Shelf Improvement

By Les Firestein   |   April 23, 2020
Neutrals are popular for those who like their books in a scene but not heard (photo by Juniper Books

With plenty of extra time on my hands thanks to social distancing, I’m doing what millions of Americans are doing: reimagining my home office. Because quarantine is a great time to fixate on that which you control (or perceive you control).

Sketching out a new blueprint, I asked myself: do we really need all these bookshelves? Which naturally lead to the subsequent question: in the Twitter ‘20s, do we really need books?

As a conveyance for knowledge, books have had a recent coronavirus surge, but a generally bad run. For example the Mueller Report, as we all know, was quickly remaindered and went largely unread even by jurists. The Mueller tome was the Patriot Act redux – something few read till after its relevance had already passed.

A Google search confirms that in the short-attention-span Internet Age, long-term book readership is down. Though perhaps ironically book sales are actually way up for a new cottage industry that treats books purely as decoration.

The perfect re-use for those Restoration Hardware catalogs you feel so guilty about (Art Quote Stack 4 Piece Decorative Book Set, E. Lawrence LTD via

Specifically, books are finding new life the same way CDs and DVDs found new life as beer coasters. Not their intended purpose but, hey, beggars can’t be choosers.

Everyone you’d suspect has weighed in on books-as-décor and the response has been overwhelmingly positive. Martha Stewart favors bookshelf styling – as do the readers of Reader’s Digest. That’s a pretty wide socio-economic swath. Meaning that in the world of home decor, bookshelf styling has become accepted practice. Functional bookshelves, on the other hand, are pretty much “out.”

Joanna Gaines of Magnolia fame, who made farm fashionable again, says she loves using books in home design. Gaines says books “make the perfect pedestals for candles.” Really? So the perfect base for an open flame… is a dried out stack of paper? Smokey the Bear might not approve.

Gaines elaborates that another thing she loves about books is they “look great on shelving.” Who would have guessed the perfect companion for bookshelves… would be books? It’s almost as if they were made for each other.

Sprouting up all over are websites dedicated only to “shelfies” like #bookstagram and, please act surprised, Gwyneth Paltrow makes use of a “bibliophile to the stars” named Thatcher Wine who has given an actual Ted Talk on the value and pleasures of books… but not as literature, rather as décor.

Mr. Wine, in fact, has a very pretty website named “Juniper Books,” where he opines the perfect ratio of shelfology is two thirds books to one third things, although Magnolia definitely cautions against “overcrowding.”

Remember when there was a thing called travel? Your bookshelf does. (Vintage Hotel Label Decorative Book, E. Lawrence LTD via

Other websites get much more in the weeds about the spacing of books and objects and their commensurate critical geometries, not to mention the importance of staying consistent within a color palette. Executed perfectly your bookshelf should look like something by Joseph Cornell meets a monochrome construction by Louise Nevelson.

A deeper internet search reveals that DIYers can buy books by the foot or by the yard or by the pound. One can specify only Japanese books if that’s your preference. In fact the Japanese even have a word Tsundoku which is the art of buying books and never reading them. Who knew that was an “art”? And here I thought I was just lazy.

Furthermore, as you curate your book covers, you can specify hardback or soft, linen covers or leather, and choose your vintage of book as if a fine wine. Books can have their original covers, or be re-covered to look like and say whatever you want (nonsensical Latin is way popular on Wayfair). Of course your books can also say nothing at all – and even face backwards which is a “thing.” Book organization has become much easier now that what’s between the covers has become immaterial.

Neutrals are literally flying off the shelves but rose gold and silver lamé, ie “glam” (or glamé), are popular too. You can also pick titles in a preferred font like “deco,” NYTimes helvetica which has sort of a retro industrial chic. And of course there’s the always popular Mid Century which today is known as “Mad Men” font.

A really popular trend on Pinterest is “curating” books by color, especially in the “hombre” color pattern, as if styled by Billie Eilish.

Black is the most common book cover and therefore the least expensive, the going rate for noir is about 13 bucks a foot. On the other hand, trendy colors (sea foam, robin’s egg) and “colors of the year” as marketed by paint companies go for much more money – 80 bucks a foot and up.

Some of the more interesting book arrangements I saw for sale were “oat & melon,” pumpkin spice (it isn’t just for Starbucks anymore), and “buttercream” which looked very Anthropologie and for which the website Chairish is asking $275 for 21 inches of books – but in all fairness, the books come bound in a frayed piece of actual twine, which at that price, presumably once adorned the end of Ben Franklin’s original kite.

This seems to be wallpaper. Even better – nothing to dust. (Secret Bookcase Instant Library Wallpaper by

Other popular Chairish configurations are a “chocolate wall of books” for $849 (before shipping) or a denim wall of books also for $849. Be forewarned: a “wall of books” only means 10 linear feet… so “wall” really means approximately 3’ x 3’ hence the word “nook” might be more appropriate. If one of Chairish’s vintage books is a dictionary someone there might want to crack it open. Carefully so as not to ruin the spine.

Chairish and other sites also sell bundles of books they call “deconstructed” which, when you and I grew up, meant damaged. It’s the same slight-of-word that turned used cars into “pre-owned.” These books definitely look more Curaded than curated.

Speaking of curated, when buying used books in bulk, who’s doing the curation? This is another question that came up in my 24/7 self-isolation. What if no one’s screening the books, and I install my chocolate wall of books without so much as taking a gander at what’s inside? Owning unopened books, pretty as they may be with their fine linen covers and gilt lettering, seems like a slippery slope.

What if the NSA, with a tip from my eavesdropping Alexa and an assist from the not-read-before-it-was-passed Patriot Act, discerns I’m a threat to national security and pays me a visit while I’m out on the prowl for TP and home-grown Purell. What if the authorities discover amongst the books I never cracked, some wacky anti-gov manifesto, cloaked behind a silver lamé binding as if… I was hiding it?

Suddenly I’m being flown to Guantanamo, and about to reenact the worst scenes from Zero Dark Thirty, as I await trial for possessing hate manifesti I didn’t even know I owned. The good news is I’ll have lots of time to read. And arrange my books by color. Or should I arrange them by size?


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