How to Clean Books From the Thrift Store: The Ultimate Guide

How to Clean Books from Thrift Store

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Thrift stores are the perfect place to pick up bargain books that you can resell for massive profit. However, aging books at thrift stores can often be damaged and soiled.

In this article, I’ll explain how to clean books from the thrift store that have the following types of damage:

  • Dust
  • Smudges and pencil marks
  • Grimy leather covers
  • Soiled and stained fabric covers
  • Mold
  • Strange smells
  • Insect damage

To learn a variety of specific techniques for cleaning books from the thrift store, read on.

Dust removal

Dust is one of the most common causes of damage to old books. Apart from triggering breathing difficulties in people with Asthma, dust can be messy and damage whatever it touches. As far as books are concerned, the acidic nature of the dust will also slowly degrade the paper and lead to permanent damage to the book.

Before attempting any deeper cleaning techniques, you should remove all loose dust from your book. You can do this with a combination of blowing, dusting, and wiping the dust clear of the pages. Remember not just to dust the outside, but to clean between all the pages and inside the covers.

Use a dry paintbrush or a soft toothbrush to help remove the most stubborn dust. A vacuum cleaner can also be used to help remove dust. However, most modern vacuum cleaners can be too powerful. To make vacuuming safe for your book, wrap some clean cloth over the nozzle to help reduce the airflow.

You can use document cleaning pads to help work out some of the worst offending dirt. Squeeze them over the dust in question, then carefully brush it off using a paintbrush or soft toothbrush.

Smudges and pencil marks

The best way to remove smudges and pencil marks is with soft art gum erasers (available on Amazon). Do not use pencil erasers as these are very abrasive and will damage the paper.

Slowly rub the art gum back and forth over the smudge or pencil marks in one direction only. If you notice any damage to the paper itself starting to appear, stop.

While this process may be a little slow and time consuming if you wish to clean every page, the results are worth it. If you are careful and are cleaning books in relatively good condition, you can perform this task while watching the TV.

Leather covers

The leather used on book covers is very similar to the leather used to make shoes, albeit thinner. Cleaning a leather book cover can be performed in a similar way to polishing shoes.

Using a soft clean cloth, apply a small amount of polish, then slowly rub it in. Test a small part of the corner first to make sure the ink does not react or come off with the particular polish you are using.

Some ancient leather books may be suffering from red rot. If the cover is crumbling, your book is probably infected. Cellugel is the chemical of choice for stabilizing a rotting cover.

If you suspect your cover is actually vellum instead of leather, then do not attempt to clean it at home. If the book is worth saving, take it to an expert.

Soiled and stained fabric covers

Fabric covers are a little harder than leather covers to clean well. Fabric naturally attracts dust and soaks up moisture. It is, therefore, the perfect breeding ground for mold.

The safest way to clean a fabric cover is to use art gum again in a similar fashion to how you clean pages. Slowly rub in one direction.

For particularly stubborn grime, you may use a minimal amount of fabric softener on a damp cloth. If you do this, ensure you let the book dry entirely before returning to the bookshelf.


Mold is one of the worst things to affect a book, as it can cause serious health risks to humans. Breathing in mold spores is particularly dangerous and can lead to lung-related illnesses.

If your book has serious mold issues and is of little value, you should throw it away. For more valuable books, or minor cases, the following techniques can be attempted to remove the mold:

  • Remove any obvious mildew with a brush or clean cloth.
  • A tiny dab of denatured alcohol may help. But make sure it is completely dried afterward. As with leather polish, test a tiny corner first.
  • Use wax paper to protect the rest of the book if cleaning with alcohol.
  • Hydrogen peroxide can also be used to help clean mold away.
  • Following mold removal, place the book inside a container of activated charcoal for a half a day. This should help remove the final odors. Of course, be careful not to get the charcoal on the book itself.

Strange smells

Strange smells and odors are often associated with mold. To help remove the smell, you should place the book inside a container that also contains odor removing compounds. Common compounds to use are rice or cat litter. To avoid damaging the book, place the compounds inside a fabric bag or sock.

Another option is to place the book on top of a newspaper with a light dusting of talcum powder.

Activated charcoal can also be used in a similar way for removing and killing mold.

Insect damage

One of the worst infections a book can suffer is an insect infestation. Bugs such as book mites can destroy a book given long enough.

There are several ways to kill the bugs:

  • Freezing. That’s right; you can stick your book in a freezer bag inside the freezer and freeze the bugs to death. Leave the book in for a week to make sure all bugs and their eggs are dead.
  • Pesticides. Extra care needs to be used when using any chemicals. Reactions with the paper and ink will be unknown, so apply a small spot test in a corner to make sure no unexpected reaction occurs. If you are sure the pesticide will not damage the book, place the book inside a container. Make sure it is standing upright with the pages open. Spray in the pesticide. After giving it some time to settle, remove the book and air it well. You can then brush away any remaining bus.
  • Physical removal. Some larger pests, such as bed bugs, can be physically removed using tweezers and a magnifying glass. This can be a prolonged and difficult process, but it’s worth it if the book is valuable.

Whichever method you choose, bug killing is one of the harder book cleaning techniques. If the book is not worth much or not particularly special, you may be better to throw it away than risk infecting your other books following an incomplete clean.

Final thoughts

Books become damaged when not cared for properly. Like buying a second-hand car, you never know where a thrift shop book has been and how its previous owners have treated it.

Unless a potential buy is of significant value or uniqueness, books with obvious signs of mold or bug infestation should be avoided.

Sometimes taking a risk on a valuable book is what brings in the most profit. So if you do end up with such a high-price but damaged book, follow these handy tips to restore it to tip-top condition.

Steve Rajeckas

Hi! I'm Steve. I've been selling books using Amazon's fulfillment service for more than two years. I love learning new things about the online bookselling world, and I hope my tips help you build and expand your own bookselling business.

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