The 5 Best Places to Find Ephemera

Please welcome our guest blogger, book artist Rachel Hazell, aka The Travelling Bookbinder. Rachel, who is based in the U.K., creates stunning books with compelling narratives that often incorporate lovely ephemera: book text and illustration, vintage postcards and photographs, and timeworn maps. Don’t miss Rachel’s upcoming book project in the January/February 2018 issue of Cloth Paper Scissors. Read on to learn Rachel’s five best places to find ephemera! ~ Jeannine

You know how some people defiantly, confidently say, there’s no such thing as too many books? In my house, that applies to paper, too. Paper is a book artist’s main medium, so I’m always looking for new materials to work with. I get inspired by all the places I visit, and when I travel, I make a habit to search out ephemera whenever possible. Do you do the same? I’ve been working as a book artist and teaching workshops for 20 years, and taking students on ephemera hunts is one of my favorite pastimes. Here are my top five spots to find unusual, unique and affordable paper supplies. Please add your favorite places in the comments.

1. Second-hand bookshops: By definition, second-hand bookshops are the best places to look for interesting paper. If you’re ephemera hunting, please don’t enter the hallowed halls of an antiquarian bookseller looking for books to cut up. Instead, seek out shops where volumes are piled high, overflowing every surface, with only the haziest attempt at categorization. One such place is Brattle Book Shop in Boston, Massachusetts, which has open-air stalls and clearly marked prices on each stack—some books are as low as one dollar. Yes, please! Once you have filled your arms, there is floor upon floor of heaving shelves to peruse in the shop itself.

Second-hand bookstores, like Brattle Book Shop in Boston, Massachusetts, are great places to find books that can be repurposed. (All photos by Rachel Hazell)

Perhaps you’ve found a shop with a box jammed with poor hardbacks with their covers hanging off. Don’t show your excitement at the potential of these ragged pages. Control your breathing and casually inquire, “How much to take these off your hands?”

You’ll find all sorts of papers to repurpose. These heart shapes have been cut from old books and sailing charts. A dictionary has been ripped apart and is awaiting embellishment.

Book pages and other ephemera can be cut into shapes and used to embellish handmade books and mixed-media art.

I selected these images from an illustrated encyclopedia, carefully cut them out, and slipped them in to glassine envelopes. They will then be affixed to the pages of a limited edition with glue or stitch.

Lovely drawings like these, which come from a vintage encyclopedia, are perfect for illustrating your own story.

2. Thrift shops: The second most obvious place to find an eclectic variety of well-priced materials is the thrift store. Acquaint yourself with your local store and swing by regularly to assess any new stock. I go straight to the map section, looking for cloth-backed country maps and hard-back atlases, or even a spiral-bound road map. Then the manuscript shelf lures me with the promise of operettas with dramatic arpeggios or happy show tunes. And finally, I’ll see if there are any pocket dictionaries going for cheap. It’s very satisfying to know that your purchases will benefit others while you’re expanding your specialist supplies.

This was an especially good thrift shop haul of books that yielded lots of ephemera.

The tiny hearts in this little concertina were cut from a local map. I used an edge strip numbered with latitude lines as the base paper and sliced choice words from a novel with a scalpel.

Combining tiny bits of ephemera, such as book text and map scraps, create an interesting narrative for a handmade book.

3. Paint store: A quick, quiet heads up on the paint chip color chart! Please exercise discretion and restraint for this recommendation, and apologies in advance to paint manufacturers everywhere.

If you’re attracted to the order and repetition of bookbinding, the pleasing arrangement of graded tones on a color chart is going to be instantly attractive. Many paint retailers offer swatches of their range on strips of paper that you can take home to match your current project. Some companies give away samples presented in an accordion fold brochure, and describe each color so poetically that you cannot help but be inspired to make something!

Let paint color chart samples inspire your next creation.

4. Libraries: We all know that libraries are places to go for borrowing books, not appropriating them for artistic purposes. However, it’s not often mentioned that these institutions need to cull great numbers of books every year to make way for new collections. So how about making friends with a librarian and finding out what happens to these books, and whether you could acquire some in return for a donation? Some libraries also hold book sales, so check with ones in your area.

