How to Declutter Some of the Hardest Things of All: Books

When you’re trying to declutter your home, there are always some easy wins. Old newspapers and a too-small sweater? Recycle one and donate the other to Goodwill. Done! But a French-language copy of “Madame Bovary” from college, or all those beloved “Nancy Drew” books from childhood? For book lovers, parting with these can be a whole lot harder.

“Books conjure good memories, and they’re conversation pieces—and, of course, they’re decorative,” says Mim King, a professional organizer at Mimkingworks. People stock up on books for airport waits, vacation, the morning commute, and to take to bed. “And sometimes we keep books to provide insight into our interests and personalities for people who might stop by,” adds King. Yup, we collect ’em to impress our guests.

Anyone can be book crazy, but people in certain professions tend to be prone to over-collecting, including teachers, professors, and writers, says Jacquie Denny, co-founder of Everything but the House, a full-service estate sale business. But how many is too many? Everyone has their own answer.

In Japanese, there’s even a term for accumulating big piles of unread books: tsundoku. 

If that’s you, it’s time to address those towering stacks. Don’t be that nutty book fiend! Here are six ways to declutter your tomes—and take back your home.

Create piles

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Reserve a couple of hours to pull your books off the shelf and onto the floor, say the organizing experts. Next, divide the lot into books you’ve never read, ones you have read but haven’t picked up since, and favorites with sentimental value, suggests Karen Gray Plaisted, of Design Solutions KGP. This last group is your “forever pile” and should be the smallest of the three.

Take a hard look at the books you’ve never opened. As with certain clothing items in your closet that still have the tags (!), if you haven’t cracked the spine in more than a year, chances are good you won’t anytime soon. As for the ones you did read, keep only those you can store easily and neatly.

Regift nearly new books

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Share the wealth! Dive into the pile of “never read” and gently used books to find the best ones. Nice-looking hardbacks and coffee table tomes with nary a smudge can be wrapped as gifts. Another way to regift a book is to think about who else in your circle might enjoy it.

“Include a note with each book explaining why it made you think of the person,” suggests King.

Donate a portion

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Got all three of the “Fifty Shades of Grey” books, or an unhealthy number of those Sue Grafton letter mysteries? Duplicates are obvious candidates for the donation pile, as are multiples on the same topic (think gardening or Italian cookbooks). But before you stuff them into plastic bags to donate, check the receiving organization’s fine print.

“Some places have a ‘no-book’ policy because they’ve received true trash—like moldy, musty, warped books—and the disposal costs them money,” reports Jamie Novak, author of “Keep This Toss That.”

Instead, consider thrift stores, consignment shops, or church groups that hold annual rummage sales.

“Check with your local library for info about their ‘Friends of the Library’ group, as they’ll take donations for an annual sale,” says Novak. Other donation spots include shelters, nursing homes, hospitals, and OperationPaperback, which sends books to American troops.

Pocket some dough

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Jeanine Boiko, a real estate agent and blogger at Okio B Designs, recommends hawking popular and vintage books online. “‘Harry Potter’ and ‘Hunger Games’ series can be sold on eBay or Mercari, and collectors love the ‘Bobbsey Twins’ and ‘Hardy Boys’ books,” she says. And don’t pitch college texts before checking or, adds Novak.

Easily sellable books also include those signed by the author, first editions, historic, and iconic pieces, says Denny. Don’t overlook your local secondhand bookstore, either. And if you’re planning a garage sale, price your books to move, says Boiko.

“Remember, you’re not trying to make a fortune–you just want to whittle your collection—so charge 50 cents per paperback and a dollar or two for hard covers,” she notes.

Go digital

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Limit the number of books you bring into the house by investing in a Kindle or other e-reader. You could also make an e-list of books you want to read on your phone or on Amazon, rather than buying actual copies, say the experts. Or if you already have the book but can’t find the time to read it, purchase the audio version. Once you listen to the story, parting with the hard copy is much easier, says King.

Adopt a mantra

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Establish a house rule for future purchases. It might be “Buy one, give one,” or you could commit to picking up only a certain number a year (say, 10) or only getting books from the library. No matter what you decide, stick to it for at least six months to see whether your new method makes a dent in your shelves.