My book collection outgrew its allotted shelves a few years back despite my best efforts to control its growth by patronizing my local library and avoiding literary impulse buys.
Fortunately, the breaking point arrived just as my family geared up for a cross-town move. We gladly took the opportunity to donate dozens of hardbound and paperback books to local tax-exempt charities. Because we itemized our income tax deductions that year, we actually made a decent amount of money on the deal thanks to the federal tax deduction for eligible donations.
We were lucky to donate when we did. Following the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act’s expansion of the standard deduction, the vast majority of American taxpayers are better off taking the standard deduction than itemizing their deductions, eliminating any direct financial benefit from used-goods donations.
But even if our book donations hadn’t qualified for a federal income tax deduction, they would have been worth the trouble. By offloading about half the books we’d accumulated during our adult lives — books we knew we’d never open again — we rendered a freestanding bookshelf redundant and pocketed $50 from its sale ahead of our move.
We also freed up several boxes to transport essentials like kitchenware and clothing and brought considerably less clutter into our new home.
These days, we’re much better at controlling our literary carbon footprint thanks in no small part to digital solutions like Kindle and Audible. Nevertheless, our experience was educational. It turned us on to a host of local and national organizations that welcome used book donations — and use them better than we ever could.
Best Places to Donate Used Books
If you’re embarking on a decluttering campaign that necessitates some literary victims, you shouldn’t have any trouble finding legitimate organizations willing to accept your old books. Some operate physical shops or warehouses with drop-off locations, possibly within easy reach of your house, while others operate remotely and take books shipped by mail.
1. Your Local Library
Some local libraries and library systems accept used book donations. To find out whether your library or library system takes donations, visit its website and look for details on its donation policy.
Don’t assume your library takes used books — some major library organizations, like the Chicago Public Library system, do not accept unsolicited physical donations. Even if yours does, it might limit collection to annual or seasonal book drives. If your local public library doesn’t take donations, check with a local school library.
2. Your Neighborhood Little Free Library
If you have a modest number of books to offload, drop them off at a Little Free Library (or several) in your neighborhood. Little Free Library is a network of small drop boxes erected by regular people across the country where others are free to grab or donate their old books.
It’s an excellent way to recycle an old read of your own and pick up a new one while you’re at it. Just ensure the types of books you donate to the Little Free Library have mass reading appeal. These boxes aren’t the place for old manuals, college textbooks, or reference books. Save those for used bookstores, where you can trade them in for cash.
Use Little Free Library’s map function to find active locations near you, bearing in mind that most don’t have the capacity for dozens of new books at once.
If your neighborhood doesn’t have a Little Free Library and you’re willing to invest some time and money to start one, check out Little Free Library’s startup guide. The advantage of starting your own is the ability to seed it with as many of your old books as it can hold.
3. A School or Community Book Drive or Fundraiser
School groups and community organizations routinely sponsor book drives to raise funds, collect books for deserving recipients, or both. If you’re already involved with school-based organizations that could use books (or use books to raise funds), your donations will probably have the highest impact there.
Otherwise, look for nonprofit organizations in your area that collect and distribute books. One example is the Children’s Book Bank, a Portland, Oregon-based group that organizes book drives to supply reading material to lower-income families.
With these organizations, you may have to wait until they begin soliciting donations for seasonal book drive campaigns.
Freecycle is a loose network devoted to sensible reuse and free exchange. Because they’re cheap and plentiful, books are perennial objects of interest to Freecycle network members. If you live in an area with an active Freecycle community, you shouldn’t have any trouble finding multiple people to take old books off your hands.
Just don’t expect to be able to offload vast quantities of books here or claim a federal income tax deduction for your contribution.
5. Reputable Charities
Many nonprofit organizations accept used book donations.
Goodwill is one of the biggest, best-known nonprofit thrift store chains in the United States. If you live in or near a decent-size city, there’s a good chance you have a Goodwill within driving distance. Goodwill has an expansive, lenient donation policy that — at least with regard to books — doesn’t shift with the calendar. And donations to Goodwill are tax-deductible if you itemize.
