Style a Beautiful Bookcase or Two


    An oldie but goodie – this well-known interior design story is still making the rounds. A guy walks into a bookstore, looks around carefully, and asks to buy a certain set of volumes. The bookseller comments, “Oh, that’s one of my favorite authors." Replies the customer: “I don’t care about reading them. I just want some books to match my decor!”

    Well, at least he was honest.

    As someone who grew up in a home containing more than 1,000 books (yes, I counted them all one rainy afternoon), I believe a book is more than just a pretty face. But I also think that books and the bookcases which hold them can add enormously to the eye appeal of any room. In that spirit, find out how to style bookshelves to form a fitting framework for your books and to rev up your home decor.

    Choose The Most Beautiful Bookshelves

    Select bookcases to complement the space. For example, in a small living room or hallway, tall skinny bookshelves are recommended. They use the limited space most efficiently and also draw the eyes upward, distracting from its less-than-epic proportions. A pair of bookshelves will also work well to frame an outstanding architectural feature, such as an elegant fireplace or a magnificent view window.

    Consider builtin bookshelves. Handsome builtins can serve to disguise an awkwardly shaped room, such as when your ceiling is not entirely level. Consider hiring a pro for real custom carpentry crafted from a lovely wood, which gives the most luxurious feel. If you are the frugal DIY type, you can mimic the custom look with flat-pack furniture like IKEA’s justly popular Billy bookcases.

    Safety precaution: Anchor any non-builtin shelves securely to the wall to avoid the risk that they might topple.

    How to Style Bookshelves Old and New

    Would you like to add your own personal touch to the bookcase you just bought? Or perhaps you want to repurpose a thrift store find which is somewhat the worse for wear. Try one or more of these ideas:

    1. Strip and varnish. Vintage bookshelves made of high quality natural wood can be simply sanded down and varnished to show off the beautiful grain.

    2. Paint. Bookcases that are in shabby shape may benefit from a coat of paint. An attractive effect is to contrast the back wall with the rest of the piece. Paint, stencil, or line with your favorite scrapbook paper.

    3. Update hardware. A well-known (inexpensive!) carpenters' fix is replacing the old shelf brackets and door handles in a more contemporary style, for a dazzling instant upgrade.

    4. Embellish with trim. Let yourself go and experiment with crown molding or beadboard – these super trendy embellishments will look just as great on the outside of your bookcase as on your walls.

    5. Add lighting. Think about incorporating a lamp or puck lights into your bookcase design. If you have track lighting, direct a can downward to highlight all your treasures.

    Accessorizing Bookshelves

    • Of course, an important reason to install bookcases in your house is to house your reading collection. Decide how you want to arrange your books to make them the most accessible to you. Ordering by author name or theme is the most conventional way but you may find another system to suit you (yes, even by jacket color).

    • Your bookcases will have more esthetic appeal if you don’t cram the shelves with volumes. Intersperse the books with small displays of tchotchkes, pretty rocks, artwork, or photos; the uncrowded space will give a nice light, airy impression. Add a lively touch with a few potted plants. A general guideline: your bookcase should be 1/3 books, 1/3 decorative items, and 1/3 open space. 

    • Place a part of your book collection horizontally and the rest vertically to create an interesting contrast. This is a way to make a clear distinction between different subjects, too. For extra impact, vary the angles of book stacks and their distance from the edge of your shelving.

    • When there are young children in the household, they’re likely to invent a really exciting game called “Whatever you put on the bottom bookcase shelf, I’ll take out and throw on the floor. Whee!” You may as well resign yourself to using that space for their board books or toys.

    Laura Firszt writes for

    Updated November 15, 2018.

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