The Controversial Thing I Buy Thrifted to Save Money in Every Room

published Feb 20, 2024
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an apartment living room featuring a glass coffee table with books stacked underneath
Credit: Dana Buckhorn

Sometimes art is the centerpiece of the room. It’s the idea that inspires the color palette, the furniture, and everything else. Other times, it’s a finishing touch, one of those last few details that pull the space together. 

And in those latter cases, finding art can be tough. You can spend months trying to figure out the perfect original piece, only to find yourself wondering how you’ll spend an entire paycheck on one work, or spending hours scrolling through online marketplaces trying to find affordable art prints. It can take a whole lot of time and effort to find something beautiful to fill that blank space.

But I’ve found a solution. One that makes my wall art feel curated and cohesive, but it doesn’t take forever to source or cost more than I’m comfortable spending: coffee table books

While decorating a bedroom a few years ago, I came across a coffee table book that had exactly the right aesthetic for a room with blue-and-white ticking and secondhand wood furniture. The book was filled with ship prints from the early 1900s, and it was absolutely falling apart. I know tearing up a book is controversial, but for this relic, there was simply no salvaging it (at least not on my budget). But I had the $3 the book cost, an idea, and a blank wall.

Credit: Heather Bien

The pages of this book were holding a treasure trove of prints that perfectly matched the color palette and aesthetic of my room — muted blues, browns, slightly nautical — but they felt more special than going to the internet, typing in “ship print,” and seeing what would come up.

Finding these felt special, like they’d come from their own ship wreck of sorts (truly, that’s what the thrift store’s book section looked like). They had a story. There’s even an inscription on the front page, left behind from whoever originally gifted the book years before. And though they were lovely in book form, sometimes the best part of thrifting is giving your pre-owned find a new life by turning it into something else. 

Paired with a menagerie of secondhand frames collected from various thrift shops, I carefully cut out pages and matched each print to a frame and mat that seems custom made before hanging them on my wall. This book hack has not made filling my home with art so much cheaper, but it’s given each piece an interesting story that I’m always happy to tell guests who ask. 

Credit: Heather Bien

Here’s the key to making the coffee table book as art trick work: Try to find something original. Sure, you could buy the latest trending photography book and frame those pages as a cheaper alternative to buying the artist’s prints. But where’s the fun in that? Instead, look for something old, something quirky, something where the pages have been turned so many times they’re falling off the spine. 

Not only will you save money when you rescue one of these old books from the dollar section at the thrift store, you’ll also find something that no one else has. The end result is something that looks as if it’s been hunted down in the dusty back aisles of a small town antique store, but in the best possible way. And only you will know you found this original art for pennies on the dollar.