This juicy red selection came from The National Library of Scotland, which created a Christmas tree-shaped pile of unwanted books and let eager booklovers take a few away. An incredible amount of books get pulped: Do your duty and upcycle them!

Libraries deaccession books to make way for new ones; these were found at the National Library of Scotland.

I used some of the inherited library book pages to make hard covers for Coptic stitch-bound books. By simply drawing around significant words and painting atmospheric backgrounds, you’ll end up with unique and thoughtful work.

Highlighting a few well-chosen words on a book page helps establish your story.

5. Flea markets: Saving the best for last! Flea markets are a cornucopia of possibility for the book artist. Stalls heave with a diverse range of old and new books, from vintage instruction manuals and leather-bound biographies to contemporary guidebooks and shiny art monographs. Keep an eye out for these papery items: cartoons, knitting patterns, house plans—anything with good texture and fonts. Be prepared to rummage in dusty boxes. Every price can be negotiated, with smiles to help the transaction go smoothly. Visiting a stamp and paper market is the highlight of my annual Love Letters book art workshop in Paris. I found these gorgeous postage stamps in a battered glassine envelope and look forward to incorporating them in a correspondence-themed book.

Postage stamps are wonderful bits of ephemera that can add style, color, and meaning to your work.

Old photographs evoke nostalgia for past times. Each of these sepia portraits is the perfect starting point for developing a narrative. We don’t know these faces, so we can invent whole stories about where these characters lived and whom they loved.

Sepia photographs are easy to find at flea markets, and can be used in so many ways.

As part of my Paper Love e-course, I encourage my students to send mail art to each other all around the world. A personal message on a beautiful postcard is such a lovely gift to give. Sending holiday cards is an old-fashioned tradition that makes me happy to continue it. Imagine all the cards that have been sent around the world!

Old postcards evoke adventure, nostalgia, and can be used for mail art.

Fortunately for us, flea markets generally have at least one stand packed with rows and rows of postcards. If you’re lucky, they may have been sorted according to type, so you can flip through particular collections of bird’s nests or mountain scenes. Other stalls may have some scattered among bundles and piles, waiting for you to pick them out. Successful acquisitions rely on eagle eyes, patience, the determination to dig deep—and taking frequent café stops. Good luck!

Why settle for one postcard? Books of images focus on popular destinations such as Paris, Biarritz, and Bordeaux.

Rachel Hazell believes that everyone has a book inside them. She has been taking people on creative journeys for 20 years. Inspiring locations encourage exploration and discovery in real life, and her PaperLove and BookLove e-courses connect imaginations worldwide too. To see more of Rachel’s work and find out about her online classes, go to

If making books is your passion, read how artist Marcia Derse creates her handmade books using vintage ephemera and scraps from her studio.

Need more information on making handmade books? Check out these great resources!

The Folded Books and Paper Art: 14 Projects to Create eBook includes fantastic projects by top book and paper artists that show you how to transform paper into something extraordinary. Learn how to make graffiti journals, a wreath made from book pages, and more!
Discover ways to create books that are works of art in the eBook Book + Art by Dorothy Simpson Krause. See how to construct books from scratch and make beautiful altered books.


Blog, Handmade Books, Mixed-Media Techniques

8 thoughts on “The 5 Best Places to Find Ephemera

    1. Hi,and good question! There are many websites that are dedicated to information about public domain and copyright; if you do an Internet search no doubt you’ll find some great resources.

  1. I went to my Libriaries twice yearly booksale tonight. I got a huge old dictionary for a dollar. I head straight to the old books table and the old music books. I have have found some wonderful finds. Thanks for the ideas.

  2. Thank you for mentioning libraries as a source of cheap books. I work at a library where we have shelves of books for sale for .25 and often throw out so many books no one else wants that our local recycling plant refuses to take anymore. Now is a good time to look for these old books because libraries are downsizing in favor of online resources. Finally, don’t overlook book cloth and book board as raw materials for making your own books.


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