Here's how it happened: I'm trying in vain to get comfortable sitting on the floor, holding an infant with one hand and trying to stop a toddler from pulling every last thing out of my overstuffed diaper bag with the other. I'm simultaneously racking the deep recesses of my memory for the words to I'm a Little Teapot. Then I look up and realize, "This place is full of books! Lots of books!"
It was in the middle of Little Tots Story Hour when I realized I'd been missing a lot by ignoring my local library. I'd strayed from my library ways years ago, as a young professional with less time than money. When I wanted a book, I wanted it immediately, without deadlines for returning it or waiting lists to endure.
But now, I've rediscovered the wonders of libraries. Between our town library and the county system, I can get pretty much any book I want, when I want it. If it's not available here, I can get it in a few days from a vast interlibrary loan network. I've rarely waited for a book, and a shelf full of Harry Potters (in Spanish and French, too) shows the library knows how to meet demand.
I don't even have to go to the library to see if a book's available. I can search the catalog online, put a hold on a book to make sure no one snatches it before me, then go pick it up. I even get an email from the county library the day before my book's due. (If only these people could organize my bill-paying deadlines, too!)
I've become particularly enamored with the fact that I can flirt with a book without commitment. I check it out, skim it over, and take it back if I don't like it. It doesn't cost me $10 or more to buy the book or an hour at the bookstore hemming and hawing over my decision.
My libraries don't limit themselves to books, either. I've perused pretty sizable collections of music, books on tape, and movies. I can skim through all the latest style magazines without having to fork out a small fortune for the 30 minutes it takes to catch up on the latest in moisturizers and celebrity gossip. All that, and a very entertaining story hour.
Articles on keeping budgets lean and mean often tell you how you can save a bundle by skipping the bookstore and heading for the library. But hanging out at the library has also made me look at the equation another way -- using the library means you don't have to limit your access to a universe of knowledge just because your budget is tight.
Bargains when you want to buy
Of course, there are always books you want to buy, own, and read over and over. For those, you don't necessarily have to pay full price. You have more options than ever to buy new and used books at a discount. A little online comparison shopping can turn up some serious bargains.
If you'd rather give your business to independent booksellers, you'll find many of them online, too. A number of them are grouped together at BookSense.com, or you can look up a local shop through the American Booksellers Association.
Looking for a classic? You might find the entire thing at your fingertips at The Online Books Page or Page by Page Books, to name a couple. And if you don't have a computer at home, that's just another reason to head for the library -- you can probably use one there.
See how other Fools are giving thanks:
Want something for nothing? Try the Motley Fool Green Light service free for 30 days. It promises $450 in money-saving ideas each month.
Fool contributor Mary Dalrymple has two library cards, but she doesn't own stock in any company mentioned in this article. She welcomes your feedback. eBay and Amazon.com are Stock Advisor recommendations. The Motley Fool has a bookish disclosure policy.