’t think any shopping experience quite matches the feeling I get from browsing aimlessly through a used book store, especially one with floor to ceiling shelves and unexpected nooks and crannies. Make the building a turn of the century house, like Iowa City’s Haunted Bookshop and I’m a goner. I know I’m an English major and a writer, but I’m pretty sure others can relate.

Local used books stores you can explore, include:

The Haunted Bookshop
520 E. Washington St.
Features 25,000 used, rare, out of print and antiquarian titles and two resident cats. Look for their section of $1 hardcovers and $.50 paperbacks. They donate all the proceeds from these books to Iowa City’s Local Foods Connection, which helps needy families obtain fresh food from local farmers.

Murphy-Brookfield Books
219 N. Gilbert St.
Specializes in scholarly used books in the Liberal Arts.

Northside Book Market
203 N. Linn St.
Includes a music shop, Real Records. Ask how you can help them contribute to the local homeless shelter.

The Book Shop
608 S. Dubuque St.
Boast more than 350,000 titles, free want-list maintenance and book-finding service.

Online Shopping

Of course, maybe you’ll want to forgo this unique atmosphere and shop in the comfort of your own home. Don’t worry; you’re not the only one. According to a recent Nielsen report, over 875 million consumers have shopped online (up 40 percent in two years) and books are one of the most popular online purchases.

Sites like Half.com, Amazon.com and Powells.com feature quality used books from wholesale dealers and ordinary folks like you and me.

Note to students: If you’re blindly buying all of your textbooks at the University bookstore without looking for cheaper copies online, maybe you deserve to eat Ramen noodles for every meal. Just look up the ISBNs to make sure you’re getting the right edition. These sites are also a great way to get some return on your investment at the end of the semester.

Online Swapping

No matter how much of a bibliophile you are, we all have that shelf of books that just didn’t do us right. That we hold no emotional tie to because they didn’t touch us the way our favorite books can. That we bought as pure escapist fiction and have no intention of rereading.

Might I suggest a little site called Paperbackswap.com? This is my favorite personal find of the year. It’s literally a resource readers can use to swap hardcover and paperback books with each other. You simply sign in, post at least 10 books you’re willing to swap and you’re all set.

As the homepage explains, “Every time you mail a book to another member, you can request one for yourself from over 2.5 million.” There are no fees involved, and the only related expense is the postage you pay when someone requests a book on your list. The site has sophisticated searching and wish list capabilities and is always adding more user-friendly options to the mix, such as the ability to purchase preprinted postage for any books you send.

Mail a book. Get a book. Any book you request is yours to keep, share or swap. No late fees. No processing charges. No hidden charges. Every time you mail a book to another member, you can request one for yourself from over 2.5 million.

According to the club’s summer press release, “over 2 million books have been swapped successfully through the U.S. mail with an average of over 35,000 book swaps each week.” Given the site upgrades and recent good press (I heard about it on NPR), I’m sure these numbers are climbing. They’ve also included the sister sites SwapaCD.com and SwapaDVD.com for those looking to change up their electronic library.

Speaking of Electronic Libraries . . .

While they certainly tarnish some of the romance of reading, Kindle electronic readers are nifty gadgets for frequent travelers. No longer do you have to lug two book around in your carry-on (the one you’re in the middle of and a back up in case you finish the first).

Your flight delayed indefinitely? No problem. Simply take out your Kindle, purchase and download a book or popular U.S. newspaper instantly with your wireless connection (just like an iPod), and start reading. In the beginning, the Kindle library was a little sparse, but they’re adding new books every day and now have more than 190,000 titles.

Like most new media players, the Kindle itself is a bit of an investment (currently selling for $359 on Amazon.com). However, my friend who’s on the road nearly 100 days a year for work swears by hers. It’s lighter and thinner than a paperback and has a high-resolution screen that she insists is easier on the eyes than real paper.

Economy of scale is the real appeal of this device. With space for over 200 titles at a time, the Kindle could reduce most of my personal library to a memory card! And just think how many trees would have been spared if I’d acquired all of my books electronically to begin with. Maybe it doesn’t have the satisfying weight, smell or kinesthetic pleasure of turning pages in a nicely bound hardcover, but I’ll admit it does eliminate clutter. This may be the wave of the future, but I think I’ll stay stuck in the past on this score.

Area Public Libraries

Now if you’re looking for yourself and don’t have a compulsive need to underline text or make notes in the margin, public libraries are a convenient way to find free reading material. Area libraries also have a wide variety of audiobooks for those long trips home to see family over the holidays.

What’s more, these audiobooks are downloadable and will play on most laptops and some MP3 players. (Some library software used is NOT currently compatible with any Apple devices.) Most audiobooks have a limited shelf life and “expire” when your typical check-out period ends. However, some can be burned to CD for your convenience.

To get a new audiobook without even leaving the house, all you have to do is visit a library’s website (www.icpl.org and www.crlibrary.org for two examples), download the free software and type in the number on your library card. While audiobooks don’t provide the ultimate book lover’s experience, they certainly serve a purpose, just like any other form of storytelling.

And storytelling is one way I hope to combat this year’s cold Iowa winter. As I write this, we’ve yet to get a heavy snow and I haven’t even had to scrape ice off my windshield. I guess this calm before the storm has me fearing for the worst. For the last couple months, I’ve been collecting a stack of to-be-read books at little to no cost. So when that first blizzard hits, I can curl up on the couch with a good book and my favorite blanket or three. Whether you’re planning on doing the same or looking for some thoughtful Christmas gifts, I wish you luck!

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