The Salvation Army is another well-known mission-driven organization that accepts donations of all kinds. It operates a robust network of open-to-the-public thrift stores. As with Goodwill, donations to the Salvation Army are tax-deductible if you itemize.
But Goodwill and the Salvation Army aren’t the only reputable organizations in the game. Several other national or regional nonprofit organizations take used books and other household items, including the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, Vietnam Veterans of America, and Habitat for Humanity ReStores.
6. Local Faith-Based Organizations
If suitable national charities don’t have outposts in your area or you’d prefer to reward smaller faith-based organizations doing good work in the community, search for local congregations advertising book donations. As with school-sponsored book donations, you might need to wait for annual or seasonal drives to come around.
But if you plan to claim a tax deduction for your donation, confirm the recipient is a qualifying tax-exempt nonprofit organization. Most but not all faith organizations are.
7. Your Neighborhood Thrift Store
Dozens of local thrift store chains and hundreds of independent thrift shops operate in various corners of the country. Even if you’re not a seasoned thrift store shopper, you’re probably aware of the better-known spots in your city — and if not, a simple search can help you locate one.
Your local government also might have a master list of thrift stores that accept donations. I’ve used my home county’s Choose to Reuse map to plan my book-giving in the past. If you’re coming up short on ideas, try Savers — it’s one of the bigger U.S. thrift store chains, and it accepts books and other paper media.
8. Local Museums & Other Cultural Organizations
If any of your books have historical or cultural significance (beyond merely being classics), reach out to local museums, historical societies, higher-education institutions, and performing arts groups to gauge their interest. Such organizations collect books relevant to their areas of study or interest, both for the benefit of the general public and historical research. They’re more likely to take good care of valuable or notable books than mass-market thrift shops and charitable buyers too.
9. Prison Libraries & Literacy Programs
Do you want your old books to make a real difference in someone’s life? Try donating to literacy groups serving incarcerated populations, called books-to-prisoners programs. Use the Prison Book Program’s master list to find groups operating in your home state, such as Books Through Bars, which services Pennsylvania and the surrounding area.
Not all prison literacy organizations are tax-exempt nonprofit organizations, so check with potential recipients if you’re counting on a deduction.
10. Armed Forces Charities
Two literary charities serve soldiers and support personnel deployed overseas or housed in hospitals or rehabilitation facilities: Books for Soldiers and Operation Paperback.
Books for Soldiers collects and posts soldiers’ book requests for specific titles, which donors can then fill out of their personal collections. Operation Paperback has a more lenient donation policy and encourages donors to gather for collection drives and packing parties.
11. Domestic & International Public Literacy Programs
Countless public literacy organizations and programs serve vulnerable children and adults in the U.S. and abroad. Many domestic literacy organizations operate locally or regionally, which is nice if you aim to make a difference in your own corner of the world. For example, the Children’s Literacy Foundation primarily serves Northern New England, while Literacy Minnesota serves Minnesota and surrounding states.
If you’d prefer to support literacy initiatives overseas, look for international literacy organizations that accept physical book donations. Not all do, as the cost and logistical complexity of sorting and shipping books overseas is a lot to bear. And reputable organizations tend to have ample supplies of mint-condition books through publisher relationships.
However, some literacy organizations, such as Book Aid International, do encourage supporters to indirectly donate used books through community book drives or yard sales. They then contribute the financial proceeds to literacy initiatives abroad. But like most international literacy groups, Book Aid International only accepts direct donations of new, mint-condition books.
Donating used books is a win-win for donors and recipients. For donors, giving old books brings with it the satisfaction of a decluttering job well done and the knowledge the recipient organizations will get more mileage out of them. For recipients, old books can be a vital source of revenue or knowledge — or both, depending on the organization’s mission and purpose.
Donating old books has other benefits too, like reducing the donor’s carbon footprint and slowing the relentless growth of the planet’s landfills. Along with other sensible lifestyle changes, like eating less meat and purchasing ethical, sustainable clothing, swapping your physical volumes for digital versions could be one of the best things you do for the planet this year.